Some good has come from the hoopla over the president’s health: the Constitution is working
It was a private angst. But it turned a constitutional joy. That is the long and short of the presidential health concern that, for seven weeks, crested the media waves.
On January 19, President Muhammadu Buhari jetted out to London, the United Kingdom, for a 10-day vacation, with a caveat that he would undergo routine medical checks.
Those 10 days would drag on to 51 days, culminating in his return on March 10, when he touched down at the Kaduna International Airport, en route to being choppered to Aso Rock, due to repair works on the runways of the NnamdiAzikiwe International Airport, Abuja.
Within those 51 days, the media, traditional and new, went berserk with stories — many, within the constitutional right of the people to know and the media’s ingrained legal right to ask. But so many also baited the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theories: in reckless and malevolent commentaries; wild rumours and thundering, foul-tempered busybodies.
That, of course, sent the presidential media infrastructure into a tizzy. What started as a routine 10-day presidential vacation, morphed into open-ended uncertainty and finally partial admission that the president might indeed have some health challenge, though no one, not even Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, then the Acting President, was willing to disclose the exact details. All he volunteered was that the president was “hale and hearty,” but added the caveat: only the president himself, when he came back, could disclose the state of his health.
In the hubbub, the cliche “hale and hearty” developed different meanings — to presidential officials, under severe media pressure, just something to fob off the inquisitorial and adversarial press. But to the opposing side, “hale and hearty” became the hallmark of official bad faith.
Asked for some medical bulletin on the president’s health, information and culture minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, declared that was unnecessary, since the president was not hospitalised; and only such a situation demanded a bulletin. As far as he knew, the president was home in the UK, “hale and hearty” but resting.
But in the midst of this storm, something constitutionally beautiful was unfurling. To start with, the president, as demanded by law, ceded power to the vice president, while away. That much was communicated to the National Assembly. Even the extension of the president’s stay, reportedly following his doctors’ counsel, was promptly transmitted to the National Assembly, and the vice president accordingly advised to continue as Acting President. So, at no time, during the seven weeks of intense excitement, was there a vacuum in government.
That is a lofty development, when compared with the health crisis of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, when some cabal-in-government not only deadpanned on the president’s whereabouts, but also blocked the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan from acting as president, in the absence and clear incapacitation of his principal.
Still, that crisis built the present balance under President Buhari. The National Assembly not only invoked the “doctrine of necessity,” a legal deus ex machina, to make Dr. Jonathan acting president, it also amended the law to ensure that the vice president or the deputy governor automatically takes over, 21 days after the departure of the president or governor, who did not formally hand over power.
It is good, therefore, that the 1999 Constitution, as amended, is working. But that is a function of the past crisis under President Yar’Adua, which was eventually sorted out. That means the constitution is deepening, though that itself stems from the mutual trust between the president and the vice president. That is how it should be.
Still, not a few were enraged that the president did not come clean with his health status. That was unfortunate, for such openness would have been the ideal, as in Western democracies that Nigeria uses as models. Still, that would have been a long shot. There is an ingrained secrecy here on health matters that it is almost akin to asking for the impossible, expecting the president to act otherwise. Still, in the long run, culture-change permitting, openness is always the best policy on such matters.
It is nice the president is back. It is even nicer that he touched on his health odyssey, though many expected more details. Nicer still, is the president’s golden counsel against self-medication, and craving for a world class medical service on Nigerian soil. That should be a mission he should charge himself and his administration, for if the truth must be told, there is something eerie about Nigeria’s president holing up in another country for almost two months, seeking medical salvation.
But now that the president is back, he should take it easy and slow, delegate more and make maximum use of his aides and staff, until he fully regains his health. Welcome back, Mr. President.