The lack of openness about President Buhari’s condition has been costly
From the beginning, and now a month after President Muhamadu Buhari left Nigeria on a medical trip to London, the presidency and his administration have refused to disclose what the state of his current condition is. There has been a constant dismissal of serious questions, treated as overblown or unnecessary, while the President’s stay in London has now twice been extended.
President Buhari left Nigeria on the day he sent a letter to the National Assembly informing that he would be away for ten days from the following Monday. According to the Presidency’s statement, it was for routine medical tests, yet, the trip stated as routine came with lack of advanced notice.
On the day, he was meant to return, the presidency announced that that his trip would be extended in order for President Buhari to receive the results of those tests. By leaving this announcement until the last day, they gave the wild rumours about Buhari-that he had died, that he was critically ill- a reason to go into overdrive.
The trip has since been extended indefinitely without a date of return. To the Presidency’s credit, the transition of responsibilities to the Vice-President has been as seamless as the transition from Late President Umaru Yar’adua to then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, ought to have been.
Unlike then, there has been no power vacuum or government inactivity.
But the lack of transparency shows there are still lessons from 2009 Nigerian leaders haven’t learned from. By not being open about what the specific condition of the president is, and by dismissing legitimate concerns, they are slowly undermining their own credibility at home and abroad.
On the BBC World Service, the President’s Special Media Advisor claimed last week that Buhari was not ill. He stated that the President was entitled to the same yearly holiday allocation as ordinary employees and claimed the President would return in a matter of days. A series of government officials have, in trying to downplay concerns on the President’s health, only made the government seem less and less trust-worthy. This is happening at a time of worsening economic situation in the country, which is eroding the trust and support this government had at the beginning of their term.
The Senate President, Bukola Saraki, along with numerous other top government and APC officials have now visited the President on multiple occasions. The Senate President told the press after his visit that the President was “his normal funny self”. But Nigerians can legitimately suspect that this is not a normal situation. Visits by multiple government figures, in person, to a President who is “not ill”, who is “hale and hearty” and “only on vacation”, does not seem normal. That the president has spoken to President Donald Trump and not spoken directly to Nigerians only adds to the confusion, further undermining trust in their claims. It has also been widely reported that he called the Governor of Kano State, Abdullahi Ganduje some days to join in the prayers being offered by some clerics and supporters in the state house.
Fake news in many countries is a problem mainly because populations have a distrust of the media. Like in Nigeria, it is additionally a problem because of a built-in, cynical distrust of government. In the last month, news websites with titles that are a play on international media titles like the Metro Newspaper in London carried rumours about Buhari’s health that were widely shared on social media networks like WhatsApp and Facebook Nigeria.
Much of the media in Nigeria is a soundboard for unedited government press releases, too often published without enough scrutiny. In this environment, the public perception of a government that has sought to tackle corruption and promised to be a change from past administrations is even more important.
President Buhari’s trip has been extended, officially because of a need for more rest. But if as it seems that the President who is 74 years old is ill, Nigerians deserve to know the full extent of his health condition. The people of Nigeria elected him to serve them, they deserve to know the status of their President.