President Muhammadu Buhari was away to the United Kingdom for 103 days on account of his ill health. Thanks to the magic of Western medicine, British doctors and Nigeria’s prayer warriors the President is back looking like a newly minted coin. No one has disclosed what ails him but it is obvious that it is something serious since it took more than 100 days for him to bounce back. Don’t forget that he had been treated earlier in the year for about 50 days in London. When he came back from that trip he told the nation that he had never been that sick in his entire life. He also said that he would be going back for more attention which he did on May 7.
Most Nigerians are eminently relieved that he is back. Even though he had ceded power to the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, who acted as President for that period, the President’s absence was still felt. For the period he was away, Buhari remained the staple of daily conversation among the educated elite. The anxiety among the populace was wrapped around the unasked question: will he or will he not? This question has a compound component: will he survive the medical trauma he is going through? Will he contest for the presidency in 2019? The first question has been answered by his return a few days ago, but the answer to the second question is in the womb of time. His decision whether to contest or not will be based on three factors (a) Health: He will have to ask and answer the question whether he is in a sound enough health situation to undertake the rigours of the campaigns for the top job without bringing calamity to himself. (b) Age: By 2019 Buhari will be 76 years old. If he chooses to contest he will be the oldest contestant for the office in Nigeria. Africa is a continent that loves to set examples in things bizzare. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is 93. He has been the only President of his country since independence. He is campaigning for the nth time, falling and rising at campaign venues. His wife says he can win the Presidency even as a corpse. It is up to Buhari to decide whether his age which he has complained about in the past will give him the green light to go to the political war front again. (c) Performance: Buhari will have to decide whether he feels confident that his performance is considered excellent enough by the people for an encore. By this time next year all the three factors will be on the table for assessment.
Buhari’s absence for more than 100 days was a litmus test for our democracy and for Osinbajo. No other Vice President has had the opportunity to test his skills at the top job for so long as the law professor. The impressive thing about Osinbajo was that he was willing to stretch himself to the limit because, don’t forget, he was doing the job of the President and the Vice President rolled into one. He would quickly sneak out of the country and sneak back in so that no one would say that there was a presidential lacuna in the country. Even though the problems he inherited were daunting he remained largely unruffled; he showed that he could roll with the punches and take some of the bullets on his chest. His competence level was relatively high and his loyalty to his boss was unquestionable.
Someone else who deserves commendation is Bukola Saraki, the Senate President. Despite his open disagreement with APC and Buhari he showed admirable empathy at the President’s moment of distress. When Osinbajo travelled out of the country a senator tried to declare the Presidency vacant and to name Saraki as the Acting President. Saraki promptly shut it down. He refrained from taking advantage of Buhari’s absence and Osinbajo’s newness on the job despite their disagreement on the matter of Ibrahim Magu, Acting Chairman of EFCC. If he wanted he could have pulled out his dagger. He didn’t. A smart politician, Saraki doesn’t want to mess around with small battles when he knows that the big war ahead will be one for rolling out heavy artillery.
Let me say this: No expenditure is too much for taking care of our President’s health. The President is the embodiment of our nation. We have hauled several of our Presidents to Germany, France, and Saudi Arabia for treatment in the past. If we had a President who saw Fidel Castro’s Cuba as a country of medical magic we would have patronized that little island country too. But why are we busy advertising the dysfunctionality of our medical system in the midst of so much wealth? A pity that we are still a country of consulting clinics (apologies to Sani Abacha). I had mentioned sometime ago on this platform that as far back as 1977 when I went to the U.S. for a course, I had the good fortune of meeting several very accomplished Nigerian experts in various fields. One of them, a Yoruba man, was a sickle cell anemia expert; another one, an Igbo guy, was a heart transplant surgeon. I met many more in various fields, people who could have helped to transform Nigeria into a country to reckon with if the operating environment in Nigeria would let them return.
Why don’t we have one hospital that can treat any ailment under the sun so that our leaders can be saved from this wasteful medical pilgrimage. There is no shortage of diseases here and no shortage of patients either. There is even no shortage of doctors. May be there is a shortage of up to date, state of the art medical technology but I am told that Akwa Ibom State Referral Hospital has it. So why can’t the Federal Government collaborate with it or with any existing hospital that has the technological muscle. Is it the lack of political will or the loss of confidence in the Nigerian medical system? As a revenge, Buhari must do something about our pathetic medical situation and spare us the shame of hauling our Presidents to foreign hospitals even for the treatment of ear infection.
Two issues have arisen from Buhari’s absence (a) should he reveal the nature of his ailment to the public since it is the public that pays for his treatment? In this country, three past presidents have been known to be seriously sick while in office before Buhari. President Nnamdi Azikiwe was afflicted by arthritis in 1965 and he publicly announced it and went abroad for treatment. President Ibrahim Babangida told the nation he was suffering from radiculopathy and had to go abroad for treatment. However, Umaru Yar’ Adua never disclosed his ailment until he died and even when he was seriously sick his handlers tried to pull wool across people’s eyes by claiming that he was a squash champion.
The only reason for the failure of any President or other politician to disclose his ailment must be the severity of it so that competing politicians do not write him off or capitalise on it. When Buhari had an ear infection he told us so. The failure to disclose the ailment reveals more than it conceals because people easily assume that it is very severe that is why it is hidden from the public.
Now Buhari is not telling us what exactly is biting him. The debate is still unresolved as to whether the President’s health is a private or public matter. In the U.S. and other open societies full disclosure is a requirement. Even when they leave office they still feel obligated to disclose. When George Bush senior and his wife Barbara were hospitalised last year or so the world was informed. When President Jimmy Carter had cancer the family made the announcement. I guess that the reason Buhari is withholding the information is that politics is a cruel profession in which the practitioners believe that the end justifies the means. And a politician who has a severe ailment would be engaging in a self-punitive behaviour by disclosing it. The reason is because when a person is sick he is limited by that sickness; he cannot perform to his full potential; if the sickness is severe his situation is worse and the perception of him by onlookers is never flattering even if they sympathise with him for his condition. Buhari is in that situation now. He does not want his opponents to crank up their mud machines and offload it on him.
The other issue to resolve is how long a President can stay off work on medical grounds before the citizens say “Enough is enough”. This question arises from the resume or resign agitation that took place in Abuja and London before Buhari’s return. The Constitution offers no solution because it did not anticipate it.
Now that it has occurred what should be the solution? Can any President stay on medical leave as long as his doctor permits so long as he has ceded power to the Vice President? Or should there be a time limit beyond which the country cannot allow its President to stay off work even for medical reason?
The constitution provides no answer but it is a moral question which Nigerians may wish to address their minds to in the days ahead.
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