PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari’s minders have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide his illness, or its severity, from the public. Nothing will dissuade them from their set goals. It was even difficult to get them to agree he was ill, though that fact was in many ways obvious to the country during the presidential campaigns. But when the matter could no longer be ignored, his minders began engaging in high obfuscation, suggesting in one instance that the order of precedence between vacationing and routine medical tests was settled in his favour, and in another instance that their interpretation of vacationing must be respected despite the president being holed up in one dreary location in London. Often, this kind of complication occurs when presidential aides drag red herring before an inquisitive public, the same electorate that banished their suspicions about the president’s health to vote for him enthusiastically.
President Buhari’s minders are, however, divided into two: his official spokesmen who regurgitate what they are told about the president’s condition; and a second, closer group which has the real story but redacts it for public consumption. The social media has spent the better part of three weeks trying to determine the dissonance between what the group closer to the president has and what the public is fed by the official spokespersons. The wary and puzzled public and their irreverent social media needn’t worry. There is nothing they can do or say, nor any speculation they can make or rumour they can disseminate, that will sway the president’s close handlers. Perhaps the handlers will eventually open up to the electorate and tell them things; perhaps they will give a fair briefing of what is ailing the president and whether he can still continue in the job. Perhaps.
Until they do so, however, the public will continue to amuse themselves with the droppings from the social media and the redacted and possibly contorted information from those a little removed from the president. At the moment, the president’s handlers are not disconcerted by the eerie replay of the cat and mouse game that manifested during the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s losing battle with extreme illness. But to douse rumours, they have orchestrated visits to the president, with each visitor either enjoying photo opportunities with the supposedly ailing president or regaling the sceptical public with superlative descriptions of the president’s rebound. He had remained witty and humorous, said one visitor. Another described him as fit as a fiddle, after just one brief visit. And yet another suggested the president would soon return, perhaps at the following weekend. But barely days after these superlatives, the president had to extend his stay, this time indefinitely, now more openly for medical reasons than for vacation purposes.
That extension made nonsense of the president’s spokesmen’s waffling over whether their principal travelled for medical vacation or some other reasons qualified by semantic underpinnings. It is also pointless to speculate about the president’s ailment or when he will return to his desk. His health circumstances cannot be hidden for long. And whether they like to hear it or not, the president’s handlers have not managed the matter with the maturity and dexterity the country expected of them, especially given the sad reminder of ex-president Yar’Adua’s ordeal. More, given what the president has gone through in the past few weeks, it will be overly optimistic to expect him to return ‘as fit as a fiddle’, or with renewed and boundless energy and optimism. His age gives little hope for the display of finesse and boisterousness, as he himself confessed during a visit to South Africa in June 2015, not to talk of full recovery. If he needs an extended time to rest, not for play or vacation as previously sold to the country, he will return a little lethargic, and probably with the unremitting ennui that often characterises the leadership of ageing statesmen.
Nigerians and the president’s handlers, not to talk of the president himself, misinterpret the circumstances of his problematic health. During the campaigns, he doubtless struggled with some pains, and the public saw it; but once in office, that struggle become epical, despite the best efforts of his aides to disguise that fact. But what really ails the president is not his failing health, which many people, including this columnist, can live with, but his failing ideas. The president receives the sympathies of the public and this writer’s, but it is hard to similarly sympathise with both his ideas, assuming they exist and are coherent, and his style, which is sometimes dangerously off-putting, excessive and impracticable. It must be reiterated once again that the problem is not the president’s health, despite the inconveniences they bring; the problem is that before and after he assumed office, President Buhari neither espoused great ideas capable of impacting the economy, politics and society, nor seemed to welcome one. His health challenges will not stop the public from criticising his government or his policies, especially when those ideas don’t exist or when they miscarry. Nor should he sulk or indulge in self-pity over whether anyone prays for him or not. He is president, with all its grandness and nobility, not a baby in nursery.
If his stay in England will not end in days, the president should be advised to speak with his countrymen through teleconferencing, and possibly take two or three questions from various parts of Nigeria. Selecting one praying crowd or the other to speak to does not do his image any good. Let him speak to all; surely this is not a difficult thing. His handlers must also surely remember that former United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt won the governorship of New York in 1929 despite nursing the crippling effects of poliomyelitis or Guillian-Barre syndrome since 1921. And despite his persistent debilitation, which was to dog him for the rest of his life, he also went on to win the presidency in 1932, indeed for a record four times until his death in 1945. What sustained him was clearly not his health burden but the force, genuineness and impact of his impressive and farsighted ideas.
President Buhari’s minders will also remember from their history lessons that despite having a mild stroke in 1949, Winston Churchill returned to office as prime minister again in 1951. In fact, his leadership was sometimes so incapacitated that King George VI considered asking him to relinquish office to his deputy, Anthony Eden, had the latter not also been plagued by illness. Then in 1953, Sir Winston had another sever stroke while still in office and should have handed over power to Mr Eden had the deputy not had a botched operation on his gall bladder. Yet the considerably hobbled Mr Eden eventually succeeded Sir Winston in 1955, but resigned in 1957 due more to the Suez Canal fiasco than his own unending health challenges. President Buhari’s men should not give the impression that the country is obsessed with the president’s health challenges or that Nigerians are divided into two groups of those sympathetic to him and those cruelly insensitive. Health challenges often cause distortions in the personalities of sufferers. Given some of his actions, particularly in the matter of the rule of law, it is not excessive to find out whether the president’s afflictions have nudged him to bilious temper against his foes or charmed him into unaccustomed geniality and tenderness.
On the great and exigent issues of the day, it is important to locate where President Buhari stands. These issues range from political restructuring, economic revival and growth, societal cohesion, the rule of law and justice delivery, and ethnic and religious freedoms. So far, he has dealt with the matter of corruption symptomatically, recorded a salutary but still desultory victory over Boko Haram, and has managed in the process to retain the admiration of a majority of Nigerians far beyond his accomplishments deserve. The implication is that he has not exhausted his goodwill. Well, then, let him not overreach himself; let him come clean on his health status, and let him recognise, if it is still possible for him, that he will neither be judged nor excused by how healthy or unhealthy he was. History has bigger and better criteria to assess his presidency. From all indications, it is hard to see that history extending its munificence to him as far into the future as grovelling aides imagine and say.