Give it to inimitable MKO Abiola. Proverbs, by his transliteration of a Yoruba wit, provide the lubricant with which words are calibrated to achieve highest possible meaning. Wit is the horse on which words ride and vice versa. In one of his expansive moments, MKO would joke that one of his unfulfilled childhood dreams was to be a doctor. Why?
Rolling his eyes, he imagined the pleasure a male doctor daily derives from placing a stethoscope on the bosom of the opposite sex and commanding her to “breathe in, breathe out.” Now, with the latest bulletin from President Muhammadu Buhari’s sick bay in London, there is no prize for guessing the revision MKO would have made to his earlier thesis about the doctor’s awesome powers.
While receiving his media team in London at the weekend, the president was quoted as saying he believes he is now okay but will continue to stay back in deference to his doctor’s advice. With that, some might be tempted to assume that sovereignty has now technically slipped from the Nigerian electorate to some physician in another country which, incidentally, once colonized their nation. Well, among Nigerians, opinions will certainly be divided on compliance when a doctor imposes the sort of curfew or restriction PMB alluded to. Of course, it all depends on who or the interest involved.
In 1995, for instance, no doctor could confine Nduka Obaigbena’s passion to oversee THISDAY newspaper at its teething stage. Fearing the worst one morning after another grueling night supervising production, worried family members had to drag the Duke to the hospital following signs of extreme physical exhaustion. He was sedated and put on drip. Our shock could then be imagined when, few hours later, a determined Obaigbena reappeared at the Ribadu Road, Ikoyi office, looking groggy, but surprisingly clad in Agbada, seeking to find out how the production for the next day’s edition was turning out. The Agbada was to hide the drip on his left arm. That underlines perhaps the extreme level of commitment.
But jokes apart, coming on the heels of visits by APC hierarchs and selected governors, the latest pilgrimage to London led by Information Minister Lai Mohammed is what it is – a last-ditch attempt to convince a cynical Nigerian public and disprove this needling nag by political opponents that the show of recovery was only being stage-managed before a carefully selected audience at the Abuja House in London after the president’s odyssey entered the 95th day.
Worse, in a week that a group led by Charly Boy barricaded Abuja with a forceful message to the president, “Return or Resign”. Of course, having cumulatively spent abroad five out of seven months of the year thus far, the Nigerian president has now more or less become the butt of jokes in the international media. The rising tide of snide remarks, it would seem, is no longer lost on PMB himself going by a Freudian Slip he made while exchanging banters with Abike Dabiri-Erewa, his Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs. To her joke, “Welcome to my constituency”, the president testily replied in a one-minute video trending in the social media “I’m, but reluctantly”. That, in view, is very loaded indeed. Indeed, truth can be a pest. To some of those being haunted, the best way to survive is to seek to avoid it. Hence, the assortment of ingenious improvisations aimed at managing the truth.
It is precisely in this dim light that the latest in the series of shuttles to London by Buhari people should be viewed. But rather than repair the self-inflicted PR damage, the airing of the Saturday visit only appears to have complicated things. Matters were certainly not helped by the poor handling of protesters at home last week. Whereas the sparse “Return or Resign” crowd were mercilessly hounded and tear-gassed on Abuja street, those for Buhari – clearly bigger – were courteously treated and chaperoned by policemen on horseback and warmly received at Aso Rock by presidency officials who read prepared statement. (A report by Punch newspaper quoted some of the latter group confessing they were promised N2k after the “performance”.)
As earlier argued in this column, access to the principal is key for any media officer assigned the delicate duty of managing public communication/perception. A miniature of the media unit ought to be part of PMB’s entourage everywhere, moreso given the dire circumstance he has found himself in the last eight months requiring a clear-headed strategy to manage national curiosity. It is certainly most unhelpful if your image-makers have to rely on intermediaries to speak on your behalf.
Naturally taciturn and and reclusive by habit, Buhari is obviously a PR man’s ultimate nightmare. Ideally, the visitation of his media team should not become a subject of international celebration we have been treated to in the past few days. If anything, it inadvertently confirms the deficit in the communication strategy all along; that a gulf had existed between them.
Most pathetic is the retailing of a particular photograph in which a smiling PMB marches towards the camera in the garden, two steps ahead of aides clapping like physiotherapists. The other picture that comes to mind is of a mother ecstatic at her toddler just taking first steps. Two, the story would have been better told by members of the State House Press corps were they the ones put on the jet to London.
A professional analysis of the story in the media on Sunday clearly showed that the account was written and fed to the journalists in Abuja. The stunt of Buhari marching “energetically” in the garden in the London summer afternoon would be more believable had it been captured from different angles by independent photo-journalists accredited by Aso Rock. More disturbing is the sort of issues this official narrative seemed obsessed with.
While it is pleasing to hear that PMB truly has the presence of mind to remember how his decisive role helped ease wayward Yahyah Jammeh out of the presidential fortress in Banjul in January, more Nigerians would definitely have wished to hear his thoughts on what constitutes perhaps greater and present threat to Nigeria’s interest in the sub-region – attempt by North African nation of Morocco to railroad itself into ECOWAS. At a time the intruder is digging furiously the earth under our feet in the west coast mum has been the word from Abuja.
Again, we already know Buhari’s harsh words for those pushing for secession from the South-east and his sharp tongue against the troublemakers threatening to blow the oil pipelines in the Niger Delta. But the latest official narrative syndicated in Abuja did not let us into Buhari’s mind on the flurry of hate songs being composed and churned out in his name by Arewa youths against other sections of the country.
For Buhari today, the spirit may be willing, but the body is certainly weak. Forget the forced gap-toothed smiles, this must be the most depressing moment for the General from Daura. Sadly, the nagging stories around presidential infirmity won’t go away and the official mishandling of the narrative now appears to overshadow the gains from the relentless war against corruption and substantial containment of Boko Haram.
While it is true that the nation could have done better with the articulation of a clearer vision for the economy in 2015 and bringing to bear a sense of urgency, what is however undeniable is that things could have gone much worse had the nation not had someone as frugal and disciplined as Buhari at a time of recession widespread across the globe occasioned by a steep crash of commodity prices. One good thing about seclusion is the opportunity for introspection.
So, the extended medical vacation must have afforded PMB a chance for some deep reflection these past few months perhaps on the rivers he had crossed and the mountains still ahead. As he continues to bask in the solitude of the London hermit, in case it had not yet happened, let the old general however be forewarned that there is no way he could possibly escape being haunted at some point by the ghost of Umar Yar’Adua over a comment he once made.
When Yar’Adua increasingly found himself entrapped on the sick bed by the twilight of 2009, PMB was among the most vocal then, urging him not only to come clean on his exact medical condition but also respect himself by honourably bowing out of office. His exact words in 2010: “It’s unpatriotic for a government leader to travel abroad for so long in the name of medical vacation. If a leader can no longer function due to ill-health, he should be called upon to resign. I don’t think I have said anything wrong to have advised the President to resign. He should disclose his health status to Nigerians and resign if he can no longer cope. That’s the proper thing to do.”
By nudging his younger kinsman from Katsina to follow the worthy example set two years earlier by Fidel Castro, Buhari then appeared to seize the moral high ground. Indeed, as he increasingly got weakened by age-related infirmities, the then charismatic Cuban leader could have hung on to power, pleading no law forbade him from taking ill while in office. But he refused the temptations. In relinquishing power in 2008, these were his unforgettable words to his fellow countrymen: “My wishes have always been to discharge my duties to my last breath. But it would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer.” Obviously, there is no way PMB could, in a good conscience, be said to have live up to the same high standard he judged Yar’Adua – failure to disclose what exactly ails him and foreign residency.
No less compelling is the memory of PMB’s thunderous disavowal as recently as last year of “medical tourism” by government officials. Speaking in Abuja that day, he declared that Federal Government under his watch would no longer approve financial support of any kind for all categories of public servants seeking medical treatment abroad. (By 2013, around $1bn was estimated to have been spent by Nigerians on medical treatment abroad.)
Now, the big puzzle is whether PMB is excluded from the tribe of public servants so referenced. Managing the truth is never an easy task.