It is at least 121 days today since President Muhammadu Buhari has been out of the country on account of illness, this year alone. He was away for 49 days earlier in the year and he has been away for 72 days since May 7, 2017. Yet, his return to the country is not in sight.
This is a serious matter, because it is universally acknowledged that presidential illness is not simply a health issue. It is also a serious political matter, because, unlike the illness of a private citizen, the illness of a President can have a serious impact on the health of the nation. It can lead to increase in crime rate, including financial crimes; de-investment and other economic problems; sectoral agitations; government paralysis; and, ultimately, state failure.
That’s why many world leaders hide their illnesses. In the United States alone, well over a dozen leaders have been ill in office but, out of political calculation, kept the information and the nature of their illnesses from the public. Way back in 1893, when President Grover Cleveland needed surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his mouth, he did it secretly on a friend’s yacht in Long Island, New York. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in 1919 but it was hidden from the public for months. Similarly, Dwight Eisenhower’s health problems were initially concealed. Reporters were only told that he had “a digestive upset during the night”, when, in fact, he suffered a heart attack. Later, in the early 1960s, despite John F. Kennedy’s two-time collapse because of Addison’s disease, the ailment was hidden from the public, having been cleverly deflected by his physician during the presidential campaign.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Konstantin Chernenko was terminally ill of emphysema (he had started smoking at age nine), when he took office as the leader of the then Soviet Union in 1984, only to die barely a year later. Much of his illness was hidden from the public. In France, Francois Mitterrand died of prostate cancer a year after he left office. In his book, “In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years”, David Owen revealed the great lengths Mitterrand and his doctors went to conceal his condition from the French public. In the United Kingdom, Harold Wilson’s colon cancer and the onset of Alzheimer’s, both while in office, were concealed from the public. Similarly, Winston Churchill’s “prolonged fits of depression”, for which he found solace in whisky and cigars, and pneumonia were concealed from the public. Even when he had yet another stroke in 1953, parliament and the public were only told that he was suffering merely from exhaustion.
Against the above backgrounds, it is not totally out of place that Buhari and his aides would conceal information about his illness. The problem is that the concealment was botched at the beginning, and later deflated by the President’s own I-have-never-been-this-sick remark. Today, doubts, suspicion, and criticisms have increased with his length of treatment in a foreign country. Perhaps, the reaction would have been more of sympathy than of criticisms had the public been told initially that the President was going abroad for treatment, and that it may take some time for him to heal.
Buhari’s case differs from that of the other world leaders in one significant area: While the others sought treatment privately within their countries, Buhari has had to be taken abroad to a foreign hospital for treatment. This has opened him up to all sorts of questions and criticisms. The politicisation of his illness is accentuated by the various cleavages in a seriously divided country, including partisanship, ethnicity, religion, region, education, and the poverty line.
Besides, there are those who want to profiteer from the President’s illness. They fall into three broad groups. One group consists of political opponents, especially from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, which has many ambitious members who want Buhari’s job in 2019. The recent Supreme Court judgement, which seems to have settled the dispute between the two factions of the PDP is bound to intensify the opposition and the use of Buhari’s illness as a point of reference.
Another group consists of the President’s inner circle, who have been scheming to take advantage of his illness to appropriate power to themselves, as happened during the illness of a former President, the late Umaru Yar’Adua. The group is typified by “the hyenas and the jackals”, as Senator Shehu Sanni labels them in a Facebook post: “Prayer for the absent Lion King has waned; until he’s back then they will fall over each other to be on the front row of the palace temple. Now the hyenas and the jackals are scheming and talking to each other in whispers, still doubting whether the Lion King will be back or not”.
Aisha Buhari, the President’s wife, responded metaphor for metaphor: “God has answered the prayers of the weaker animals. The hyenas and the jackals will soon be sent out of the Kingdom”. Interestingly, in addition to apparently foreshadowing her husband’s imminent return, her reaction to the cabal around her husband is different from that of Mrs. Turai Yar’Adua, who was believed to have identified with the cabal around her own husband.
Then, there is the divided Senate, which has been flexing its muscles, having realised that the President lacked the administrative skill, stamina, and even the number of legislators, to withstand Senate opposition to his nominees, projects, and even the budget. Now that the President is away on account of illness, and the President of the Senate has been cleared of all 18 charges before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, which has tried him for nearly two years, there may be no end to the conflict between the legislative and the executive branches so long as Buhari remains President.
Buhari and Acting President Yemi Osinbajo realise that this stalemate may lead to governance paralysis, which is why the latter has been holding high level talks with legislative leaders, and going round the country to douse tension. The problem, though, is that Osinbajo is viewed as being only half in charge of the affairs of the country. There are major decisions that may be put on hold until the President’s return. A good example is the confirmation or otherwise of the Acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu. Osinbajo already hinted that the status quo will be maintained until Buhari returned.
The same applies to the issue of restructuring the federation. However heated the debate may be at the moment, Osinbajo can do no more than toe Buhari’s ideological line on the issue, regardless of his own personal conviction. As Acting President, he should not be seen as flexing full presidential muscles, by taking a different course of action, while his principal is in hospital.
It is this kind of dilemma and others that led patriots, such as Gen. Alani Akinrinade, to call on Buhari to resign, if he knows that he can no longer perform his job. I appreciate Akinrinade’s position but I am inclined to give Buhari more time to recover on his doctors’ terms, especially since Osinbajo has been doing very well. We can afford to wait for a resolution in the spirit of Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey’s proverbial lyric: “Kangun, kangun, kangun, o maa kangun si’bi kan”.
As someone in Buhari’s age group, who has been through tough times off and on a hospital bed, I fully appreciate what he has been going through with health challenges. Unfortunately, this personal side of his ordeal has been lost in the labyrinth of power politics. Buhari is a national leader, alright. But he is first and foremost a person, a warm-blooded human being.
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