Faux-pas in Buhari’s medical trips
For the third time since he became president, President Muhammadu Buhari traveled to England for medical treatment. From every indication (media reports, grapevine and television footage of him that revealed a frail, slouchy man), the president’s medical trip to England was necessary. But then, it stoked the long-running controversy over medical tourism in Nigeria. Medical tourism, especially, the traveling of high ranking government officials to the United States of America, Europe and India for medical attention, rattles the sensibility of most Nigerians because it is a palpable evidence of a greedy, corrupt and callous power elite that tore down the country’s health system through neglect, irresponsible health policies and misappropriation of funds, and then, jet out to hospitals overseas for even routine medical checkups.
For long, the band of panjandrums that ruled this country constituted themselves into a special group sheltered in their islands of stupendous wealth and unbridled privileges in an ocean of vast, encompassing poverty. Deliberately detached from their people and contemptuously indifferent to their worsening economic plight, they refuse to share in the problems and challenges of the people they supposedly serve. It is therefore not unusual for the Minister of Education, in his elitism and blatant disdain for the educational system he administers, to have all his children studying in schools overseas. Similarly, it is not uncommon for the Minister of Health, in his unconcealed contempt for the country’s health care system that he superintends, to travel outside Nigeria for medical treatment. The overseas medical trips by high ranking government officials are paid for by the government. In 2014, it cost the Nigerian government about N250 billion ($1.25 billion).
It was in aversion for such disgusting antics of the power elite that the Nigerian electorate sought a change: a break with the past. And they thought that the then presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, personified this desired change. They thought he embodied the essential qualities for that desperately needed break with the past: the indomitable will of a military commander, incorruptible uprightness of a moral crusader and the honour of a devout Muslem. However, after two years in power, the government of Muhammadu Buhari is yet to bring about any meaningful change to the lives of the generality of Nigerians. Even, its supposedly determined drive against official corruption has not proven very effective. As such, official corruption remains as rife, and waste in all arms of government continues unimpeded. Not surprisingly, the Nigerian healthcare delivery system remains as moribund and in disarray as ever. And medical tourism continues unhindered.
Paradoxically, medical tourism is receiving a matchless boost from the Buhari administration. President Buhari, more than any other Nigerian president, is glamorizing it. His earlier trip to England to treat an ear infection seemed unnecessary. By any stretch of the imagination, an ear infection is not a life threatening or an exceptionally grievous illness. So, that trip was disturbingly redolent of earlier Nigerian administrations and their dramatized disregard for prevailing national sentiments. It reeked of over indulgence and a refusal to join the rest of Nigerians in the necessary belt-tightening in an economic recession. It eroded his credibility as a leader that is leading by example, and thus, willing to join in the collective sacrifice that his administration is demanding from the rest of Nigerians.
The Buhari administration has been responsible for the national health care policies and their implementation for a period of two years. It can reasonably be argued that two years is not enough time for even the most well intended health policies and their implementation to have transformed the Nigerian health care delivery system. And, as such, due to the remaining limitations on our health system, some ailments may still demand traveling overseas for medical attention. It is possible that the president’s present illness demands such. Nigerians are not privy of the nature of his illness. Some justify the secrecy surrounding it, arguing that despite his being the president, he is entitled to some privacy. Others argue that with the inherent openness of democracy, Nigerians reserve the right to know the nature of their president’s infirmity. Both positions are arguable.
However, the president is not the average Nigerian. He is the leader, the premier role model of the country and Nigerians are invariably swayed by his personal examples. He is the personification of the country’s hope, the embodiment of her resolve and the repository of the powers of her government. He essentially sets the moral tone, defines the national mood and forges the national purpose. Therefore, his public image and conduct and their possible implications are of momentous significance, and should be handled with exquisite discretion. As earlier administrations detached themselves from the people, he, as our president of change, should have meticulously projected the image of a willingness to share in the concerns and problems of the people. And as medical tourism evinces corruption, arrogance and insensitivity of the Nigerian power elite, he needed to painstakingly avoid it. So, irrespective of the gravity of his illness, he should have refused to leave Nigeria for medical care. The experts from England should have been brought into the country with their facilities (even if it is at a higher cost), to treat him here in Nigeria.
His medical tourism is symbolically bad for his presidency. It cast his administration in the same light as earlier discredited administrations. It undermines the people’s trust in his promised change. It would be harder for his administration to convince Nigerians that he is a selfless public servant, and (as he promised us) that his presidency will be one of the most unselfish pages of Nigerian history. His refusal to go overseas for treatment would have been symbolically wonderful and a propaganda master stroke for his presidency. In statecraft symbols and propaganda are extremely important; symbols are sometimes more important than reality and propaganda more important than facts.
What would life be like without symbols? How can a leader effectively tap into the collective emotions of the people – the fount of patriotism and devotion to the country – without propaganda? After all, has history not demonstrated that many great leaderships and political transformations were founded on symbols and myths fashioned by tendentious manipulation of information – propaganda?
Ezukanma wrote from Lagos.
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