Debates continue at home and, perhaps, abroad about how serious is the illness that keeps President Muhammadu Buhari from desk beyond 10 days he originally asked for. Amazingly not minding if heaven should fall, the president keeps mum and appears to be unmoved by all the unsavoury attention he is getting
| By Olu Ojewale | Feb 20, 2017 @ 01:00 GMT |
THE anxiety is palpable. Since Sunday, February 5, when Nigerians were informed that President Muhammadu Buhari, who is vacationing in England, would not be returning home so as to attend to his health issues, Nigerians from all walks of life have expressed anxiety and fear about the true state of the president’s health.
President Buhari, who was scheduled to have arrived in the country on Sunday, February 5, and resume duty on Monday, February 6, had written to the Senate to extend his initial 10-days’ vacation.
However, the president’s letter asking for a blanket time on his vacation has raised controversies among Nigerians who have called for a total disclosure of the president’s health status.
But it appears that Nigerians do not believe the official explanation on the president’s health. Added to the worries is the fact that Buhari himself appear to be unwilling to speak to the nation directly for people to assess his state of health. This must be why, for the umpteenth time, the federal government on Wednesday, February 8, through Lai Mohammed, minister of Information and Culture, assured Nigerians that all was well with President Buhari and that he was not in any danger.
Briefing State House correspondents on the outcome of a meeting of the Federal Executive Council, FEC, presided over by the acting President Yemi Osinbajo, Mohammed said: “The president is well, hale and hearty. He is not in any way in danger. He is not ill and he is not in hospital.”
The minister argued that if Buhari was in danger, ministers would not have been going about their duties the way they were doing. But that does not seem to have persuaded some Nigerians about the president’s state of health and why the nature of the president’s ailment should be kept secret. It is also uncertain when the president is expected back in the country.
Femi Falana, SAN, a human rights lawyer, is among those who don’t like the mystery surrounding the nature of President Buhari’s ill health. Falana, like many others, believes that Nigerians have the right to know the health status of a sitting president.
According to the lawyer, even if the law does not mandate the president to make such disclosures, Nigerians deserve to know his health status. “Under the Freedom of Information Act, the right to health is supposed to be shrouded in secrecy but I am saying now that henceforth, this situation calls for a review of the law so that we won’t be left guessing next time,” Falana said.
Besides, he said: “We are talking of the president. Many state governors go in and out of the country, some for a month or two, some for three months without anybody asking any question and without any handover to their deputies.”
According to the human rights activist, the system has been structured in a manner that a public office holder does not have to be secretive about issues concerning him. Falana said: “But I am saying that with what we are going through now, we must come to appreciate that if you are going into public office, you have no secret. It is our duty and right and the President took cognisance of that last year when he disclosed to Nigerians what he was going abroad for. This year should not be an exception.
“This is what has given room to a lot of rumours and speculation which are totally uncalled for,” he said.
What, perhaps, seems to be alarming for Nigerians is that when the president was going on the controversial vacation, he had through a letter to the country said that he was going to rest and that he would use the chance to attend to his health. He left for England on Wednesday, January 18, with the intension of returning to the country on Sunday February 5. But now that the health matter which was more or less an addendum in his letter to the National Assembly, NASS, for the vacation, has now taken the centre stage makes Nigerians suspicious that the nation was probably being taken for a ride yet again.
Hence, the letter to the NASS on his desire to extend his leave in order to complete and receive the results of a series of tests recommended by his doctors, seems to have reinforced the suspicion that the Presidency was economically with the truth that the purpose of the president’s vacation was entirely to get medical attention for his health.
This, perhaps, prompted the national caretaker committee of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, to call on Buhari to tell Nigerians the true state of his health. Reacting to the inability of the president to return to Nigeria from the UK, where he had been on holiday for more than 10 days, the PDP said it was wrong for the president to also send letter to the National Assembly, extending his leave, without telling Nigerians when he would resume.
Dayo Adeyeye, spokesperson for the Ahmed Makarfi-led Caretaker Committee, said the president had chosen a wrong approach to address the issue of his health since he assumed office. “The President should know he is not a private citizen. He should know that Nigerians are the ones paying his health bills and therefore, he should tell them the true state of his health…
“Medical tests have dates of collection of results. It can’t be open-ended without dates,” he said.
Rather than inflame the situation, the APC urged the PDP to join other well-meaning Nigerians to pray for the president. Bolaji Abdullahi, national publicity secretary of the APC, said in an interview: “This is the president of the country. The elections are over; he is our president, he is the president of Nigeria not that of the APC or the PDP. If the president has told us that he needs to stay back to do some other medical things, it behoves us, as responsible citizens, to pray for him and stop sensing an opportunity to retaliate.
“Does the PDP know more than what we have been told? What we know is what we have been told.
“We believe that the President has demonstrated an acute sense of responsibility. We are all living witnesses to our recent history where a president travelled and did not even communicate to the National Assembly the appropriate document to make the then vice-president act in his stead.
“But this is a president that, on every occasion that he has to travel, he not only communicate to the National Assembly, but creates the enabling environment and the space for the vice-president to act as president in his absence.
“I don’t know why people will start going green in the eyes as if we are actually hoping that tragedy befalls this country.
“The PDP should not behave in a way that will make Nigerians begin to think that it is actually spreading the rumour that the President is dead.”
In his reaction, Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti State, who has been a staunch critic of the Buhari administration, urged Nigerians to pray for the president. He said: “What else do I say but to ask Nigerians to pray for him?”
Kayode Ajulo, a lawyer and human rights activist, noted that there is no law that stipulates the exact time the president can go on vacation but said it is the president’s physician that should meet with the National Assembly not the letter sent by Buhari.
Besides, Ajulo argued that the extension had shown that the president was sick or ill. Hence, he said: “It is expected that we should be looking at the section of the constitution that talks about incapacity of the president to know if actually there is a need to get the personal physician of the President to look at the well being of the president.
“I think instead of this letter, it is the personal physician that should meet the National Assembly to assure them of position of the health of the president. That is what the constitution envisaged because when it comes to the issue of health it is a serious issue and the constitution has made a provision for it.
“Now the physician we don’t know. He is in a foreign land. The question again is how can somebody who is sick write a letter? We don’t need to be deceived. We wish the president well, we wish him to come back to this country, we love him but I speak as a lawyer. The personal physician of the president needs to meet National Assembly members.”
While supporting the way Buahri had handed over the reign of the government to Osinbajo before going on vacation, Mike Ozekhome, SAN and human rights activist, said it would be more convincing if the president should speak to the nation. “For crying out loud, let PMB address the nation physically on Skype. Let us see him. He is president of Nigeria, father of the nation. He belongs to government and the nation. This means Nigeria. He lost his anonymity and individuality the day he was voted into office as president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The only privacy he has is in his wife’s kitchen, his parlour and the other room,” Ozekhome said.
Junaid Mohammed, a lawmaker in the Second Republic, and elder statesman, called on the Nigerian Senate to impeach President Buhari, saying he seemed to be “incapacitated and unable to discharge his duties as President of Nigeria.”
Reacting to the news of Buhari extending his vacation indefinitely, Mohammed in an interview said, “The development regarding the president’s health is a very bad indication and it is unfortunate Nigeria has found itself in another quagmire. It is also unfortunate that Buhari and his handlers are trying to cause another constitutional crisis rather than telling Nigerians the truth. This development is similar to that of Yar’Adua when a cabal with the help of his wife held this country to ransom and deceived Nigerians.
“During Yar’Adua’s administration, 180 million Nigerians were taken for a ride. The same people in the Villa under Buhari have started towing the same path. I believe Nigerians should rise up against this…
“It is now seen that the cabal do not want an end to this and that is why they keep playing us. These are some of the things we have seen ahead and have been shouting that Nigerians should be told the truth about the President’s health. I pray God saves Nigeria but Nigerians must take their own destiny into their hands.”
From what is on ground, the likes of the elder statesman would want to believe that another set of cabal has taken over the Aso Rock, while the president ails in London.
Ironically, it appears that a similar scenario which played out in the late President Umaru Yar’Adua is unfolding now. Coincidentally, when Yar’Adua ailment was kept in secrecy by some cabal, Buhari lent his voice to the situation on March 9, 2010, when he declared then that the only solution to the then political uncertainty swerving the country was for the National Assembly to set machineries in motion for the impeachment of ailing President Yar’Adua.
Besides, Buhari further asked the FEC to save the nation from the agony by declaring the president incapacitated to pave the way for his impeachment. “As you can see, adopting extra-constitutional measures have not addressed the problem. If it had, we would not have been subjected to the raging debates and controversy going on. So we must go back to the constitution. The exco must do the right thing because once we start moving away from the constitution, then we are inviting anarchy,” Buhari had argued.
In the same spirit, the defunct Action Congress, AC, called on the federal government to give Nigerians a daily update on the health of President Yar’Adua to stem the growing rumours surrounding his state of health.
In a statement issued in Lagos on Sunday, December 20, 2009, by Lai Mohammed, its then national publicity secretary and now minister of Information, the party said the situation whereby ministers and aides of the president gave out uncoordinated information on his health was doing more harm than good.
“It is clear to discerning Nigerians that those pretending to speak authoritatively on the president’s health are deceiving the public, since they are neither well informed on the issue nor competent to speak on it.
“Therefore, a daily briefing by the minister of Information, based on authentic details provided by the presidential doctors, should start forthwith. As we have said many times, the health of the President, as a public figure can no longer be of interest only to his family and friends. Nigerians have a right to know,” Mohammed said then on behalf his party.b
Now it is the turn of the Buhari government to be accused of doing a similar thing. This time also it is incumbent on the former image maker of the defunct which subsumed into the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, to be on the defensive.
Indeed, all the presidential spokesmen have had their hands full trying to quell the speculations, showing pictures of the president with his wife, with Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State on dinner table and of him watching television in his sitting room in London.
That notwithstanding, Nigerians appeared to remain sceptical. The situation has not been made easy for the administration. Soon after the president left the country on January 18, the rumour mill went into overdrive with speculations that Buhari was nursing a terminal illness, with suggestions in some quarters that he had even passed on.
The development has also given rise to more speculations and uncertainty, with some persons pointing at an uncanny parallel between it and the power struggle that ensued during the time of the late President Yar’Ádua.
Then, Yar’Adua was flown to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on November 23, 2009 for treatment. After much speculations, Nigerians were eventually informed that the president was being treated in a Saudi Arabia clinic for a heart condition called pericaditis, which some medical authorities claimed was a mere complication of what is known as Churg Strauss syndrome. Nevertheless, Yar’Adua’s absence from the country for about three months created a lot of room for speculations, with anxiety and tension hitting the roof over the resulting power vacuum since he did not officially hand over power to the then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan.
Even his return to the country in February did not allay the tension but rather fuelled it, especially as he was kept away from the public by some powerful elements, who decided to rule on his behalf.
In the end, the nation was saved by the National Assembly which invoked the now popular Doctrine of Necessity to make Jonathan acting president. That singular act as helped the country from would have been another constitutional crisis if the law had not been amended.
Even then, Buhari did not behave like Yar’Adua. He handed the reign of government to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, to act as president thereby leaving no power vacuum as in the case of Yar’Adua.
Despite that, there were rumours that Osinbajo had been under pressure from certain special interest group asking him to resign. On Monday, February 6, the acting president had to come out that there was no such pressure on him to resign from his post.
Osinbajo spoke to reporters at the State House, Abuja, after a meeting with John odigie-Oyegun, national chairman of the APC. “I’m absolutely under no pressure to resign. In any event, I was voted for by the people of this nation – myself and Mr President, and the people of this nation have not asked us to resign,” Osinbajo said.
Besides, he reiterated the Presidency’s position that the Buhari had no serious health issues. “Let me say that the president is hale and hearty. I spoke to him just this afternoon and we had a very long conversation. He was interested in knowing about the budget process and how far we had gone. As you know, we had a meeting today with the private sector on the economic recovery plan.
“Of course I informed him about some of what we are seeing – the protests, marches and all of that, some of the feedback and what people are saying about the economy,” he said.
Indeed, the president would have a lot of catch up to do once he returns to the country, because there are so many issues waiting for his attention. The protest match organised by Innocent Idibia, aka 2Baba across the country on Monday, February 6 was a real eye opener for the government to assess the level of poverty ravaging the country. Osinbajo simply acknowledged the protesters and assured them that government would do everything possible to alleviate poverty in the country.
Besides, based on the public outcry the acting president was forced to constitute a committee that would help solve the problem of high cost of food items in the country. The committee submitted its report on Wednesday, February 7, identifying transportation as the major culprit. It, therefore, recommended that exploiting the rail system as means of transportation for food stuffs would reduce the high inflation.
Also in his absence, sanity prevailed when the name of Justice Walter Onnoghen was, on Wednesday, February 8, submitted to the Senate for confirmation as the substantive chief justice of Nigeria, CJN. Onnoghen, who took over from Justice Mustaphar Mohammed who retired from the post on attaining the age of 70, had been acting as the CJN since November 10, last year and the time of his acting elapsed on Friday, February 10.
While it is not likely for Buhari to reverse some of the actions taken by Osinbajo when he acted as president, it is obvious that the president would need all the energy he can muster to face challenges facing the country. Therefore, Nigerians would expect him to come with a renewed vigour to show the nation that he is not as sick or ill as his opponents claimed that he is.
That notwithstanding, the Punch editorial of February 9, would want the president and his handlers to know that there is nothing to be ashamed of and that if he is ill the cause of his ailment should be made public as it is done in other climes.
The editorial said: Now, there is the need for full disclosure. Since assuming office in May 2015, the president has taken three medical vacations abroad –February 2016, June 2016 and now. Buhari’s resort to overseas treatment is a ringing indictment on the local health system. The teaching hospitals are in a terrible state. The Federal Medical Centres and the National Hospital, Abuja, are a shadow of tertiary medical centres. The total budget for health in 2016 was N250 billion, which was insufficient to clear the rot. Actually, a chunk of it was for recurrent expenditure, but Aso Rock Clinic alone received N3.8 billion.
“To show that nothing will change in 2017, the Federal Government has proposed N304 billion for the Ministry of Health. The major problem is that N252 billion out of the sum is earmarked for salaries.”
Besides, the Punch argued that keeping the information about the health of the president would do more harm than good: “The truth, according to Marc Seigel, Fox News medical correspondent, is that “if you have a vacuum of information, pundits and even physicians tend to fill that vacuum. They tend to speculate. They tend to say it could be this! It could be that! Maybe it is severe! Maybe it isn’t! But that’s doing the public a disservice. Because the public here has a right to know about the health of candidates for president of the United States.” He is right. It is unacceptable in the age of information to treat the health condition of leaders who hold strategic positions in national affairs secret.”
The newspaper, therefore, reminded those who may wish to know that “during the campaign for the American presidency last year that Democratic Party nominee, Hillary Clinton, had pneumonia. William Harrison, the ninth American president, died in office after just one month in 1841; John F. Kennedy was afflicted with Addison’s disease, while Franklin Roosevelt, who had polio attack at age 38, died shortly after taking office for the fourth time in 1945. Winston Churchill, the respected British prime minister, suffered from depression. Roy Jenkins, his biographer, attested that he was “gloriously unfit for office” after suffering stroke twice in 1949 and 1953.
“But there are some leaders who have come clean on their health. Fidel Castro, the late Cuban leader, who stood down in 2008, said, “It would betray my conscience to take up a responsibility that requires mobility and total devotion that I am not in a physical condition to offer.” This is selflessness. Gordon Brown, a former British prime minister, who in 2009 personally revealed his eyesight problems; and former Pope Benedict XVI, who renounced the Petrine office in February 2013, citing ill-health and advancing age, count among this special group.
“At 74, Buhari can fall ill… Since sickness is not necessarily a death knell to a political career, especially if it is one that does not impinge on the duties of the president, Buhari needs to clear the air with Nigerians… Therefore, it is imperative for the President to come out in the open.” Is anyone reading this? Really, it is time to stop the hide and seek game. Nigerians are waiting!