An article titled The Spiritual Side of Aso Villa by former Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Reuben Abati, was published nationwide on October 14, 2016. In his opinion, Abati stated that in addition to what that the ordinary eye could see, Nigerians are governed by malevolent forces.
The Danger of a Single Story
In 2009 the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a famous TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” It was about what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative; such as explaining away politics in a multiethnic, multi-religious developing country like Nigeria as witchcraft. When we hear the same story over and over again, it becomes the only story we ever believe. All of us, men, women, children, old, young, educated, illiterate, rich and poor are impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a single story. Therefore, I shall attempt to approach this rejoinder by showing that there may be alternative explanations for the strange things that are going on in Aso Villa and that sticking to the single story of witchcraft only feeds into a tendency that many Nigerians have for explaining difficult questions through a supernatural prism.
Why are Nigerians dying?
In his article, Abati makes reference to the frequent cases of deaths among high office holders and members of their families. For instance, while in office, the president under whom Abati served lost a dear uncle. Meanwhile, his wife was severally hospitalized abroad. Also, his predecessor died in office after a protracted illness, while the predecessor of that one sadly lost his wife too.
On the surface, this political history appears to corroborate the assertion that there are unexplained forces at play in the corridors of power. However, when examined more critically, the frequent cases of death in high places are in keeping with the general experience of the non-political Nigerian public. It is on record that Nigeria has one of the world’s highest mortality rates. The mortality rate, or death rate, is a measure of the number of deaths in a particular population per unit of time. Another useful indicator is a statistical measure of the average time a person is expected to live, based on the year of their birth and their sex. This is called the life expectancy, and Nigeria has one of the lowest rates of life expectancy in the world.
Mortality rates and life expectancy are also used when comparing nations, as indicators of human development. For instance, in Nigeria, the mortality rate is 13 per 1000 people, compared with 9 in Ghana, 8 in the Netherlands, and 7 in China. Likewise, the total life expectancy in Nigeria is 53 years, compared with 61 in Ghana, in 76 in China and 81 in the Netherlands.
In Nigeria, the commonest causes of death are Malaria (20% of all deaths), bleeding during pregnancy or labor, asphyxiation during childbirth, being an infant, having cardiovascular diseases such as stroke, and road-traffic accidents. Right now there is a famine in the North-East, as well as an epidemic of polio. Nigeria is only one of three countries on earth where polio remains out of control. However, all of these causes of death are preventable with good health systems.
Lifestyles of the rich and famous
The combination of unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyles and lack of active exercise by many Nigerians, causes certain medical conditions known as diseases of lifestyle. These include heart, liver and kidney diseases. Among the elite, having a round figure or big belly is considered to be evidence of good living. Whereas, the truth is that accumulation of fat around the waistline, otherwise known as truncal obesity, is a proven precursor to heart attacks and the onset of deadly liver diseases.
Leisure malls are springing up in our major cities. On the one hand, this is an indicator of a growing middle class- but getting richer also means there is an epidemiological transition from predominantly infectious diseases like malaria to chronic diseases like atherosclerosis, diabetes, and cancer. What do Nigerians consider to be good food? Middle-class Nigerian diets are often high in salt, saturated fatty acids and red meat. Besides, who has ever seen a vegan or vegetarian restaurant in Nigeria?
Last year, it was reported that Nigerians are the second highest consumers of Champagne in the world after France. Wines and spirits contain alcohol, which is a proven precursor of liver damage. I should know about liver disease - my grandfather, who died before I was born, was described as being yellow in the eyes and skin. This yellowness is called jaundice and is a major feature of the liver disease. While rich Nigerians buy expensive bottles of imported Gin & Whisky, poor people can only afford the less refined and more toxic versions, such as the local Burukutu. If they should die suddenly, their deaths are likely to be attributed to supernatural causes, and not a chronic liver disease.
What about active exercise? If a Nigerian is seen jogging along the street, it is assumed he or she is elite. A gym membership in Nigeria is considered an elite privilege, which the man on the street cannot afford. Meanwhile, fully equipped gyms are the norm on every street in Europe, just like churches are common on every street in Nigeria. Our sedentary lifestyles also mean we value air conditioned homes, offices, and cars, plus servile lower class staff who carry our bags and fetch everything for us. This is especially true of the people who can be found in the corridors of power. Therefore, if a study were to be conducted on risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, it would probably result in a higher cohort of people at risk of sudden death within Aso Villa than on the streets of Ajegunle or Sabon Gari.
The state of Nigeria’s infrastructure
Every year, an estimated 335,000 Nigerian children die of water-borne diseases. The most common waterborne diseases in Nigeria include Cholera, Guinea Worm, Hepatitis, and Typhoid. All of these are caused by contaminated water, and by extension, lack of hygiene. In Nigeria, one cannot drink water from the tap unless you boil it. Yet, clean water is something people in other countries take for granted.
Living in Nigeria can be very stressful. The stress of our jobs, the noise of car horns and megaphones, the smoke from vehicle and generator exhaust pipes, and the stress of long hours in traffic only to come home to houses without electricity, raises the levels of a hormone called Cortisol. This hormone is essential for fighting stress. However, raised levels of stress-induced cortisol are also responsible for speeding up the process of aging and chronic diseases.
Stress is a known causative factor for repressed sexual function. Middle-aged to elderly high-level businessmen or politicians, who work in a "pressure cooker" environment and have sleepless nights, are at higher risk of erectile dysfunction. This is because the autonomic nervous pathways to having an erection are also actively involved in the human stress response. Therefore, sexual symptoms are also likely to improve once the affected person withdraws from the stress-inducing environment.
How about road accidents and plane crashes? Nigeria actually dedicates surgical wards in major hospitals to the care of people who suffer from injuries caused by commercial motorcyclists known as Okada, such as the Okada Ward in the National Orthopedic Hospital in Igbobi, Lagos. The odds are that convoys of top politicians are more likely to behave lawlessly and drive recklessly. Other road users are expected to get out of the way at the sound of a siren, with whip-wielding gunmen hanging out of the windows and sides of over-speeding government vehicles. According to the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), ten thousand and fifty Nigerians die every year in road accidents, not counting hundreds of victims who are severely injured or permanent disabled during such road accidents. Statistically, there are 27 deaths caused by road traffic accidents every day in Nigeria. According to the FRSC, 50% of road crashes in Nigeria are due to over speeding. The rest are due to poorly maintained roads and poor vehicle maintenance. When you couple this with the lack of emergency facilities needed to urgently transport and resuscitate accident victims, and the obstructive bureaucracy and helplessness encountered at the emergency units of most hospitals, Nigeria alone has about ten percent of all deaths due to road traffic accidents in the world.
We also have airplanes and helicopters crashing regularly in a country where, for instance, public officials are currently on trial for diverting public funds into their personal bank accounts. It should be a no-brainer. Special landing approaches into the high-velocity wind, slippery runways or mountains require additional training with expensive flight simulators, such as those used by pilots approaching Schiphol airport in the Netherlands. It’s a no-brainer: air safety comes at a cost, but that’s not where Nigeria’s money is going.
What about sudden fire incidents in houses when the building materials we use in Nigeria do not meet global fire-safety standards? Or we cannot guarantee the quality of the electrical wiring installed in our homes? Or avoid circuit overload and power surges due to appliance overload or generator usage? Did you know that the metal barricades that are normally built into Nigerian homes to keep thieves out are an obstruction to fire safety during emergencies?
The Conclusion of the Matter
The human mind is designed to construct evidence for whatever it believes. So if you believe witchcraft is the answer, you will most likely find evidence to support it. If the Nigerian president has made one mistake after another while in Aso Villa, it would be uncharitable to conclude that these mistakes are all due to witches without critical thinking. First of all, a president needs to have powerful ideas. Secondly, he needs to be surrounded by highly reasonable advisers. On the contrary, there are myriad self-interested political elite surrounding the Nigerian President and restraining every possible good deed. If the president’s ideas are scuttled by widespread corrupt practices, a substandard cabinet, a hostile political environment, and poor quality of ideas, these can seem like evidence of dark forces at play. However, the truth is that the president who will rule Nigeria successfully needs tremendous courage and fresh insight to change the way our political system works.
Moving forward, Nigeria needs leaders who point us forward with ideas, rather than backward with superstition. Only last week, American president Barack Obama gave a scientific interview to Wired, a leading journal of science and technology. In that edition, Obama discusses the future of technology, the use of artificial intelligence and how to land a man on Mars. Also, the current American first lady has a diet and exercise campaign called "Let's Move". She plants a vegetable garden in the White House, advocates for less junk food, more exercise and meets with CEOs of food companies to lobby for healthier ingredients, because treating obesity-related conditions costs the U.S. 190 billion dollars every year.
That is why one of Abati’s ideas which I am in favor of, is converting Aso Villa into a museum, but not for witchcraft. The reason is that Nigeria is a lower middle-income country where 70.8 per cent of the population, or 120 million people, live on less than one dollar a day. Therefore, it makes no sense for our political elite to insulate themselves from reality by luxuriating in opulent lifestyles. The deep insight and moral courage that is required to reform Nigeria is waiting to be harnessed, but first we must let go of uncritical thinking and unequal lifestyles for the rich and famous.
Ayo Adene is a medical doctor and public health expert who writes from the Netherlands.