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MEDICAL VACATION: A POSTCRIPT
By Ayo Olukotun
"The jubilant crowd across the Northern states of the country (welcoming Buhari back to Nigeria) is indicative of the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari still enjoys a cult like following irrespective of what cynics and critics would have us believe". - New Telegraph Columnist, Kassim Afegbua, March 14, 2017.
Though tentative, even by his own admission as well as hints he might travel back for follow-up medical checks, the resumption of President Muhammadu Buhari for work on Monday, closes a troubling and dramatic chapter in our political history. Newspaper Columnist, Kassim Afegbua, quoted above relives for his readers, the electrifying moments and boisterous celebrations that attended Buhari's return in several parts of Northern Nigeria.
Less overtly in other parts of the country, the expressions ranged from relief through disbelief, to grunts of satisfaction, that the nation's travails and being kept in the dark had come to an abrupt end. Of course, not everyone was joyful. Politicians waiting in the wings to step into the lengthening vacuum, fat cats reeling from the heat of the anti-corruption war, and others, plainly un-approving of an underachieving government received the news understandably with far less excitement.
Such things are not peculiar to Nigeria. Across the globe, as students of politics know too well, mortality and incapacity due to ill health are considered resources for achieving political ends. For example, during the recent American presidential campaign, supporters of President Donald Trump, made much of bout of ill-health and prescribed medical incarcerations, suffered by his formidable opponent, Hillary Clinton.
More importantly, Buhari's ordeal and the nation's may be over, at least in the meantime but the memories and questions linger. Professor Niyi Akinnaso, in a seminal intervention (Welcome Back, Mr President in the Punch, March 14, 2017) observed, for example that the President's frail looks may raise further speculations about his state of health and increase support for those advocating a health probe. He also alluded to the contradiction between the attempt to cover up Buhari's health status and the President's own frank admission that he had never been this sick and that he underwent blood transfusion.
In view of the credibility gap created by this contradiction, it is interesting to dwell on the issue for a while, if only because it throws up further questions about those who find themselves in the pavements and interstices of power. If these officials who insisted that the President was hale and hearty knew that he endured what was possibly a major surgery, did they deliberately choose to mislead the nation? If they were unaware of the severity of Buhari's medical condition, will silence, rather than double-speak or duplicitous downplay not have been golden? Did they expect that the nation will continue to believe them on other issues once they have been so blatantly disproved by the person they were apparently shielding from public knowledge?
There also is the issue of the quality of advice offered to the President. A senior journalist once told the story concerning the relationship between a state governor and one of his key advisers. The governor had shared with his adviser a policy proposal he was contemplating. He then asked the adviser, "what do you think about it"? Almost unreflectively, the adviser replied that the governor should waste no time in implementing it. A few days later, the governor called the adviser and told him that he had a rethink of that policy and stated the reasons for his evolving position. Without hesitation, the adviser concurred with the governor and gave several reasons why the rethink was justified. Finally, the very next day, the governor told the adviser that he was now considering returning to his initial position on the issues, again stating reasons. As before, the adviser nodded approvingly, agreeing a hundred percent with the governor. At that point, the governor fired him on the ground that he was merely second-guessing him and playing Man Friday, rather than advising him.
The moral of the anecdote is clear. Those appointed to public office go out of their ways, to please and defend their principals, rather than seek to make input into their thinking or refine it. This leads to the anomalous situation where, as in the case here, a cabal around the President insisted nothing was wrong with him while the President subsequently told the nation that he had a blood transfusion and may yet go, presumably soon, for another round of medical vacation. The time should come when there will be genuine feedback and conversation between principals in government and those that they have appointed to advise them, if only, to reduce the credibility gap between the government and the governed.
Regarding the future, all scenarios are tentative to the extent that it would be a leap of faith to expect a recuperating and in effect lame-duck president to perform wonders. As one scholar once observed, it was in itself an irony that Nigerians returned to a man in his mid seventies for change. Buhari himself must sometimes be amused at the barrage of admonitions, policy advice and urgent appeals addressed to him, considering his age and state of health. But some of the cards are now in the open as the President, in partial deference to the widely acknowledged, recent energetic performance of the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osibajo, had remarked that Osibajo will continue to perform many of the duties of government.
It is not the best of circumstances, but the nation, having made that choice at a previous election, will have to wobble through, as best as we can. To redeem the change agenda, the platform on which they auspiciously rode to power, the Buhari/Osinbajo duo should now make it a priority, as several commentators have suggested, to infuse a new tempo and dynamism into governance by, at the very least, re-jigging the cabinet. There is no reason why several laid-back ministers, some them obviously out of their depths should not be eased out for reasons of exhaustion and non-performance. Also, since no appointee of government can run faster than the helmsmen, Buhari's return should be taken as an opportunity to firm up policy loose ends and put an end to guessing games as governance.
To give an example, Dr. Ayo Teriba, a respected economic analyst when asked on Channels Television recently his views about the government's Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, remarked that it is a relief that government at least now has a plan. That is another way of saying it had governed all this while without a clear blueprint and more or less made policy on the run.
Pulling the country out of recession requires the kind of qualitative planning and thinking that has gone into the economic recovery plan. Beyond that, the government should consider tackling with fresh energy neglected social sectors such as education, health and infrastructure. These areas directly impinge on the quality of life and survival chances of Nigerians and we should do the most to ease their woes. At a minimum, the nation should live down the travails of the president's infirmity and the nation's by seizing strategic opportunities for advancing the change agenda which has fallen on hard times.