To be a President of any given country is a special honor and privilege not given to everyone. Politics is always a great thing when it leads one to power at the summit. In the history of the United States of America, for example, dating back centuries only 45 great men have had the great opportunity of presiding over the fortunes of the greatest nation on earth. In Nigeria since our independence in 1960 (some 57 odd years now) just a dozen or more men -- some good, some bad and some ugly -- have had the honor of leading (democratically or dictatorially) the most populous black nation in the world. Some gender equality advocates have argued that with our penchant (men generally) for stealing the commonwealth with impunity it is high time perhaps women came to the rescue!

A President wields enormous constitutional powers and influence with some in Africa having the power of life and death. When such omnipotent Commander-in-Chief takes ill or dies the entire nation is thrown into a state of melancholy cum bereavement. As human beings Presidents can take ill or even die in or out of office! Since God has the monopoly over life and death sometimes the personality cult often woven around the power they wield is demystified by the grim reaper. The Holy Book makes it clear that it is appointed unto man to die once following which is divine judgment.  

Around the world in general, Presidents had died in power or taken ill while performing their duties. Presidents, for sure, do die in or out of office! They are humans after all! Mortality remains a human burden from generation to generation. But how we die or what we do/did with our lives while living here on earth is what matters most. If it was not appointed unto man to die and thereafter judgment then one wonders what this life would have meant. While we multiply in kind it is agonizingly necessary for our kind also to kick the bucket. A toothless bed-ridden centenarian ought to know that the game is up much as a clownish nonagenarian knows that the grim reaper is getting closer to his world to terminate the mundane excursion.

But in Africa, the story is made more poignant with our penchant for playing god in power and creating a personality cult that elevates us to a deity. In Ethiopia, former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi succumbed to death in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Malam Becai Sanha, the former President of Guinea-Bissau, died in 2012 in a Paris military hospital. Michael Sata, the 'Cobra', answered the call of the grim reaper in a British hospital in 2010 while his predecessor, Levy Mwanawasa, had died in France two years prior. The long-serving ex-President of Gabon, Omar Bongo Ondimba, joined his ancestors in a Spanish hospital in 2009.

In Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara, a septuagenarian, has had to undergo a surgical operation in France a few years ago. He came back to Abidjan weeks later clutching a walking stick with which his movement was stabilized. He had told some cheering supporters upon his arrival that what he was holding was "une canne de l'emergence". Few months later he dropped the walking stick and today he often jets to France for some medical needs but he is as strong as an old man his age could ever be. In Mali President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita is known to be suffering from an ailment for which surgical interventions had been sought in France. He looks frail and sometimes annuls presidential rendezvous as a result of ill-health. Rumors are always rife about his health condition in Bamako and elsewhere.

In Algeria, President Abdulazeez Bouteflika won another presidential poll sitting on a wheelchair and campaigning nowhere around the country. His Prime Minister did most of the campaign as the old man was shielded from the public. He has had cause to visit France occasionally for some medical attention. Yet he rules the nation as he gets nearer to the grave. The programed state visit by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had to be canceled abruptly last week because the ailing strongman of Algiers was not fit enough to host the most powerful woman in the world. Ditto President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. His battles with ill-health are becoming more and more controversial given his advanced age and failure to prepare for an orderly succession. He often goes secretly over to Singapore for remedy. The outspoken old Bob would be deceiving himself if he ever thinks he would live forever; immortality belongs to God alone!

In Nigeria the tales of presidential infirmity and mortality are legendary. Let us begin with Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. When the political 'Maradona' came to power through a palace coup overthrowing Generals Buhari/Idiagbon in 1985 he was nursing an injured leg described as "radiculopathy". But he made it open as he went about managing with grace the injury he reportedly sustained during the civil war. When the Minna-born professional coup-plotter was forced to "step aside" (consumed by the Abiola saga) the late Gen. Sani Abacha came on board. 'Khalifa' kept mum over his state of health but tongues wagged about his real health status. As the rumors flew around the crude dictator simply withdrew from any public engagement baring his fangs and killing his opponents and imprisoning others. At a point in time, it became clear beyond speculations in the vocal independent media that Abacha was indeed sick mentally and physically. The debilitating illness soon took a toll on him as he dug in. He was emaciating fast and his lips were broken up. He wore dark goggles to cover up his sunken eyes.

After his celebrated demise (caused more by eating the last poisoned apple delivered to his mouth by an imported Indian prostitute than the disease that reduced his capacity to rule the charged nation post-June 12 presidential imbroglios) entered Olusegun Obasanjo. 'Baba' was never known to be suffering from any malady. As a traditional African man, OBJ used 'agbo' and other herbal concoctions to keep himself fit. When the Balogun of Owu kingdom withdrew from the stage reluctantly after the failed third term bid he 'coronated' the late Umaru Yar'Adua President against a groundswell of opinion that held that the former Katsina state Governor was not in the best of health. Obasanjo ignored everyone including the damning reports from doctors and security agents. Just a few years in the saddle Yar'Adua, a good man indeed was brought down and taken out of Aso Rock Villa by Churg-Strauss syndrome! As he died his wife, Turai, and other northern political cabal tried to consolidate power but failed. Goodluck Jonathan, his then Deputy, was promoted to the presidency after some stiff resistance from the loyalists of the deceased leader.

GEJ was in sound health (he was eating fish pepper-soup and cassava bread after all) but his obtrusive wife, Dame Patience Faka Jonathan, regaled the nation with stories of how she had "died" time after time in German hospitals! However, as soon as her husband was defeated in the presidential election of 2015, according to her, she surprisingly became hale and hearty again! What was troubling her that necessitated surgical interventions overseas suddenly disappeared. The questions then arise: was she a victim of sorcery or simply the weaker presidential link that received the spiritual attacks directed at GEJ? Or perhaps her connubial rivals or enemies were at work to bring about another Stella Obasanjo tragedy? Jonathan was rightly or wrongly perceived, up north, to have usurped the slot of the north in our fiercely disputed presidential allotment.

When GEJ was killed politically by the APC organized national political machinery put in place by Asiwaju Tinubu, Buhari's desperate ambition of a second coming through balloting was made manifest. Since taking power at the center PMB has confessed that he would have preferred coming onto the stage earlier than now given his advanced age. He has had cause to seek medical attention abroad (London to be precise) ignoring the well-equipped Aso Rock Clinic reputed to be the best hospital in Nigeria. For more than one month running the President is still domiciled in the British capital city awaiting "tests" results or recuperating from a surgical intervention if speculations online are to be believed. He has told us to give him some more time to "rest".

The country in the prolonged absence of PMB seems to be in good hands as the Acting President Osinbajo brings his presidential methods and tactics to bear on our national affairs. According to some online reports, the President is suffering from "prostate-related ailment" as well as "Crohn's disease". These ailments made it practically impossible for the President to feed himself normally emaciating and losing weight as a result. But it does not constitute a deadly infirmity like cancer. It is treatable and the UK doctors in their professionalism are doing the needful to medically correct whatever is wrong with the President's organic system.

Some vocal critics, however, are calling on PMB to resign forthwith to be able to have enough time to attend to his fragile health. And others alike, even less charitable, are comparing his stewardship with that of the Acting President. The truth is that as long as what ails the President is not life-threatening there is no need, then, for him to relinquish power. Nigeria and Nigerians still need him around to make the promised 'change' possible. We need the Daura-born strong man around to provide strong leadership in the war against corruption and Boko Haram insurgency. We need him in Abuja to oversee the economic recovery and the stabilization of the volatile system. Comparing his leadership style with that of Osinbajo or saying that the latter is a better President is disingenuous and divisive. It is a distraction the nation does not need at this critical time in our march towards greatness.

Prof. Yemi Osinbajo in his current acting presidential capacity is an orderly constitutional continuation of the Buhari administration. Without Buhari Osinbajo would not have happened! Whilst it is true that both of them were elected together in accordance with our presidential system of government Buhari remains the number one citizen even in far away London.

We beseech Allah to help us to avoid the Katsina syndrome! With the passage of Yar'Adua still fresh in our collective memory it would be a national tragedy to witness yet another presidential drama in the Villa. To the extent that the core democratic ideal is not compromised we remain Buharists (given the man's moral pedigree). But we must, as a matter of principle, raise our voice of reason whenever or wherever any wrong occurs or abuse of power happens. We have nothing against anyone -- we are just democrats and patriots defending the higher interest of our nation.

SOC Okenwa


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