Mismanaging the President's Ill Health

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Monday Discourse

The hits and misses that have characterised the handling of President Muhammadu Buhari’s health in the last couple of weeks is indicative that those saddled with the responsibility of managing his image are clueless as to the actual state of the president’s condition, writes Tobi Soniyi

It all started in January 19th, 2017 when President Muhammadu Buhari left for the United Kingdom.

The statement issued by his Special‎ Adviser  on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina made a futile attempt to disguise the aim of the president’s visit to the UK.

He said ‎that the president  left  for UK  on a short leave. According to him, the short leave was part of his annual vacation.‎

Adesina said: “During the vacation, the President will also undergo routine medical check-ups.”‎

Although the statement attempted to make it look like the medical check up was not the main reason for the president’s travel‎, no one was left in doubt as to the fact that the president was going for medical.  In trying to disguise the president’s intention for going to the UK, the seed of suspicion was laid. When it turned out that the main reason for the vacation, managing public information  on this was going to be difficult.

‎As soon as it became certain that the president would not return to Nigeria on February 6, from what was supposed to be a short vacation, Adesina had to issue another statement on February 5, a day before the president was initially billed to return.

The February 5th statement reads: “The president had planned to return to Abuja this evening, but was advised to complete the test cycle before returning.”

The president’s decision to extend his stay created a fertile ground for the rumour mill.‎ Although, the authority was clever enough not to specify a new date when the president was likely to return to Nigeria, that also added to the uncertainty which was fully exploited by mischief makers. The commentaries ranged from the most absurd to the bizarre. ‎ Some even went as far as saying that the president was dead. Others alleged a cover up.

Just as the speculators were having a field day, those in authorities also had to come up with explanations to assure Nigerians on the true state of the president’s health.  They also didn’t do too well either.

At a time, people demanded that the president address the nation to assure them and convince them he is alive, but those in authorities insisted there was no need to do so.

As the pressure continued to mount, Adesina had to issue a statement. On February 21‎ he said  ‎that the results of the medical tests the president went through had shown that he needed to rest for a longer time. Many wondered why the president could not come and rest at home.

In a statement, Adesina said‎: “During his normal annual check up, tests showed he needed a longer period of rest, necessitating the president staying longer than originally planned.”

When Adesina was ‎asked how long the president would continue to rest in the United Kingdom, he replied, “I speak for somebody, I do not speak for myself. So it is what he tells me to say that I say and the statement transmitted to me is that the president needs to rest for some further time.” At least he was honest enough to admit that he the president had not spoken directly to him.

Contradictions Galore‎

‎After the Federal Executive Council meeting held on February 8th, during which Yemi Osinbajo presided as Acting President, the Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed when asked about the condition of the president answered: “I think I can say without any equivocation that he is well, he is hale and he is hearty no question about that.

“Mr. President is not ill, he is not in hospital, there will be no need to give anybody hourly bulletin about his health pure and simple.‎

“Mr. president, like I said elsewhere, is a victim of his own transparency, he was going on leave, he did what the constitution said he should do, he transmitted letter to the National Assembly and an acting President was out in place and he said while I am on leave, I am going to conduct some medical tests which all us do without announcing it.

“And of course less than six hours after he got there he was pronounced dead by some people. Even those who saw him climb the aircraft in Abuja said he was flown by air ambulance. I can assure you that Mr. President is well, is hale and hearty and no cause for concern. The Acting President speaks to him every day and he told you so.”

 ‎The minister said this after a statement had been issued to the effect that the president was in London to undergo routine medical check ups. As at the time the minister made the statement, he knew that the president had a health issue. As he himself would have discovered, the people simply did not buy his explanation.

Adesina had also told journalists that the president had told him that “There is really no cause to worry. He is the one who owns the body and there is nobody who will know his body more than him and he says no cause to worry.” As he would admit, that was what those who had access to the president told him the president said. As it is the practice in law; that is a hearsay evidence, it is not admissible.

Hale and Hearty‎

‎While some of the president’s staff said he is hale and hearty but needed to rest, others asked Nigerians to pray for him. Yet some  said there was no cause for alarm.

As it became obvious that Nigerians were not satisfied with the assurances from the officials, the presidency released some photographs to show that the president was alive. Among others, the Ogun State Governor Ibikunle Amosun‎, All Progressives Congress’ national leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and a former Chairman of the party, Chief Bisi Akande as well as Sanate President, Bukola Saraki at different times visited the president in London. Photographs of the visits were made public.

Although, these pictures helped to reassure Nigerians, they also showed that the president was not as hale and hearty as the authorities would want people to believe.‎

The President Returned But Did not Resume

On March 10, the president returned to Nigeria but did not resume work. His inability to resume work reinforced the view that the president was not strong enough to cope with official works.

The last four weeks have brought home the inherent flaws in the claims of those saddled with the responsibility of speaking on the president’s health.

Addressing journalists after FEC meeting held on May 3rd,‎ information minister, Mohammed said Buhari continued to take a rest from official functions on the advice of his doctors. On that day, Buhari failed to attend FEC for the third time running.

Mohammed said‎: “The president chose today to rest, he was in his office yesterday, which you all reported.

“He is taking his doctors’ advice so that he can fully recover.”

At the  April 26‎’s meeting, the president did not also attend. Then, Mohammed said the president took the day off to rest and work from home.‎‎

At the ‎FEC meeting held on April 13 the president was also absent. The information minister said that Buhari asked his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, to preside over the meeting because he was attending to other issues.

A ridiculous explanation was given to explain why FEC  meeting  which ought to take place was on February 19 was cancelled. The president’s spokespersons said the cancellation was as a result of the Easter holidays which did not allow ministers prepare their memos for presentation to the council early enough. The problem with such a ridiculous explanation is that Nigerians were simply not buying it.

In order to sustain the impression that the president is hale and hearty, Mohammed ‎kept on insisting that he needed to rest.

In the midst of this confusion, the president’s wife, Aisha Buhari also weighed in.‎ On May 2nd, she took to her twitter handle @aishambuhari and said: “I wish to inform everyone that his health is not as bad as it’s being perceived. ‎Meanwhile, he continues to carry out his responsibilities 2/4 during this period. “‎As it may come to your notice, he is meeting with Minister of Justice and GMD NNPC‎ this evening. ‎Long Live Nigerians. Long Live Federal Republic of Nigeria.‎”‎‎

 At 74, the president is of age. No one should be surprised if he falls sick. The president himself had admitted that he was ill and that he had never been this sick before.

Granted that mischief makers‎ would like to take advantage of the president’s state of health, the generality of the people wish the president well and are ready to accommodate him even while he is sick.

Buhari Can Take More Medical Vacation

Before the president showed up at last Friday’s jumat service, some concerned Nigerians had called on him to take another vacation to attend to his health. They assumed that having been holed up for more than a month after he returned to the country, the proper step to take was to return to his doctors.

A 13-member group comprising human right activists issued a statement calling on Buhari to take the advice of his personal physician and take some time to attend to his health. They included Lagos lawyer, Femi Falana, Debo Adeniran, an activist; Jibrin Ibrahim, an academic; Adetokunboh Mumuni, executive director of SERAP; Shina Odugbemi, programme manager of the Democracy Vanguard, a non-governmental organisation; Chris Kwaja, a lecturer and researcher and Y.Z. Ya’u, director Centre for Information Technology and Development in Nigeria, CITAD. Others are: Chom Bagu, a   pro-democracy activist; Olanrewaju Suraj,  the Civil Society Network Against Corruption, CSNAC; Ezenwa Nwagu, a community development expert; Awwal Rafsanjani, executive director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, CISLAC; David Ugolor, an environmental activist, and Mohammed Attah, National Coordinator, Procurement Observation and Advocacy Initiative, PRADIN.

The statement reads: “When President Muhammadu Buhari was recently in the United Kingdom on a medical vacation, which lasted 49 days, many public officers said that he was ‘hale and hearty.’   But upon his return to the country, President Buhari disclosed that he had never been that sick in his entire life. Even though the president did not disclose the nature of his ailment, he revealed that he went through blood transfusion. While thanking the Nigerian people for their prayers, the president announced that he might soon travel back for further medical treatment.

“A few weeks ago, the governor of Kaduna state, Mr Nasir El-Rufai urged Nigerians to give President Buhari time to recover from his sickness. The plea was made after the governor had visited  and presumably assessed the state of the president at the presidential villa in Abuja.

“However, due to the apparent deterioration in the president’s health condition, he has neither been seen in public in the last one week nor attended the last two meetings of the federal executive council. His absence at the last Jumat service in the villa has fuelled further speculations and rumours on Buhari’s medical condition.”

The group said rather than update Nigerians on the state of Buhari’s health, government officials have been saying: “there   is no need for apprehension over the matter.

“Instead of embarking on regular briefing on the actual state of the health of President Buhari, officials of the federal government have continued to assure  the Nigerian people.”

“In defending the absence of the president at the last  FEC meeting and other state functions, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu stated that ‘the president’s doctors have advised on his taking things slowly, as he fully recovers from the long period of treatment in the United Kingdom some weeks ago’.

“As we join the Nigerian people of goodwill to pray  for a speedy recovery of President Buhari, we are compelled to advise him to heed the advice of his personal physicians by taking a rest to attend to his health without any further delay.”

Before the call, there had been speculation that the president would return to the UK for further treatment. No one will be surprised if the president takes off tomorrow.

‎Blaming the Media

‎As usual, the media is the scapegoat in situation like this. But, those working for the president will be well advised to heel the observation of a British scholar,  Enoch Powell who once noted that a politician complaining about the press is as absurd as a sailor complaining about the sea. ‎The idea of blaming the misinformation that characterised the president’s health status on the media is an old trick that has lost its efficacy.

The issue of the president’s health is ertainly not going to disappear, at least not very soon. Those, whose job it is to explain this to Nigerians will have to do a better job.