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Patience Jonathan, Please Pay It Forward By Okey Ndibe

September 10, 2012

Last week, we all learned that First Lady, Patience Jonathan, was so sick she had been flown to a hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany. Apparently, the Presidency didn’t care for us to know that the president’s wife had taken ill. It took the snooping effort of the ever-enterprising to tell us.

Last week, we all learned that First Lady, Patience Jonathan, was so sick she had been flown to a hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany. Apparently, the Presidency didn’t care for us to know that the president’s wife had taken ill. It took the snooping effort of the ever-enterprising to tell us.

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You’d think, once the news was broken, that the Presidency would, at minimum, fess up. Instead, Mrs. Jonathan’s spokesman, Ayo Osinlu, went into spin mode. He reportedly told Daily Trust, a Nigerian newspaper, that the president’s wife was far from sick. She had merely traveled abroad, he said, “to take time off to rest.” According to Daily Trust, Mr. Osinlu argued that his boss deserved to rest after hosting the African First Ladies Summit in late July.

The spokesman’s spin was amateurish, effete, and an insult on the intelligence of Nigerians. One wonders when mouthpieces like Osinlu will learn that the landscape of information has changed, and changed radically and for good. In this (appropriately named) Information Age, it’s much harder – and often well-nigh impossible – to get away with feeding misleading information to the public.

The Osinlus of our world ought to be told that Nigerians are, on the whole, too informed to swallow cheap lies and patent fabrications. Many more Nigerians than ever have access to diverse forms of media. In particular, the evolution of social media has enabled reporters to gather and disseminate information through a variety of means.

Astute spokespersons recognize that the days are over when it was easy to fool most of the people most of the time. Nigerians know a lot more about the sleazy goings-on in the rooms and corridors of power. They know when their so-called leaders are up to no good; they are aware of the myriad ways public officials steal, as well as commit other forms of betrayal. If we’ve not quite managed to rouse ourselves to do what the Egyptian masses did to Mubarak, or Libyans to Muamar Gaddafi, it is not for lack of information.

Osinlu’s first misstep was to think he could bamboozle us about Mrs. Jonathan’s whereabouts – and about the reason she’d suddenly vanished from public view. He committed a worse booboo by claiming that the First Lady had traveled abroad to catch a rest.

I doubt that there is any address in Nigeria more luxurious than Aso Rock, the villa where the Nigerian president and his family reside. For that matter, it must be one of the swankiest addresses in Africa. Yet, Mr. Osinlu wanted us to believe that the villa is too chaotic a place for the president’s wife’s rest.

That’s bunkum. And it’s the kind of nonsense that exposes the deep inferiority complex of those who arrogate to themselves the charge of “moving Nigeria forward.” Here was a senior aide of the president’s wife telling the world that Nigeria is hell-on-earth, and that his boss must repair to some European city when she needs a respite.

The sad truth, of course, is that most of Nigeria is hellish. Most Nigerians, in cities as well as the countryside, are condemned to live in conditions that are often unfit even for animals. In these places, there is little or no electricity, the roads are washed up, the gutters overflow with brackish, flea-infested sewage, the air reeks of excreta, hospitals are non-existent or are bereft of even such rudimentary tools as syringes and bandage, and school children share their buildings with rodents, lizards, and cockroaches.

Even so, there are a few exceptions to this animal state. By most standards, Nigeria’s thirty-six governors live in splendor. Mammoth generators afford them regular power supply. The public pays for their elaborate meals and choice drinks. They have access to numerous official cars, with free drivers and fuel thrown in. If they, or their wives, have the slightest hint of a headache, why, they buy first class tickets to some European, Asian or North American nation for a medical check-up at first-rate, fully equipped hospitals. Their children are never sentenced to so-called Nigerian schools where any real learning is by accident. No, public funds belonging to hapless Nigerians are used to send the governors’ over-lucky children to the best private schools and universities in the world.

Nigeria’s state as well as federal legislators enjoy many of the privileges, even if not quite at the governors’ level. But if you happen to be the Nigerian president, then the perks are ramped up. The Nigerian presidency is, above all, a gourmandizing experience. To be the Nigerian president – or even the spouse or child of one – is to experience the marvel of spending a billion naira per year on your meals. And Nigerians (including the starving) pick up the damn tab!

That the same set of men and women most responsible for leaving Nigeria in its ghastly shape should get away with royal privileges is, to state it simply, anomalous. Nigerian “leaders” not only cause misery in their country; they also reap profit from their perfidy. As if their treachery were not enough provocation, they have the temerity to tell us that they must abscond to more organized societies in order to rest.

The effrontery is so galling that, sometimes, the response is to play up the ludicrousness of it. My friend Pius Adesanmi did just that when he joked on Facebook that he had a dream where the husband of the German chancellor and a serving British minister stole away to Nigeria “to rest, treat stress, and enjoy [Nigeria’s] excellent medical facilities – at the expense of the German and British taxpayers.”

Adesanmi frequently deploys inimitable wit and penetrating insight in dissecting the tragedy-in-progress that is Nigeria. His spoof of Osinlu’s inelegant attempt at deception is arresting for its ability to capture a people’s malaise with expressive economy.

I’m aware that many Nigerians are praying for Mrs. Jonathan’s full recovery. She has an opportunity – and a duty, quite frankly – to return the favor. But she need not go down on her knees to pray for suffering Nigerians. More than anybody else in Nigeria, she has the ears of her husband, our president. She would do well to whisper into those ears.

Nigeria’s First Lady ought to tell her husband that Nigerians are just as human as the members of the First Family. And that other Nigerians deserve something approaching the quality of care she received in Germany. At night, alone with her husband, she must share with him a few thoughts that crossed her mind as she recuperated in that German hospital. Here’s what I hope she realized during her stay in Germany.

One, that no amount of wealth can purchase immunity from sickness. Installed in a place like Aso Rock, it’s all too easy to forget one’s vulnerability and feebleness, one’s mortal ordinariness. Any Nigerian First Lady is surrounded by a coterie of men and women who hail her as “mummy.” The recipient of such adulation can easily develop a divine complex.  Two, that the extraordinary quality of Germany’s healthcare is a product of the German people’s vision, inventiveness and enterprise. With the right kind of leaders, such vision, inventiveness and enterprise can be stimulated in Nigerians – with similar fantastic results. Three, that Nigeria’s privileged few cannot justify being flown abroad to enjoy medical facilities that are not available to the vast majority of fellow citizens, equal stakeholders in Nigeria. Four, she needs to remind her once shoeless husband that he be driven, daily, by a desire to put shoes on the unshod feet of millions of Nigerians. And, five, that in the final reckoning, history will judge a leader, not by the size of his material accumulation in office, but by the transformative quality of his leadership.

I join those praying for Mrs. Jonathan’s full and speedy recovery. I also hope she won’t trifle with her duty to have a heart-to-heart with her husband – and as an advocate for millions of misfortunate Nigerians. She must nudge her husband to rise, as Chinua Achebe might say, to the challenge of leadership. She ought to counsel him to focus on what is truly important. She should entreat him to retreat from pursuing merely ephemeral gains and ultimately meaningless goals.

We should watch what lessons Mrs. Jonathan draws from this episode of ill health. Let’s hope she becomes a voice that constantly cajoles her husband to roll up his sleeves and go to work for all Nigerians, not the special, privileged interests whose company he keeps. That’s the way to repay those who beseeched heaven during her ailment. Let’s hope she won’t return to Abuja and wallow afresh in self-aggrandizement. That would be a terrible, sorry outcome.

Mrs. Jonathan, please pay forward the favor of our prayers. Amen!

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