Ever since President Muhammadu Buhari returned from his extended overseas medical check-up and his infrequent appearance in office became a subject of national conversation, all manner of citizens, in their attempts to defend Buhari, have engaged in a laborious project intended to re-write Nigeria’s constitution.
We have heard bizarre interpretations of the constitution and simple-minded expressions of support for Buhari, some of them relating to how the president should work, whether he is constitutionally required to work from home, why it is not important and obligatory for Buhari to chair the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting, why he can afford to perform his constitutional duties from his residence, why people should not pull their hairs when they don’t find Buhari working from the Presidency and why it is sufficient for us to know that the vice president has been briefing Buhari about what is happening in the nation, even though we have not been informed that the vice president is now officially the acting president.
These interpretations of the constitution and expressions of support for Buhari have come mostly from governors of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the North, ministers, presidential advisers and assistants as well as some lawyers, who go by the title of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN).
Public concerns are growing because of the president’s irregular appearances. The impression, therefore, is that if Buhari cannot be seen in public, something must be wrong. If something is wrong, shouldn’t someone communicate that to the citizens? This is an obligation the president owes to all citizens. It is common knowledge that Buhari has not been in good health. That should have been a valid ground on which he should address the nation to allay growing worries about the way the country is being governed or explain why the country has been drifting like a rudderless ship.
Everywhere you go, you will find people asking the same question: Why is it that Buhari has not considered it worthwhile to address the nation to explain why his appearances have been irregular? The citizens do not deserve to be treated in such a disrespectful way. They voted for the president. The president is, therefore, obliged to let them know what is happening.
Let us put the current concerns in context. During presidential election campaigns in 2015, Buhari traversed the country, addressed crowds of supporters and mere onlookers, and told everyone why they should vote for him and the All Progressives Congress (APC). They voted for him and the APC and celebrations rang across the country. Now, things are no longer going according to script for a number of reasons.
First, Buhari has been suffering from a bout of ill health. At his age, it is expected that he should experience occasional health challenges. It is a normal part of being human. Every human being would, at one time or another during their lifetime, experience ill health. Problems associated with ill health tend to increase with age. Therefore, elderly people tend to suffer from more frequent periods of ill health than relatively younger people. Again, this is natural.
It is not a crime or cardinal sin for a president to fall sick. A president is a human being and not a mechanical device or contraption. As a human being, a president will sometimes experience what affects other human beings.
Buhari’s ill health should not be a reason why the nation should be governed in secrecy. The best way to reduce public anxiety is for the president to be open, honest, and straightforward with the same people he addressed during presidential election campaigns. Buhari should address the nation, look everyone in the eyes, and say: “I am sorry that my health has not given me the space I wanted to address your problems. For this reason, I plan to work infrequently until I recover fully. At the moment, I have given the Vice President the authority to act as president. Both of us will work together as a team. There are good times and there are bad times. This is one of those bad times when I will have to work from home.”
If Buhari could find the strength and energy to say this openly in an address to the nation, he would have successfully won over a large number of people who feel upset right now about the way they have been treated. A president cannot treat the people with contempt. Nothing lasts forever, you know. Like life, power is ephemeral. The people elected the president and the president must accord them the respect they deserve by being candid about his condition.
With due respect, I would argue that Buhari has been misled by a number of minders, assistants, advisers and ministers, who feel they are smarter than the entire nation. Unfortunately, these are the people leading the president in the wrong direction, in the path that will further alienate the citizens from their president.
Buhari has nothing to lose and everything to gain if he could address the nation and tell us that ill health has prevented him from performing at that optimum level everyone expected him to perform. He should also explain why he has not achieved most of what he promised during the election campaigns two years ago. If Buhari could do this, he would earn the sympathy and support of the citizens. We are reasonable. We are human. Above all, we can differentiate between truth and falsehood, between fact and fiction, and between what is realistic and what is idealistic.
Let me say this here. Those interpreters who have been referring to the constitution to defend Buhari are taking the citizens as gullible and easy to fool. Every human action does not have to be stipulated in the constitution to become right, reasonable, honourable, respectable, acceptable and meaningful. We have been told there is nothing in the constitution that prevents the president from working from home. The argument is so reckless it should either be ignored or dismissed outright with a simple logic.
First, even if it is constitutionally alright for the president to work from home or from a busy marketplace or bus stop or from the toilet (as some stupid and sick-minded people have argued), quite simply it is not the right thing for Buhari to do. It is improper. It will be a strange innovation introduced into our brand of democracy.
Second, the citizens did not elect Buhari so he can transfer his seat of office to his private residence. The fact the constitution did not specify where the president must work from does not mean that it is right for the president to work from home. Additionally, presidents and prime ministers across the world are known to work in their offices and not from their homes. We operate a democratic system of government. Why can’t we behave in appropriate ways like other countries that operate the same system as we do?
The current hide-and-seek game cannot continue forever. The reason government has adopted secrecy as an unofficial way of governing the nation is that some people are nervous and uncomfortable about the possibility of power shift and the consequences that might arise. They want to maintain the status quo because it is in their best interests to do so. They don’t want power to change, even if nature has decreed it to be so. They don’t want to lose the benefits they derive from the government. These are the people who are nudging Buhari to continue to work, even if it means damaging his fragile health. They are not doing the best for the president.
We have been reminded so many times that health is wealth (pardon the cliché). There is a vice president recognised by the constitution, who could act when the president is indisposed.
Part of the reason Nigeria has not made any progress in terms of socioeconomic and political development since attainment of independence in October 1960 is that we continue to shift and turn reason upside down to suit our condition. We defend evil when it suits our circumstance. We condemn the good when it is not in our favour. We have weird politicians and advisers, who have surrounded the president, blocking him from accessing adverse public opinion about his government.
We must learn to live above primordial sentiments. We must learn to call evil by its name. In his acceptance speech, Buhari said he was elected to govern for all Nigerians. We believed him because we were intoxicated at the time with the euphoria that swept across the country, suggesting a messiah had been elected president of Africa’s most populous nation. Everyone must now judge whether their socioeconomic conditions have improved two years since the government was sworn in.
It is tellingly remarkable that citizens have snubbed all references to the constitution as the legal instrument to defend Buhari. Instead, people have taken to social and mainstream media to mock the president and his government. This is not good for Buhari as a person. It is not good for the high office he occupies. It is also not good for Nigeria’s image in the international community.
Right now, everyone seems outraged by the way they have been treated. Ignoring the people, operating government in secrecy and shutting down those who attempt to criticise the government are the key features of a nervous and unpopular government. The citizens deserve better than they are getting.
I would argue that a president battling ill health should be pitied, not ridiculed in social and mainstream media. I don’t like to see that because it saddens me. At his age, Buhari deserves more respect and more sympathy than to be ridiculed. There is only one way to reverse the current situation. The president should address the nation. He should be open about his health. He should tell the citizens how he plans to continue to govern with his present health condition. There is nothing to be ashamed of just because the president is in fragile health.