Nigerians Deserve to Know What Ails President Buhari, By Stan Chu Ilo
… Mr. President, before you prepare for your next check up, make available to the nation your medical record. We are your family and your life is no longer yours but that of the nation. As you rightly pointed out in your inaugural speech in remarks borrowed from De Gaulle, you belong to no one but to all Nigerians.
We are all thanking God that our dear president has returned home after an extended medical leave. We pray that God will give him health of mind and body to fulfill his mission in life, both as an individual and as a public servant. President Buhari was reported to have said that he has never been this sick before in his life. He was also quoted to have said that he may need to return to London in a few weeks for follow up treatment. However, no one knows the nature of the president’s sickness. My argument here is that the president should be transparent with the nation about his medical condition. There are many reasons why Nigerians need to know the state of health of President Buhari.
To begin with, it is not a constitutional requirement that political office holders in Nigeria should publicly share their medical record. So the president is not breaking any rule by not sharing with the nation his health condition. When he took a similar medical leave last year, he revealed to the nation that he had an ear infection. Why the sudden silence this time around?
It serves the good of the nation and is in the interest of the public for citizens to know the state of health of those who serve them. This is particularly important at this point in time in our nation’s history because President Buhari’s health has significant impact on the health and stability of the nation, and how international investors and partners perceive the benefits and risks of any long term commitment to Nigeria.
The task facing the present Nigerian government has never been this massive. For the first time since the Nigerian-Biafran War, a significant portion of the Nigerian population is facing famine and starvation in North-Eastern Nigeria as a result of the devastating impact of the terrorist activities of Boko Haram.
Most Nigerians are suffering terribly because the economy is contracting at an alarming rate and there are no clear economic strategies to reboot the ailing national economy. To fight corruption, as the president affirms constantly, is not an economic or social policy; nor does it translate into any operational praxis for social engineering, economic recovery or healing the many rifts in our body politic.
There is a high rate of unemployment with over half of our young people in the job market; our hospitals and public services are still very poor, leading to huge flows of capital out from this nation, as citizens like Buhari and many others seek health interventions and social services outside Nigeria in the US, Canada, UK, Germany and India, among other places.
Our schools are still struggling and teachers across different levels of education are still the most poorly paid, lacking the tools they need to tap into the rich intellect, passion and hunger for knowledge of the nation’s young minds. Many Nigerian citizens are being treated with so much indignity and maligned, brutalised, killed and deported without anyone to protect their rights in many African countries — from Cameroun to Libya, and South Africa.
Many others are suffering on the fringes of life in the US, Germany, UK and Canada, and are often treated with suspicion at international borders because they carry the green passport. The task of healing the wounds in the nation and restoring the dignity of Nigerians abroad and meeting courageously the restiveness caused by perceived injustices in the land, requires a strong and healthy leader.
The challenge of developing the right economic and social policies and programmes to meet the needs of the times demands a president who has youth and energy, vision and character. Nigeria needs a vibrant president who has a strong intellect and can engage in rigorous analysis and search for workable solutions to persistent national problems. He or she should be filled with the freshness of new idea and have the cognitional prowess to convince the nation of the transcending rationality of those high values which can open new doors to unleash the latent potentials of the great men and women of these lands of Nigeria.
Buhari is the typical Nigerian man who generally does not openly discuss his health condition. This is one of the main causes of many sudden deaths in our country. Some political and religious leaders never discuss their health or communicate this to those who are under their leadership.
Nigerians deserve a president who is physically, emotionally and psychologically strong to meet the stress of managing the ship of state. We want a healthy president whose intellect and physical vigour is unencumbered by constant need for medical check-ups abroad and who has the strong ideational bandwidth that is compatible with modern ways of thinking, and which is wide enough to transmit a sense of purpose, direction and hope to the nation. We cannot go-slow with a baba go-slow president when a golden future is within the reach of our people, but slipping away under our nose.
There is another reason why Nigerians should know what ails their president. It will be a good example to many of our citizens of the need for us to be open about our health. There is a culture of secrecy about health in our country. This is a problem in Nigeria, as well as in some other parts of Africa.
When late Nigerian Health Minister, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti revealed the HIV status of his brother, the legendary Fela, many Nigerians were shocked because it was quite unusual, especially at a time when people were stigmatised for contracting that deadly disease. But he taught the nation a permanent lesson: you have nothing to lose by sharing your health condition with people. Fela will never lose who he was and his place in history because he died of AIDS!
This is a culture shift which needs to take place in our mindset. This is particularly so with regard to the uncharitable negative interpretation and judgment that we give to sickness, which often imposes a sense of guilt on sick people. This imposes a double jeopardy for those who are suffering from terminal sickness or infectious diseases. We cannot blame President Buhari for being sick or being old. Sickness has a way of humanising a person. This episode of vulnerability may move his heart to compassion to feel what most Nigerians are feeling in these challenging times and do something to lift us up.
Buhari is the typical Nigerian man who generally does not openly discuss his health condition. This is one of the main causes of many sudden deaths in our country. Some political and religious leaders never discuss their health or communicate this to those who are under their leadership. Medical trips abroad by our leaders are so frequent these days and very secretive as if being sick is a crime. No one knows what these trips are for and who is paying for them and why they choose one hospital abroad over another.
This is different from what one sees in many other societies where leaders are open and honest about their health. Such openness helps to improve the quality of health of the people and strengthens medical practice and healthcare delivery. Everyone knew that Pope Benedict had a pace-maker, that Pope Francis has one lung, etc. etc. But if any of our leaders — political or religious — has high blood pressure or diabetes it is a top secret. People still hide their HIV/AIDs status even to those who will help them or who might be hurt by them.
It is important that we understand that being sick is not a bad thing. I remember the first time I had a panic attack occasioned by a severe sinusitis as a student in Rome. I did not understand what was going on in me and thought that I was having a heart attack and about to die. I suffered so much in silence for two weeks until I opened up to a Congolese medical doctor who explained to me that sinusitis, stress and extreme anxiety were wearing me out and that I do have an allergy/inflammation. He recommended rest, relaxation, exercise and a nasal spray.
Opening up my wounds to him saved my life and I immediately made the necessary adjustments and in less than three days life returned to normal. If I did not open up to someone who helped me, I could have easily fallen into some of the common myths which hamper our health in Nigeria — maybe someone was after me; maybe God is punishing me; maybe I was under a spell or possessed, etc. etc.
We must learn that it is not a curse to be sick; it is not a shame to have HIV, diabetes, high bp, to be suicidal, to suffer from mental health challenges, or to be afflicted with a terminal sickness, etc. It is just in the nature of things and most of the sicknesses which afflict us are random, genetic, due to age or lifestyle related, etc.
When a person is sick and let’s people into what ails him or her, the entire community rallies together to help the person. This is because our African societies believe that when one person is sick we all share in the person’s sickness and the community participates in bringing about healing to the sick person…
Therefore, whatever the condition anyone finds themselves in, the more open you are to yourself, family and friends about your condition the more you free yourself from the added burden of fear that people may find out about your health condition. As the saying goes, ‘you are as sick as your secret.’ The added secrecy about our health condition is another layer of sickness which makes us doubly afflicted.
How many people bother to know what caused the death of a family member which could help them to take preventative action if it is a disease that runs in the family? When people die, it is not enough to say that ‘God has called them’, it is important to find out what caused their death. There is a saying that ‘if you do not know what killed your father, that thing might kill you as well.’
Health is one of those gifts which God gave us which we must keep and preserve; God cannot make you healthy without your co-operation. You must choose to take necessary steps every day to be healthy and to be open about your health. In this sense, preventative medicine is often encouraged over therapeutic intervention — prevention is better than cure as we say in Naija. President Buhari must lead by example and be open about his condition and help change the culture of secrecy about people’s health in Nigeria.
President Buhari says that he has never been this sick before. This made me wonder whether this sickness was giving him signs which he ignored. He did not suddenly become ill. Was he open with First Lady Aisha before now about some of the primary causes which all added up in knocking him down? Is he rushing back to work because he really loves the job and has been given a clean bill of health or is he simply wanting to give a semblance of being okay when he is dealing with some serious underlying health challenges?
Even in these circumstances, he needs to be open enough with his family and to the nation about the nature of his condition, so that Nigerians who are always understanding can determine what to expect from their president and how to accompany him in his journey to full recovery.
There is always a strong feeling of goodwill from our communities when they know what people are going through. Maybe the cure that the president is looking for in London could be found in Nigeria if he told Nigerians what he has. Maybe there are healers in Nigeria who could minister to him the healing miracle from God.
When a person is sick and let’s people into what ails him or her, the entire community rallies together to help the person. This is because our African societies believe that when one person is sick we all share in the person’s sickness and the community participates in bringing about healing to the sick person — through prayers, visits, etc. Healing is not simply the result of an individual taking medications or visiting the doctor.
So Mr. President, before you prepare for your next check up, make available to the nation your medical record. We are your family and your life is no longer yours but that of the nation. As you rightly pointed out in your inaugural speech in remarks borrowed from De Gaulle, you belong to no one but to all Nigerians.
Get well soon. Hopefully with your health restored, you can work tirelessly to get Nigeria out of this malaise which your effete and colourless leadership has brought upon the nation.
Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, a Public Voices Fellow, is a research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, Chicago, USA and the President of Canadian Samaritans for Africa.