By Richard Uku
I opened my eyes this Sunday morning, and die hard news junkie that I am, I reached for my phone to see what the international news headlines were. That is, of course, after offering up a silent, thankful prayer for waking up alive. It’s just one of those things I no longer take for granted, especially after losing a loved one in his sleep three years ago.
Anyway, as I opened up Twitter, the first tweet that greeted me was one from Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa, a former member of Nigeria’s Federal House of Representatives and former Chair of the House Committee on Media and Publicity. It read: “Glad to see PMB in very high spirits. And full of his usual humour.” Below it was a photo of a beaming and jovial President Muhammadu Buhari in the garden of the West London residence where he has been staying during his months of medical treatment, and now recuperation, from an undisclosed illness.
My sincere hope is that the Nigerian president recuperates fully. I do, however, find two things disturbing. The first is that the Nigerian public continues to be kept in the dark about the nature of their president’s illness. This is after he has spent several months abroad for it at their expense.
President Patrice Talon of neighbouring Benin Republic underwent two operations in France in June. On his return to Cotonou, he explained publicly that he’d had a prostate related operation, as well as a follow-up one to deal with complications ensuing from the first. He treated Benin’s citizens with the respect that they deserved by being forthcoming about his health. President Talon’s action is exemplary, and there is a lot that other African leaders and their communications handlers can learn from it.
In the United States, veteran Senator John McCain from the state of Arizona told Americans that he was receiving treatment for a brain tumour. Again, this is the behaviour that is expected of public officials. When one rises to such high office, one is no longer a private citizen, and full disclosure of one’s health is as normal as full disclosure of one’s assets. It’s called accountability. Nigeria has not seen this from their president on the health side.
So, as if this weren’t bad enough, the second thing that I find disturbing is the continued release by President Buhari’s communications and media team of photographs of him receiving one set of Nigerian officials after the next in London. A while ago, it was party officials and senior government functionaries. Yesterday, it was a beaming President surrounded by his communications and media team, including Information Minister Lai Mohammed and Senior Special Assistant for Media & Publicity Garba Shehu.
One of the many photographs making the rounds on Twitter is one of the officials flanking President Buhari as he reads a giant sized get-well-soon card. I responded to Mr Shehu’s tweet last night, asking him if he thought this was the best PR strategy, wondering out loud in my tweet how this sat with Nigerians. It was a rhetorical question, of course, in light of the demonstrations in Nigeria by protestors calling on Mr Buhari to either return home or step down from office if he is too ill to continue. But that question is not my issue here.
When I saw Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa’s tweet this morning, I thought: “No! Can we please rein it in for goodness sake!” That’s when I felt compelled to say something in more than a 140-character tweet. And here we are. It’s one thing to see full page newspaper ads taken out by individuals and corporations in Nigeria, conveying felicitations to their leaders on birthdays and religious holidays. Personally, I’ve always found this sycophant-like practice absurd. But it’s another thing to see the sycophancy played out internationally on social media. How does the world see Nigeria when its officials travel to London and photograph themselves presenting a get well card to their president? What do British officials mutter in Whitehall or behind that shiny black door at Number 10? In the eyes of the world, this can’t look good.
What is, of course, ultimately glaring in all of this is that after 57 years as an independent nation, Nigeria apparently still has not made the investment that is required in its health facilities at home. Had it done so, it would not be necessary for its head of state to require prolonged medical treatment abroad in the course of multiple visits. Developing countries like Cuba and Tunisia are known for the investments they have made in health. This is why medical tourism thrives in both countries despite the development challenges that they grapple with in other areas.
There is no reason why a nation with such vast wealth cannot do better. Last year, President John Magufuli of Tanzania was pictured visiting his wife on admission in a local hospital in Dar es Salaam. He and Mrs Magufuli had both agreed that her hospitalisation and treatment would be in Tanzania rather than her being flown to a medical facility in South Africa. It was vintage John Magufuli.
So in summary, our leaders must give careful thought to what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour when they assume public office. They should realise that the privacy they enjoy as ordinary citizens is something they must sacrifice when they assume the reins of leadership of a nation. Nigerians deserve to know more about Mr Buhari’s health situation. And please, let nobody tell me that this is a cultural thing; that in Africa, we do not do this; that our health details are private. At the risk of flogging a dead horse, it is not. I have already provided one good example that illustrates this.
Secondly, communications handlers may want to think more strategically about the ramifications of tactics they use to convey information to the public. This includes advising their principals to be forthright with the electorate, and for them, the communications handlers, in turn to be straight and honest in information dissemination. They should also always bear in mind that a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Thirdly, it is time for government to put every effort possible into improving health facilities in the country – for the benefit of all Nigerians, especially those who cannot afford to travel abroad for medical treatment, but are confined to making do with what the system makes available to them.
I earnestly hope that President Buhari will soon return to excellent health and be able to leave Abuja House in London for his Aso Rock residence in Abuja.
Richard Uku (@richard_uku) is an independent strategic communications consultant.