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By Ikeogu Oke
THIS piece was triggered by a tweet I stumbled on recently. Emanating from the tweeter handle of one George Okusanya, it read, ‘Femi Adesina: “The president is not sick”. Lai Mohammed: “The president is hale and hearty”. GMB: “I couldn’t recall ever being so sick”.’
Clearly, the tweet juxtaposes the words of Femi Adesina, the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Muhammadu Buhari, and Lai Mohammed, the President’s Minister of Information and Culture, on the one hand, and those of the President on the other hand. By this contrasting placement, the tweet seems to provide proof of the allegation that the President’s handlers had misinformed Nigerians about the state of his health while he was in the UK on medical leave, in consequence of which they have drawn flak from a legion of critics.
I, for one, had been taken aback by the morbid interest shown by some Nigerians in knowing the exact state of the President’s health while he was receiving medical treatment abroad. And this is why: I had thought such people would be more concerned about the resultant indignity for our country that, 56 years after Independence, our President, the President of the country that prides itself as the “Giant of Africa” and “the most populous black nation in the world”, still travels to a foreign country, the country of our colonial masters, to receive medical treatment for a protracted period, during which he might be splayed repeatedly on an operating table, anesthetized, and carved open by foreign scalpels.
This image and its situation should make any Nigerian patriot shudder with disgust. And, with the image on our minds, I’m sure we can understand why no self-respecting leader of any self-respecting nation goes to a foreign country for medical treatment. It is about national pride and unrelated to the size or population of the country. Therefore big, small and medium-sized countries like the United States, Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea and South Africa have so developed their health sectors that their citizens can hardly imagine their leaders going to another country for medical treatment, considering the national risk – need I specify such? – and humiliation involved.
But not us Nigerians: our largely unreflective citizens with practically no sense of nationalism or national pride, emphasize their disunity as though it were an asset. We would rather concern themselves with unnecessary inquiries about the actual state of the President’s health as if a negative prognosis would alleviate our suffering under the current harsh economy. And did we really expect to receive such report from the President’s handlers rather than his doctors who are ethically forbidden from making such disclosures?
I say the enquiries were unnecessary not only because of the ethical barrier of confidentiality against divulging the medical records of their patients which doctors must observe, but also because the President already said he was going on medical leave, with the implication that he needed to look after his health. Perhaps anyone who in spite of that chose to indulge in the folly of inquiring about the state of his health deserves the answer that he was “not sick” or “hale and hearty”, as given by his handlers.
Besides, those who accuse the President’s handlers of lying about the state of his health show lack of understanding that in certain circumstances, it is wiser to speak with discretion than tell the literal truth. Abraham demonstrated this in the Bible when, driven by the instinct for self-preservation, he told King Abimelech that Sarah was not his wife but his sister, with Sarah concurring. Jesus did a similar thing by giving that rather evasive, famous answer – “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” – to the scribes and chief priests who sought to entrap him with the question: “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Those who condemn the President’s handlers having literary given him a clean bill of health in contrast with the President’s words may also not be familiar with what Plato calls “the noble lie”, which the great Greek philosopher approves. Wikipedia defines this, in relation to politics, as “a myth or untruth …knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony…” And, indeed, negative information about a President’s health can upset social harmony – and even the economy – in a state. This explains why negative information about the health of leaders of nations is managed with utmost care, with the tendency not to divulge such except when it becomes unavoidable, though such leaders may choose to do so themselves as in Buhari’s case.
The potential harm such a revelation can cause becomes easier to appreciate for a country currently marked by social, religious, ethnic and economic volatility like ours. And if President Buhari’s handlers had this in mind while maintaining that he was “not sick” or was “hale and hearty” though he was receiving medical attention, then they acted patriotically. Rather than criticize them, I think we should concern ourselves with stopping our country from offshoring presidential sickness – both the pathological and the moral. For we should all feel distressed by the moral disease of being citizens of a country that allocates billions yearly to its health sector and yet its leader cannot find a reliable hospital within its borders to attend to his medical needs at critical times.
Actually, Buhari’s trip to the UK on medical leave implied his having passed a vote of no confidence on our health sector. Former “military President” Ibrahim Babangida did the same thing by travelling to France in 1985 to treat his radiculopathy, spawning an absurd media circus while abroad. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua repeated it by travelling to Saudi Arabia to treat the sickness from which, unfortunately, he didn’t recover. In fact, our leaders discourage us from believing in our country by acting in ways that suggest their lack of faith in it, like not trusting its medical facilities.
Now, President Buhari repeating the practice 32 years after Babangida’s case also implies his admission that our health sector has not improved for presidential reliance for that long. And that we have not learnt from Yar’Adua’s case that travelling abroad for medical treatment may not guarantee a cure for a leader who is in a position to develop his country’s health sector but fails to do so.
But, more importantly, I believe he would agree that a leader in his position, a symbol of change, having to travel abroad for medical treatment may be expedient but not right. And if, considering this, he sees to the improvement of our health sector to stop our embarrassing offshoring of presidential sickness, then the current negative experience would have been somewhat beneficial and not lacking the proverbial silver lining.
Oke writes from Owerri