Now that the President is Back

So finally, our president is back! We thank God for that. While it lasted, though, his absence was handled in a very messy and unprofessional manner. In fact, it sounded like the kind of gist you could only hear in a palm wine joint. The government just seems to have a knack for complicating simple things. The fact that they could not tell Nigerians the truth about the state of health of the president not only showed the disdain they have for Nigerians, but also showed the pettiness of their moral makeup.

Firstly, the presidential band of media misfits kept telling us that the president was fit. They hammered so much on how hale and hearty the president was that it started to seem like “hale and hearty” was a new type of sickness. How do you explain someone who is receiving treatment, and is “hale and hearty” at the same time? Nigeria has become a story of such enormous contradictions that it is no longer funny. What exactly is it about truth that governments in Nigeria are so much afraid of? Because sometimes, one cannot really point to any benefit that the government would derive from lying, but they’d still go ahead and lie anyway. Such government allergy to truth is disturbing.

When President Buhari returned back to Abuja, he described his experience while in London, and this is what he had to say:

“I couldn’t recall being so sick since I was a young man, including the military with its ups and downs. I couldn’t recall when last I had blood transfusion, I couldn’t recall honestly. I can say in seventy years, I couldn’t remember this drug that Nigerians take so much, very common.”

Which begs the question, why were they lying then? Why did they keep telling us that he was hale and hearty, and was only resting? Even Femi Adesina, a media aide to the president, claimed that he had a phone conversation with the president, and the president referred to those fussing over his health as “mischievous.” Ironically, at every opportunity, they asked Nigerians to pray for the president. How do you pray for a resting man? The picture they painted of the president, inadvertently, was that of a man who had run away from his duty post. Even those who went on pilgrimages to London to see him, came back, and with a straight face, lied! These are leaders who should show better examples. How much lower than that can a nation fall? Those who played a role in the lying scheme should hide their heads in shame.

Secondly, it was reported that the president hinted that he might soon return to London for further treatment. Which has caused some people to ask why he came back in the first place. Some have even alleged that the president came back so as to beat the provisions of the constitution. Whether that is true or not, one thing that this whole “hale and hearty” episode has taught us is that we have a constitution that is faulty, and something needs to be urgently done about it.

The constitution is silent on how long the president can be away from Nigeria, on any grounds. It means that President Buhari did not break any law by being away for almost two months. However, being “lawful” and being “right”are not the same thing. It is not right for the president to be away for so long, and at the same time be lying to Nigerians about the reason for his absence. The President is the moral embodiment of the nation, and should therefore be, or seen to be aboveboard. The President must not be seen to be taking advantage of the laxity in the constitution. In fact, he must avoid making such an impression. If the President did not sanction the lying campaign put up in his defense while he was away, then those who masterminded it should be punished, and publicly too.

After the Yar’Adua experience, one would have expected the National Assembly to amend the constitution to forestall a re-occurrence. The constitution should state how long a president can be away. And while away, information about his activities should be readily available to Nigerians. Lack of information leads to uncertainty, and uncertainty is not healthy for the country. Development goes hand in hand with government accountability, and there cannot be accountability without government openness. In successful democracies citizens regard transparency, openness, knowing what government is doing, as an essential part of government accountability. Citizens regard these as rights, not favours conferred by the government.

We cannot leave this issue of openness to the discretion of the President; it should be stated clearly in the constitution. Else, some unelected people would be running “the show” in the name of the President. While the President was in London, he did not speak, even for once, to Nigerians, yet every day, we were told that the President “said this” or “said that.” He even sent a letter to the National Assembly extending his vacation. How are we sure that the President did all that?

Imagine a scenario where our President is held outside the country against his will. How are we going to know? President Buhari, on his return, described the sickness as the worst he has ever suffered in his life (We still don’t even know the name of the sickness!). If something had happened to him, how would we have known? Government secrecy in this case can undermine our national security.

Furthermore, the constitution has too many glaring ambiguities that need to be fixed.For example, Section 144 of the 1999 Constitution is the part that talks about the removal of a President on account of ill health. It says that the Senate President shall constitute a medical panel that shall carry out a medical examination on the President. Then in Section 144(4), it defines those who shall be members of the panel:

“(a) one of whom shall be the personal physician of the holder of the office concerned;”

The problem with this paragraph is that the personal physicians of most of our politicians are not Nigerians. Our politicians get their medical treatment abroad, and are consequently treated by foreigners. One of the reasons offered in defense of President Buhari’s medical tourism abroad was that he had been using the services of the said London hospital even before he became president, and that his medical files were over there (as if files cannot be transferred!). So it is safe to conclude that his personal physician is not a Nigerian. In the event that a medical panel is set up, would such a physician qualify to be in it?

As if paragraph (a) of Section 144(4) is not ambiguous enough, the constitution, in what can be described as constitutional mystification, goes even further in paragraph (b).

(b) four other medical practitioners who have, in the opinion of the President of the Senate, attained a high degree of eminence in the field of medicine relative to the nature of the examination to be conducted in accordance with the foregoing provisions.

Please, what does that mean? Which medical qualification is called “high degree of eminence in the field of medicine?” How much more ambiguous can it get? Due to the interesting nature of our country, and the type of frosty environment in which such a panel would be setup, how are we going to ever agree on what “high degree of eminence in the field of medicine” means?

Nigerians still argue over government performance, simple issues which should ordinarily be visible to all. Due to our level of development, or “un-development,” it should be very easy to judge whether a government is performing well or not. It’s either they built a road, or they did not; either they built a school, or they did not; either they built a hospital, or they did not. Aside from economic policies and plans, Nigerians judge government performance based on the development of infrastructure, yet Nigerians still don’t agree on such assessments. It is not uncommon to hear statements like, “Oh, the government is working. It’s only haters who can’t see all the good work.” Which means,right now, most Nigerians have eye problems, because they don’t seem to be able to see all the “good work.” Like I said, it’s either they built a road, or they didn’t; either electricity supply has improved, or it has gone worse. It’s that simple!Yet Nigerians complicate it. So how do you expect Nigerians to agree on the definition of “high degree of eminence in the field of medicine?”

The thorniest part, however, is basing that definition on “the opinion of the President of the Senate” Seriously? What were the framers of the constitution thinking? How could they put the definition of such a critical and befuddling definition in the hands of just one man? What if the Senate President decides to abuse such powers? What if the Senate President is also interested in becoming Commander-in-Chief? If the Senate President were a saint sent down from heaven, there would be no problem at all. Or, if we were in a saner clime, maybe we could expect disinterestedness. But then, there is nothing sane about Nigeria, and the Senate President is no saint sent down from heaven, but a politician. And we know that in Nigeria,our politicians are not even normal people. Normal people care about integrity!

Given our peculiar situation in Nigeria, the constitution should spell out, explicitly, the qualifications of those who are to be members of such an important panel. The composition of that panel is so important that the stability of this country might rest upon it. It is imperative that such sections, and several other ambiguous sections, of the constitution be amended accordingly now to forestall future chaos. The constitution should be clear on what it means.

I understand that the constitution we have was hurriedly put together by some soldiers. But after transiting to democracy, it is irrational for us to continue using that archaic document as it is. We need a constitution that can deal with the reality on ground, not a document with such massive loopholes that you can literally pass an elephant through it.

You might think that the constitution is not a problem because the person taking advantage of it is from your political party, religion, or ethnic group. But don’t forget that what goes around comes around. It might be sweet when “your” person is doing it, but it is bitter, excruciatingly bitter, when “the other” person is doing it.

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