When Government Hides Behind One Finger

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It seems that this Government thrives on generating unnecessary controversy. Is it a diversionary tactic to make us forget that Government is not doing all that it should be doing, to alleviate the suffering of Nigerians? Practically every week, there is one issue or the other. Finally, at the “00 hour” as they say, the name of Honourable Justice Walter Samuel Nkannu Onnoghen was transmitted to the Senate for approval as the CJN. The delay in the transmission of Onnoghen’s name generated so much strife and division among Nigerians, especially on the ethnic level.

Why the Secrecy?

Now, it is the issue of Mr President’s health. The President is a human being like anybody else and can take ill at anytime. That doesn’t mean that he is dying or he is incapacitated. Even in the case of surgery, it still does not mean that one is on one’s death bed. These days, people can have surgery at 9am, finish at 10am, be home by 11am, and be back to business as usual by 1pm. The question is, why the secrecy and misinformation about the state of the President’s health? Nigerians have a right to know. It is not enough to circulate photographs of the President with people visiting him (though we were not even availed this opportunity during the late President Yar’Adua’s illness).

Tell that to the Marines!
I am beginning to think that the qualification for being a Minister of Information in Nigeria, may be to be a Master of being as economical with the truth as possible and to be able to manipulate facts to suit one’s purpose! Last Wednesday, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, made a public statement saying: “I can say it without any equivocation, Mr President is well, he’s hale and he’s hearty. No question about that……Mr President is in absolutely no danger. Mr President is not ill. He’s not in hospital. There will be no need to give anybody any bulletin about his health, pure and simple”.

The only aspects of this statement that ring true to me are that the President may not be in danger, that is, he may not be critically ill, and he may not be on admission in hospital. That there is absolutely nothing wrong with him, tell that to the Marines, Honourable Minister!

The Constitution

It is true that Section 144(2) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended in 2010) (1999 Constitution) can be invoked against a President or Vice-President. By virtue of this provision, a President or Vice-President can be declared incapable of discharging the functions of his office by a resolution passed by a two-thirds majority of all the Members of the Executive Council of the Federation.

I really cannot see that happening, because in the first place, Section 144(5) of the 1999 Constitution defines members of the “executive council of the Federation” as the body of Ministers of the Government of the Federation. These people are the President’s men. They were appointed by him. They are his people. It is highly unlikely that they will turn on him without compelling reasons.

Secondly, there is a procedure that must be followed on the declaration of any such incapacitation. Section 144(1)(b) and 144(4) of the 1999 Constitution provide for the verification of such a declaration with a medical examination by a medical panel appointed by the Senate President, made up of the personal physician of the President or Vice-President, whichever the case may be, and four other eminently qualified medical practitioners in the medical field that covers the nature of the medical examination to be conducted.

It is only after this medical panel has verified and certified that the President or Vice-President is incapable of discharging the functions of his office, that a notice of this fact is executed by the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and published in the official

Gazette (Section 144(2)). The President or Vice-President shall then cease to hold office from the date of the publication in the Gazette (Section 144(3)).

Section 146(1) of the 1999 Constitution provides that the Vice-President shall hold the office of the President, should it become vacant by reason of death, resignation, impeachment, permanent incapacitation or the removal of the President for any other reason.

The rules for ascendancy to the position of President in the case of sickness or death are clearly provided for by the 1999 Constitution. Therefore, it would be unnecessary for yet another controversy to erupt in the very unlikely event that the situation arises!

Nigerians have a Right to Know

The President is the Number 1 citizen and public figure of the country, and a statement on the state of his health should have been issued. What happened during President Yar’Adua’s time was strange. Nigerians do not even know when he actually died. The deterioration of his health and death, were shrouded in so much mystery and secrecy, it was ridiculous. Presidency of a country is not a private or family affair, and those who venture into holding public offices, should be aware of this.

Even though some may say Section 14(1)(b) of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 may give the President the right to privacy on such personal health details, I believe that Section 14(3) of the same Act which says that if the disclosure of the personal details is in the public interest, and the public interest outweighs that of protecting the privacy of the person to which the information relates to, the information shall be disclosed.

There must be accountability, transparency and information. Those were some of the things that this Government promised us during the campaign. This is one situation in which Government should make good on its campaign promises, also so that Nigerians will not believe that history is repeating itself, as in President Yar’Adua’s time.

In 2010, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the then National Publicity Secretary of an opposition party said: “Since the President of a country is an institution, anything that affects him/her can change the fate of humanity, not just that of the country involved….We are not asking for what killed him. We are asking why information about the health of a sitting President was known only to members of the cabal that held him hostage, instead of the people that supposedly voted him into office”.

Honourable Minister, what has changed? To say that a comparison of Yar’Adua’s situation with that of President Buhari’s is like “comparing apples to oranges” is amusing. Are they not both Presidents? Are health issues not involved? Whether one’s health issue was more serious than the other, or one was spirited away in the night while the other informed the nation that he was travelling on a medical vacation, is immaterial. The last health issue that Nigerians were informed that Mr President travelled to the UK to treat, was an ear problem. Is that what took him back to the UK this time? Nigerians have a right to know.

If the President is ill, we wish him a speedy recovery. If he is hale and hearty, and only travelled to the UK on vacation, we wish him a pleasant stay. At the end of the end, as the saying goes, “nothing is hidden under the sun”. “Who no know, go know.”