We have a tendency, in Nigeria, to flout established rules and to turn manageable, controllable events into crises. We do not seem to learn from the past. We persist in making the same mistakes, choosing to gamble with the fates and fortunes of others.
However, it should be noted that the President formally communicated his absence to the Speaker of the House and to the Senate President, as the Constitution requires which in itself is unheard of in Nigeria as Presidents rarely willingly relinquish power to their deputies, preferring instead to empower their chief of staff or a member of their kitchen cabinet. Despite this small yet non-negligible element of progress, Nigerians must never stop pushing for what is right. It is unheard of, in most countries led by democratically elected Presidents for the citizens who voted him (or her) into office to be kept in the dark as to their leader’s exact whereabouts or well-being.
In the United States, President George W. Bush transferred power to his deputy Dick Cheney not once but twice: in 2002 then again in 2007 but for no longer than a day. The reason for this was a scheduled surgery which required him to be sedated. The American government did not hide this or any information relating to the President’s capacity to perform his duties. The transfer of power was simple, clear and most of all short. In fact, the media even knew the exact reason behind the transfer of power: a colonoscopy. It was no secret that Bush would be sedated and obviously unable to function while under anaesthesia.
The level of openness one finds in foreign countries when such matters arise is remarkable in its “foreignness” when compared to the secrecy and intrigues which obtain here in Nigeria. An article from the Washington Post (July 2007) even went on to give specific details about President Bush’s general health: “through 6 1/2 years in office, Bush has been exceptionally healthy. He turned 61 this month and exercises religiously six days a week. His blood pressure, pulse and cholesterol were all reported better than average in his most recent annual physical, performed last summer”. After the colonoscopy, it was made clear to all that no “signs of cancer” were found. Would a Nigerian leader behave thus?
We believe, due to our superstitious, secretive nature, that revealing details about our health invites “witches” or bad luck, therefore taking ideas from the middle ages into offices and matters of state which belong to this century. The same Washington Post article went on to say (and to quote Bush’s press secretary at the time, Tony Snow): “Doctors found and removed polyps from Bush’s colon before he became president but discovered none in 2002. Age and history would suggest that there’s a reasonable chance that polyps will be noted this time, if so, they’ll be removed and evaluated”. Polyps are growths which in some cases become cancerous. Can one imagine a Nigerian President giving such details about his health, even going so far as to admit that a family history of cancer informed the decision to undergo a medical procedure? Tony Snow, President Bush’s media aide also added: “Tests on any such tissue removed could take 48 to 72 hours”. The article ends by saying: “Snow knows a lot about the subject (of cancer). He had a relapse of colon cancer in March and is undergoing treatment. Shortly after his briefing, he left the White House for his weekly dose of chemotherapy”.
Ill-health in the Western world is neither seen as something to be hidden (particularly not when one is elected into office and must maintain citizens’ trust) nor as a weakness. It is merely a fact of life which is dealt with head on and as professionally as possible, in a manner which doesn’t delay or negatively impact one’s duties.
However, if and when the illness progresses to a level that isn’t manageable, whereby one is incapacitated or unable to be seen in public, to deliver speeches or to communicate with citizens without an aide acting as a go between, then there are sacrosanct protocols which demand a real and immediate transfer of power. In most developed societies, it would be near impossible for the President to be incapacitated for a prolonged period of time without the transfer of powers becoming total and complete, especially if there was no indication of when, if at all, the President would return.
The Yar’Adua scenario, with all its intrigues, couldn’t occur in a society like America. Despite the political divide which might separate politicians or even the media, the interest of the country always comes first. Why shouldn’t this be so in Nigeria? Who are these “cabals”, these “shadow cabinets” who hold Nigerians to ransom? Why, if not for their greed and love of power for its own sake do they believe that Nigerians cannot handle the truth? Nigerians are generally decent people.
As they say in local parlance, “na condition make crayfish bend”. Yet, despite all our travails, we are a people prone to empathy when it comes to illness. The truth, in any situation, if well managed and properly explained, could save this administration from a total loss of confidence, a dangerous possibility. Here is a quote from a Fox News article describing the hours after former US President Bush’s surgery.
The normalisation of power, the specificity of the narrative, its detail, the way American Presidents are portrayed as human, sometimes fallible, not indestructible or paternalistic, is telling, in comparison to our own would-be larger than life public figures: “during the 31-minute procedure, Bush was sedated with a drug called propofol. The advantage is that it works faster and wears off considerably faster than the standard agents.
After the examination, Bush ate breakfast with Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, White House counsel Fred Fielding and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Bush played with his dogs, Barney and Miss Beazley. He also planned a bike ride around the presidential compound in the Catoctin Mountains of western Maryland. The president was in good humour and will resume his normal activities at Camp David”.
When will we see this in Nigeria?