A Pregnant Absence – Austin O. Inyang

When Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari departed the country in late January 2017, no mention was made in official quarters about his state of health, only an assurance that he was traveling for a short vacation and would be back on the 6th of February – about 10 days from his departure.

But in an inexplicable turn of events, long before the date of the President’s expected return, the rumour mill went to town with stories of his illness and death. The President’s eventual failure to return on the promised date fuelled those rumours even further, coupled with the mixed messages Nigerians were getting from the President’smedia handlers and senior aides.

At first the government was adamant in insisting that Pres. Buhari wasn’t sick but merely taking a well-deserved rest at a luxury hotel in London – an assertion made on a number of occasions by the president’s senior media adviser, Mr. Femi Adesina; the federal minister for information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed; and even the vice-president (and Acting President) Prof. Yemi Osinbajo.

When they finally got around to admitting that the President was indeed having health problems, these senior officials still managed to put a spin on their new position. Yes, the President was sick, said Mr. Adesina, but not terminally ill. On his part, the Acting President still clung to his ‘Buhari is hale and hearty’ line but then added that the uncertainty about the President’s date of return was because he was awaiting the results of the medical tests carried out on him by his doctors.

This time, nobody in government ventured a fresh date for the President’s return to Nigeria, only confining themselves with circulating ‘proof of life’ photographs on various media outlets, including social media, of the President in the company of a number of dignitaries – mostly from his party, the All Progressives Congress, APC. And resisting calls by skeptical (and cynical) Nigerians to provide VIDEO evidence.

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On the face of it, there is nothing strange or untoward about the President of Nigeria, or any person for that matter, traveling abroad to seek medical treatment. Medical tourism, as we all know, has become something of an industry in Nigeria. So why, one may ask, did the government decide to tell Nigerians that the President’s trip was a mere vacation – thereby inviting the impression of seeming callousness around a vacation taken just days after an IDP camp in Borno was ‘mistakenly’ bombed by a Nigerian fighter aircraft, with great loss of life, and just days after the sectarian killings in Southern Kaduna? Which responsible head of state goes on vacation when his country is on fire? Imagine former US President George W. Bush going on vacation to the Bahamas just days after 9/11!

Or is there something more to this episode than meets the eye?

Just days after the President’s departure, there was another rumour that made the rounds, to the effect that Prof. Osinbajo was being pressured by certain influential stakeholders to resign his VP position – ostensibly to make way for a putative President from another section of the country should anything happen to the current leader. Though the rumour was quickly laid to rest, notably by the VP himself who denied any such pressure, the continued lack of transparency around the President’s state of health (and even his current whereabouts) does not bode well for the stability of our polity, buffeted as it is by a steadily declining economy characterized by high inflation, a dwindling standard of living for the masses and thegradual erosion of investor confidence.

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Many Nigerians are asking: Is it déjà vu all over again? Not so long ago, the same denials and doublespeak characterized government’s engagement with Nigerians during the illness and long absence of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, with his attorney-general, the brash Michael Aondoakaa, SAN, making the infamous statement that “President Yar’Adua can rule the country from ANYWHERE.” That episode created a needless constitutional crisis which was finally resolved with the intervention of concerned stakeholders and the ascension of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan to the acting presidency.

While the prospect of our leader’s worsening health, incapacitation or, God forbid, death, is an unwelcome one for many Nigerians even at this time of national anguish, so also is the prospect of having our President govern us from some unknown corner of the world and having telephone conversations with the Donald Trumps of this world (as recently reported) without deeming it fit to speak to his fellow Nigerians and assuring them of his welfare and concern for them.

This medium joins millions of Nigerians in wishing our President and Commander-in-Chief, Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, a speedy recovery and return to his duty post. The health and stability of our polity and our already battered economy depend on it.

But it has to be said that in the handling of this episode, his senior officials and handlers have depleted whatever goodwill they had garnered among Nigerians at the beginning of this administration. It is time for them to learn the lessons of our recent history, and put the interest of this country above their own.

Enough of the drama.

It is a luxury that Nigeria – in her current state – can ill afford.

 

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