The official age for Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is 75. If he wins a second term in office next year, he will be 80 years by the time he completes his tenure in 2023. If it were to be in Uganda, he would no longer qualify to be President. But here, some of his supporters think the best decision he has taken this year is to seek re-election. This is not surprising because no good son tells the whole world that his mother is not a virgin.
Last week, the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, led a delegation of the Buhari Support Organisation (BSO) to Aso Villa on a courtesy visit to the President.
In his speech on the occasion, Ali said, “I have said it and I will repeat it here, Mr. President, with all due respect, at 70-plus, with good retirement benefits and with your house in Daura, if I were you, I would see no reason to be in this arena.”
According to him, Buhari wants a second term because he loves Nigeria and has left his comfort to serve the country.
Which comfort? Is Buhari’s house in Daura more comfortable than Aso Villa? The Customs boss provides a likely answer: “Mr. President, it is always politics, and when politicians speak they speak with two sides of their mouth.”
In the spirit of this doublespeak, Ali continued: “Four years back, some of us from the North East were not praying in the mosque, some of us from the North East had moved from our places of abode to settle somewhere else. Today, we can sleep with eyes closed; today, I drive at midnight; today, we can breathe the air and, most importantly, those of us who are Muslims can pray in the mosque during Ramadan. Today we have that security. What else are we looking for?”
Wonderful! It appears Ali has been on vacation outside Nigeria. That, perhaps, is why his sound sleep with two closed eyes has not allowed him to see the incessant killings in Benue, Taraba, Plateau, Kaduna and many other parts of the country.
Perhaps, the entire Catholic faithful in Nigeria who embarked on nationwide protests against the killings in the country last Tuesday are stupid. Perhaps also, the leader of the pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, Chief Reuben Fasoranti, is insane. After a meeting with former President Olusegun Obasanjo, last week, Fasoranti reportedly said, “Nothing is being done properly in this country presently. Look at the killings in the North; the President is very silent about it. We are all Nigerians; if he can keep silent about the killing of his people; that is bad enough.”
Ali’s political inclination has also blinded him to the economic realities in the country today. According to him, Nigeria’s economy has never had it so good. Only lazy people, he said, complained that they were hungry. What this means is that the over 100 million Nigerians who live below poverty level are lazy. It means that the rise in unemployment rate from 14.2 per cent to 18.8 per cent in 2017 is because these lazy Nigerians don’t want to work. I don’t really blame the Customs boss. He is feeding fat from the current system and he has to defend it by all means.
No doubt, the President has failed in his main duties towards his fellow citizens. He may have personal integrity, but it takes more than that to govern a country like Nigeria. Our President needs to be mentally and physically alert and should purge himself of ethnic/religious bias and nepotism.
The questions are: is Buhari physically and mentally alert to tackle the intricacies of governing Nigeria? Should age really matter in the choice of the President of a country? Should a presidential candidate be transparent about his health status?
For me, age is just a number. What should matter to us is physiological age rather than chronological age. A 70-year-old man, for instance, can be sharper and healthier than some 50-year-olds. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua, for instance, was 55 years when he sought to become President in 2007. But he did not last beyond three years in office.
The usual perception is that younger people will not be stuck in the status quo or older ways of doing things. But it does not necessarily follow. You may be old but focus more on what young people want and care about.
What should bother us is the health status of whoever wants to be President. President Buhari has visited London for medical vacation at least four times since last year. In one of the trips last year, he spent over 100 days in London. He is yet to inform Nigerians what he is actually suffering from. His Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, said recently that Buhari was the only person who could reveal his ailment. According to him, details about the President’s health are private and personal.
Yes, health records of any person should be personal and private. But when it comes to the records of a presidential candidate, privacy ceases to matter. Transparency becomes the watchword. For instance, after a year in office, former United States President Chester Arthur (1881-1885) was diagnosed with a kidney condition. He refused to seek a second term in office. In less than two years after leaving office, the man died.
Similarly, the US Republican candidate, John McCain, was 71 during the 2008 presidential election. He had a history of skin cancer, but when faced with a much younger opponent, Barack Obama, he was compelled to release eight years of medical records to prove that he was capable.
Our President should take a cue from either Arthur or McCain. That is, take a bow if his health condition is serious or release his records to show he is capable.
In any case, campaigns will soon start and that is one way of knowing a candidate who is capable. When former President Olusegun Obasanjo wanted to foist the late Yar’Adua on the nation as his successor in 2007, he claimed the man was healthy. To prove that he was fit, the late President even challenged his critics to a game of squash.
At a point, Yar’Adua, who suffered from a kidney condition, broke down and had to be flown abroad for treatment. To dispel the rumour of his death, Obasanjo, at a presidential rally of the Peoples Democratic Party in Abeokuta, placed a curse on the rumour mongers, saying they would die before Yar’Adua. He even phoned the ailing man and bellowed, “Umoru, are you dead?” The man continued to manage his illness until 2010 when he died in office.
My concern here is not just Buhari’s age but the fact that he appears not too fit to face the rigours associated with governing a country like Nigeria. Can he, for instance, face Nigerians in a presidential debate with other candidates? I know many of his supporters and members of the ruling All Progressives Congress will call me names. To them, Buhari is the most qualified candidate to rule Nigeria at this point in time.
I don’t blame them because it is in human nature. For instance, before the 2008 US presidential campaign, a February 2007 Pew poll showed that the majority of Democrats (60 per cent) said they would be less likely to support presidential candidates in their 70s. This, presumably, was because of McCain, a top Republican presidential contender who would have been 72 upon taking office. Democrats also thought the same thing about Ronald Reagan who was 69 at his first inauguration.
But when Hillary Clinton, who would have been 69 years if she had taken office as president in 2016, emerged as a candidate of the Democrats, the party faithful started feeling more positively towards older candidates.
Debate about the age and health of a presidential candidate always tops the agenda in advanced democracies. This is because old age slows one down and is a potent risk factor for different diseases, especially heart attack, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
In the run-up to the US presidential election in 2016, a number of people expressed concern about the age of the Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders. If he had succeeded in his bid for the presidency, he would have been 75 years and the oldest person to be elected president. The current US President, Donald Trump, holds that record now. He was elected at 70 and happens to be the oldest person elected at that age for a first term as US President.
In Africa, we have a reputation for old and sit-tight leaders. If not for the intervention of the military in Zimbabwe last year, Robert Mugabe, 94, would have still been parading himself as the President of that country. Since 1986, Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, has been ruling his country. Now 73, the man, through his ruling party, plans to scrap the constitutional provision that says presidential candidates should not be older than 75. This is so he can stand again in 2021 and probably rule for life.
For Nigeria, the few months ahead are heavily pregnant. Will Buhari succeed? Will he shame his critics with a spectacular win? The answer lies with the Nigerian voters, all things being equal.