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The President’s health: When shall we learn?

We never learn in this country. President Muhammadu Buhari left Nigeria on 19 January 2017 on a short vacation during which he said he would also undergo medical tests and treatment in London. Everyone was informed the president would return on 6 February. Buhari returned last Friday, 10 March, 31 days longer than the date he was originally scheduled to return. In total, Buhari was away for 49 days. Owing to the controversy surrounding Buhari’s trip and the lack of clarity regarding his health, it is now fitting to examine how the Presidency and Buhari’s advisers and assistants mismanaged information relating to the President’s health.

Let me start with this position statement. The unprofessional way the President’s assistants handled information about Buhari’s health, including the slapdash and inefficient manner in which the assistants dealt with damaging gossip that circulated in mainstream and online media exposed the culture of misinformation that underpins the way officials of state do business. For the period that Buhari was in London, the spokespersons behaved as though they were under some kind of oath to suppress the truth, to withhold official and accurate information from reaching the public, and to impose silence and half-truths on the citizens. All these were done in the pretext that they were protecting their boss.

Presidential assistants and advisers never learn. When it comes to ill health, there is a limit to what you can hide. Over time, truth will break out from the chamber of secrecy and deception. Ill health is like pregnancy. You cannot hide it once it has reached a certain stage.

I was surprised that no one in the Presidency realised the futility of officials and spokespersons vigorously doing their best to suppress the truth about Buhari’s ill health or serve as official channel of truthful information and vehicle of conversation between the President and the citizens. Unfortunately, the more state officials attempted to gag public discussion on the President’s health, the more agitated the citizens became, prompting some people to open up unofficial channels of feeding the nation with negative information about Buhari. It was a strategy designed to pull out truthful information from the Presidency.

When citizens are deprived of news and information about their ailing President, when official channels of public information are shut or censored, citizens feel justified to use any means to access correct information.

The best way to fight gossip or rumour about the President’s health is to bombard the public sphere with accurate and truthful information. Anything else is sheer propaganda. Implemented carefully, thoughtfully, and prudently, that strategy will deprive agents of creepy thoughts the oxygen of misinformation that keeps them going. While the nation waited endlessly and anxiously for authentic information about Buhari’s condition, and while everyone sought information about how long the President would stay in London and the nature of his ailment, overseas news media had no problem feeding their audiences with accurate information we could not access from the Presidency.

It didn’t take long before the situation was turned into some kind of dark humour. This happened because people who asked thoughtful questions about the President’s condition were demonised openly as enemies of the government and therefore adversaries of the state. How could that be? Since when did it become treason for citizens to ask questions about the welfare, safety, and wellbeing of their President? Yet, this was the chicanery that played out in Nigeria during the period that Buhari was undergoing medical tests and treatment in London. 

All those sycophantic officials who withheld information about Buhari did a great deal of disservice to the nation. Nigeria was ridiculed in various reputable international newspapers, broadcast channels, and online sites. They damaged Buhari’s image, they ridiculed the status of the nation, and they poured scorn on the fact we could not establish well-equipped hospitals or clinics to look after the healthcare needs of our president and his family.

In the early days when news broke that the President would go on vacation overseas, the President’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, justifiably argued that Buhari was entitled to a period of leave and that he had the right, as anyone else, to determine where he would spend his vacation. That was a coherent, convincing, and logical argument.

However, Adesina’s tone and temperament changed swiftly when journalists requested for more truthful information about the main objective of Buhari’s overseas trip, and the likely nature of his medical condition, as well as how long the president would stay overseas. Adesina stuck to his line that Buhari would return on 6 February 2017. Of course, that did not happen.

Why do we find it uncomfortable to provide accurate information about a political leader’s health? I have always argued that sickness is not a sin. It is not a transgression against human society. Ill health can set in any time, day, or month. As human beings, we will always fall to occasional bouts of ill health. By treating the president’s ill health with the utmost secrecy, the Presidency seemed to have constructed Buhari in the image of a super machine. But even machines do breakdown.

When Buhari failed to return on 6 February as previously scheduled, confusion set in across the country, not minding that Buhari had already handed over power to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo to ensure there was no power vacuum.

Everyone has a right to worry about the health, safety and security of the President who was in London for more than six weeks. Keep in mind, when Buhari left on 19 January, he said he was taking a “short leave” as a part of his yearly vacation. All through Buhari’s stay in London, his spokespersons held tightly to the same line that the president was undergoing “routine medical check-up”. The spokespersons also said the president’s “holiday was extended on his doctors’ advice” to facilitate further tests.

It was obvious that speculations about Buhari’s health had rankled senior government officials. For example, in his response to the gossip, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, said those wishing the President dead would die before the President and that Nigeria would not return to the days of former President Goodluck Jonathan. By all means, this kind of language is immature, unacceptable, and unwarranted. A secretary to the government of the Federation should not descend so low, regardless of how he might have been offended by dangerous rumours about the president’s health. Maturity, I must restate, is the ability to remain calm in the face of all provocations.

Information management is a major challenge for all classes of men and women. It is not an easy responsibility. Presidential spokespersons and government officials must be prepared to contend frequently with the challenge of repudiating gossip about the President’s health.

We live in the era of citizen journalism, social media, and multiple channels of news and information. Information that reaches these channels first tends to be believed and shared many times. It is therefore useless in this environment for presidential advisers and assistants to attempt to withhold information from citizens.

On reflection, Buhari did the right thing by informing the Senate and the House of Representatives that he was taking leave and would also undergo medical checks during his vacation. That was lawful and commendable. However, there is bound to be profound tension in the country whenever a president announces he would undergo medical checks overseas. Questions emerge quickly. What is the nature of the illness? For how long would the President stay overseas for medical checks? What arrangements have been put in place to avoid leadership vacuum?

So, although Buhari and his assistants released partial information about his vacation in London and the fact he would undergo medical tests, the press and the people remained anxious because no one answered critical questions relating to the nature of the illness. It was in this environment of uncertainty that rumour took over the vacuum created by unanswered questions about Buhari’s health. Even after his return from London, there is still disquiet in the country. 

Nigerians are highly distrustful of their political leaders. And that’s for very good reasons. Political leaders who promise during election campaigns to improve the socio-economic conditions of citizens once elected but who fail to do so after nearly two years in office should not expect citizens to believe them. This explains the difficulty the Presidency has had to convince citizens that Buhari is fit and healthy.

If the Presidency is upset about numerous damaging rumours flying around about the health of the President, they must take some of the blame. Rumours about Buhari’s health developed and were amplified because the Presidency failed to clear the smog of ambiguity surrounding Buhari’s extended vacation and medical checks in London.

While the Presidency always argues that the President’s health is a private matter, I would argue that it is a wrong and misleading proposition. The Presidency has a moral obligation to furnish Nigerians with truthful information about Buhari’s health. There is nothing sacred about anyone’s health. Buhari is not a private citizen. He is human. As President, Buhari is a public figure. He was elected to serve the nation. He owes everyone the duty to furnish them with clear and truthful information about his health.

A public officer such as the President has limited privacy. If Buhari is in poor health, it is in the public interest that he should inform the Nigerian people. Rumours about Buhari’s health degenerated into a theatre because of official attempts to hide from public knowledge information about the President’s medical condition. Perhaps we must all learn from this experience. Nothing overpowers rumour as truth.

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