On May 29, the Nigerian state will celebrate nine years of “democracy” and one year of the Yar’Adua administration. There is very little to cheer about after almost a decade of civilian rule and five decades of independence. If Nigeria was rudderless in the last decade, it has become even more so in the last one year. The government has done very little to assuage the suffering of Nigerians or given us hope that things will get better. The country continues to drift, perching precariously on the precipice. Yet, we are supposed to continue living, believing that everything will be OK.
In the last one year, much of public discourse has focused on the president’s health. The theory is that the president’s ill-health is the reason the country is not functioning. The rumour, pungent and pervasive, has left so much uncertainty in its trail. Last week, the president took time to explain his side of the story and lay to rest any concerns about his health. In an interview with the Financial Times of London which was reported in the Guardian of May 20, President Yar’Adua urged Nigerians to “be concerned about Nigeria itself” rather than his health because, as he put it, “I am fit and able”.
It is interesting, and indeed instructive, that the president chose the FT of London to brief Nigerians about his medical condition. It is just one more proof of what our leaders think of us and the institutions in the country. One would have expected the president to address the Nigerian media, and Nigerians, after his medical trip to Germany. He didn’t do that. It was business, or lack of it, as usual! The president told the Financial Times that the persistent rumour about his health is just politics -- aided by an ineffective, biased and perhaps corrupt local media -- and nothing more. “Politics in Nigeria is very interesting. And we can see that people enjoy fabricating stories, falsehoods, getting their way to get them published”, President Yar’Adua told his interviewers.
I agree with the president. The man is “an ordinary human being not a super-human being. He is a normal human being who can fall sick, who can recover, who can die, who can have feelings, who can be angered, who can laugh, who is fit enough to be President, and who can have headaches, and can have fever”. Why is it so hard for impoverished, harassed, rumour-mongering and disgruntled Nigerians to come to terms with this reality?
Like many in his class, Mr. President has been going to Germany as a private citizen since 1986. That is where all his medical records are kept. The German doctors know everything about him: his medical background, his genealogy, his culture and his tradition. Isn’t going back to his “roots” the most sensible thing for the president to do under the prevailing unstable and unhealthy condition in Nigeria? For all you know, the president may even have a guest house or a private yacht in Germany like some of his contemporaries. Why do we expect him to leave all this just because he is now the president of Nigeria, a country where people do not appreciate the sacrifices of their leader?
Nigerians concerned about the president should mind their business. The country is bigger than any individual. President Yar’Adua is not the first president in Nigeria to be sick while in office. A lot of presidents, including some who once led the US, the most powerful country in the world, were sick while in office and they managed to cover it up. Franklin D. Roosevelt served four terms as president of the US in a wheel chair and died barely three months after his fourth inauguration.
Nigerians should be concerned about Nigeria, the land of missed opportunities. They should think of what they can do, to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy (he had Addison’s disease and suffered from constant back pain while in office) for their country and president rather than what their county and president can do for them. Rest assured that in carrying out his responsibility of running Nigeria, President Yar’Adua “dey kampe”. In fact, the man is overstretching himself as president. And what does he get in return? Nothing beyond abuses, death wishes and unkind words!
“I hardly have more than five hours, four hours sleep a day,” Yar’Adua told the Financial Times. How are we, busybody Nigerians, supposed to know the president hardly gets more than four or five hours of sleep? Well, now we know. There should be no reason not to have confidence in the ability of the president to deliver. Enough of this gullible and mischievous pandering to rumour peddlers and fake news carried by Nigerian papers! Shame on all of you who have been feeding us the lie that the Mr. President goes to bed at 9pm! Of course, I didn’t believe those rumours myself. As a father of three, I can hardly sleep before midnight and barely get five hours of sleep, much less someone who is father to nearly 150 million errant and disparate individuals.
Even if the president goes to sleep at 9pm, it simply means he is up at 2am, when majority of Nigerians, including the reporters and editors who report all the nonsense about his health, are in dreamland. There are those who claim, with a tinge of malice, that the first lady, Turai Yar’Adua, assumes leadership of the country while the president snoozes. Big deal! Edith Wilson, dubbed the “Secret President”, wife of President Woodrow Wilson of the US, literally ran the country when her husband suffered a stroke that left him partly paralyzed.
What else do we need to know about President Yar’Adua and his health? Senator and former governor, Dr Saminu Turaki, who has a corruption case with the EFCC has declared that there is no cause for alarm as far as the president is concerned. Turaki says the president is from a family that is blessed with longevity and that he would live beyond 80 years. We should believe him. He knows the president and his pedigree. Turaki has assured us that Yar’Adua will “finish his two terms and handover to another person”. Yar’Adua’s father lived for over 90 years and his grandfather lived for almost 100 years, we are told. Longevity runs in the family. Add to that the medical fact “small-bodied people live longer”, then there is no reason to believe or even think that the president won’t “live for a minimum of 80 years”.
Turaki admonishes us to stop worrying about Yar’Adua’s health and focus more on what he will deliver. I shall return to this. On a lighter note, let us focus on Nigeria. I couldn’t agree more with the president that we should be concerned about Nigeria. I am and I am sure millions of Nigerians are. I am not just concerned, I am fearful. Fearful that as Nigerians we don’t get protection at home and abroad; fearful that bad leadership and corruption have led to the mass exodus of not just some of the best brains in the country but some of the most productive young people, many of whom are languishing in foreign jails and refugee camps and oftentimes victims of xenophobia, as in South Africa. Of course, I am fearful of the prospects of implosion of the Nigerian project, not because Nigerians do not believe in their country but because a country can only take so much bashing and bruising from those in power. Think of Mobutu’s Zaire!
Let’s remind ourselves that in two years Nigeria will be 50 years old! Nigeria and Nigerians deserve better. So, what can the president deliver? The president can deliver a lot – that is, if he can free himself from the powerful forces that appear to hold his government hostage. The president can deliver good quality education without which Nigeria can’t survive, much less compete; he can deliver uninterrupted power supply which will boost cottage industry and propel the economy; he can deliver good roads to save millions of road users and enhance commerce; he can restore pride and confidence in the country; he can deliver employment so that our young men and women won’t spend the better part of their prime watching, celebrating and killing each other over English Premier League and UEFA Champions League.
Lastly, the president can ensure that unlike him, millions of Nigerians who do not have the opportunity and resources to travel overseas do have the chance to get adequate medical treatment anywhere they reside in the country. That’s what we expect the president to deliver and that’s what he will account for when he leaves office, not what he or his handlers tell us about his health.
By Chido Onumah