The departure of President Muhammadu Buhari to London on official holiday to treat an ear infection has stirred debate in Nigeria about the appropriateness of the president going overseas for medical check-up rather than be treated at home. The debate also touched on the appropriate time a president and his assistants should inform citizens about the health of the president.
Public discussion on Buhari’s foreign trip has focused on the nature of the president’s ear infection, the seriousness of the problem, how long it would take to fix the troublesome ear, and whether the president’s media advisers had been economical with the truth when they denied the president was ill but was only taking a vacation.
Denials by the president’s assistants did not seem to assuage a sceptical public that had long speculated on the true state of the president’s health. Mercifully, Buhari exposed his assistants when he admitted, through a rhetorical question, that it was not a crime for anyone to fall sick. As he prepared to board his flight to London last week, Buhari told journalists he was going overseas for 10 days to have his ear examined by specialists. When journalists asked him how he would ease public anxiety about the president falling sick, Buhari responded with a question: “Is there anybody that doesn’t fall sick?”
When people say Buhari has no obligation to inform Nigerians about his state of health because his health is a private matter and, therefore, not open to public discussion, they show total lack of knowledge of the difference between public office holders and guarantee of privacy. Let us get this point clear. Buhari is not a private citizen. Buhari is president. A president is a public figure elected by citizens. A public officer cannot enjoy maximum protection by the laws of privacy. For that reason, everyone deserves to know whether the president is in good health or in frail health.
There is no reason for presidential assistants to lie about Buhari’s health because there is nothing sacrosanct about a president’s health. The president is a human being. Human beings are liable to fall sick or experience ill health. When a president is in failing health, the nation must be notified without delay. Keeping the president’s medical condition secret is not a good way to protect the president or defend his interests. In any system of government, there is no substitute for truth.
We are all entitled to know whether our president is in robust health or unfit to govern because of medical reasons. The constitution expects political and public office holders to be medically fit to govern. The constitution provides for the transfer of power (temporarily or permanently) when the president is mentally and/or physically incapacitated. A president who knowingly withholds crucial information about his health shows supreme contempt for the nation.
In the absence of credible information about the president’s health, rumour steps in to fill that gap. Rumour flourishes when official sources of information are blocked or corrupted. As a former media adviser to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua said, no government can successfully legislate against rumour. An elected government cannot muzzle the citizens’ right to discuss their president’s health, even if the discussion is based on rumour.
Official silence nourishes rumour. And rumour cultivates disquiet. In 2012 when Governor Sullivan Chime of Enugu State slipped out of the country secretly to undertake medical treatment in London for a troubling cancer of the nose, he was trailed by dangerous rumours of his death and other objectionable tales that poked fun at his state of health. When he emerged in February 2013 from an interminable period of absence from the public space, Chime said he had to take immediate action to quell unconfirmed stories that gave the impression he was at the point of death.
Chime argued his 140-day absence from office was justified because he had no obligation to inform anyone about his trip to London. He said he travelled overseas during his personal leave. He also said he transferred power to his deputy and informed the Speaker of the state House of Assembly through a letter that officially notified the House that he was on vacation. Sounding somewhat brash, Chime said at a press conference: “… I didn’t know it was the business of people to know what my activities will be when I am going on vacation… I don’t see how it should concern anybody; I don’t see why we should owe anybody any apologies.”
What Chime ignored, whether he was on personal holidays or on official duty was that he had a moral obligation to inform the people of Enugu State about his health and his vacation. Chime was elected by the people of the state. Therefore, he owed the people an obligation to inform them about his poor health and his plans to undertake medical check-up during his vacation.
In Buhari’s case, he applied a smart tactic by asking people to show their hands if they had never fallen sick. It was a defensive but nevertheless effective way to handle unsubstantiated and offensive stories that suggested the president might be suffering from a major health problem. As the public was debating Buhari’s state of health and reflecting on the president’s statement about human nature and ill health, he was already resting in London.
No matter how hard he tried to make light of his health, Buhari was always going to attract criticisms. He chose to tell the truth and, therefore, lifted off his shoulders the burden of concealing his health condition from public knowledge. He admitted he had health challenges, which he said compelled him to add to his holiday itinerary a trip to see a medical consultant, who specialises in diseases of the ear, nose, and throat. Whether Nigerians accepted his version or the groundless account that had populated the public sphere was now out of his hands.
Despite the president’s admission that he was human and, therefore, likely to suffer occasional bouts of health challenges, the public does not know well enough the seriousness of Buhari’s ear problem. All we know, based on the president’s personal admission, is that he has an ear infection. The nature of that infection and whether it would affect the president’s ability to carry out his duties remain unclear.
Buhari’s decision to go public with news of his ear infection might have been prompted by the desire to avoid the blunders that were committed by the Presidency during the time former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took ill. While the Presidency denied vigorously that Yar’Adua was seriously ill at that time, the president’s condition worsened until he was ferried to a Saudi Arabian medical facility for emergency diagnosis and treatment.
Yar’Adua was so determined to suppress news of his declining health that he took the Leadership newspaper to court because the newspaper published what was deemed to be a speculative report on Yar’Adua’s health. Why did Yar’Adua act swiftly to sue a newspaper while there were other more urgent, more important and more serious national issues that deserved the president’s priority attention? The Leadership newspaper published a contentious news report in late 2008 in which the paper posed serious questions that suggested that Yar’Adua had lost the capacity to govern.
The Guardian of Sunday, 9 November 2008, reported that the Leadership newspaper claimed in its previous day’s edition that: “Yar’Adua has not attended any public function in the last two days… His deteriorating health prevented him from attending yesterday’s (last Friday’s) Jumma’at prayer at the National Mosque. Earlier, he had also failed to show up at Sheraton Hotel, where he was billed to attend a function along with the visiting German president. No excuse was advanced for the president’s absence on both occasions.”
Yar’Adua’s aides expressed outrage over the newspaper report because, as they claimed, the president had attended all the events the newspaper claimed he did not attend. They claimed they had photographs and documentary evidence to show that Yar’Adua actually attended those public events. On the basis of Yar’Adua’s conviction that he had been defamed, he instructed his lawyers to begin legal action against Leadership newspaper.
Yar’Adua’s adviser on media and publicity, Olusegun Adeniyi, was so annoyed by what he claimed to be errors in the report that he issued a scathing press statement in which he said: “There is no truth in the entire report and the lies on which it hangs are so easy to disprove that the only reasonable conclusion is that the publishers of the newspapers ran the report in furtherance of their reprehensible efforts to embarrass the President and destabilise his administration… If it had any regard for the truth at all and made the least effort to confirm the veracity of the assertions in its report, Leadership newspaper would know that the claim that Yar’Adua has not attended any public function in the last two days is a big lie.”
It was clearly inappropriate for Yar’Adua to take a newspaper to court given the uneven power relationship between the president and journalists/publishers. As everyone knows, the president enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office. Journalists and publishers are not accorded such a privilege. This power asymmetry is clearly unfair. A president can take a newspaper to court but journalists cannot sue the president because he is legally exempt from prosecution.
Journalists have a responsibility to scrutinise government officials and to hold them to account. If a president sues a newspaper each time he spots an inaccurate news report, journalists will not be able to carry out their obligation to society. They will be tied down in court, defending themselves while state officials continue to abuse their office.