By Tope Templer Olaiya
Seven days into President Muhammadu Buhari’s 10-day private visit to the United Kingdom with no public appearance of the president in Britain save for his arrival into the country in the late hours of April 25, has revived raging debates over concerns and secrecy of the president’s state of health.
For nearly 170 hours in a foreign land, the president has not been seen nor heard from. As stated in the announcement by the presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, who termed the holiday a private visit, everything about Buhari’s trip since arriving Britain at about 11:30p.m. last week Thursday, has been shrouded in utmost secrecy. “He is expected to return to Nigeria on May 5,” Adesina said, giving no further details.
Abuja House, the president’s choice destination in London, has been devoid of its usual buzz whenever Buhari is around, signifying that the president has opted for another location for his private visit.
Also significantly absent during this visit is the customary pilgrimage of Very Important Personalities (VIPs) and high-ranking government officials to London to see Buhari for photo-ops. Same is the reception hosted for the president’s long-time friends like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
Likewise, UK’s media is unconcerned about the presence of a foreign head of government in their country. The Guardian checks in Britain’s top dailies turned up nothing about the president’s visit. The only reports that featured Nigeria in The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Star, Daily Express and The Times were on the recent murder of the British aid worker, Faye Mooney, in Kajuru, Kaduna and visit of celebrated supermodel, Naomi Campbell to Lagos for a fashion event.
The 76-year-old president has previously been in London for long spells of medical care. From May 2016 until mid-2017, Buhari was in London for medical treatment for increasingly long periods of time, forcing government denials that he was gravely ill or even dead.
By the time of his expected return on May 5, he would have barely three weeks left to the end of his first term in office, which has seen him spent a total of 409 days – a year and 44 days – (and still counting) travelling to 33 countries in four years of his first term in office. He has spent so far 224 days in the United Kingdom, the country he visited the most, mostly on health grounds and meetings of Commonwealth Heads of State and Government.
To date, he has not disclosed details about his condition, apart from saying he had “never been so ill” and had to undergo multiple blood transfusions. His health status was an issue in the campaign for the February 23 presidential elections, with the opposition’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) insisting he was physically unfit to govern.
The retired general, who was first elected in 2015, is scheduled to be sworn in for a second four-year term on May 29, though the PDP’s presidential candidate and main challenger, Atiku Abubakar, has lodged a legal challenge to the election results.
All these have gone to institutionalize one of the legacies of the present administration, which is the Buhari secrecy. The secrecy surrounding an individual’s health condition is a pervasive cultural practice in most African societies. Such secrecy is exemplified by the illness and death of monarchs, which are typically wrapped in secrecy until appropriate rituals of purification had been performed. Even then, the monarch’s subjects are never told about the ailment to which their monarch succumbed.
In the case of President Buhari, however, such secrecy has attracted much controversy for various reasons, including the bitter experience with the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, whose ailment was kept secret until he was rumoured to have died in a foreign hospital. The cloak of secrecy around Buhari’s health creates a shift from the norm in Western democracy, where the government’s business is the people’s business.
Even more importantly, secrecy is abhorred, having given way to transparency and accountability as guiding principles of information management. These principles are further enhanced by the constitution and the Freedom of Information Act, which empowers the people to know what is going on, not only with the government’s business but also with the business managers, including the president.
This trip, dubbed private visit, is an extension of the president’s legacy of secrecy. The president and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces is not a private or ordinary citizen. The day he decides to contest for the office and gets elected, he ceases to be a private citizen. He becomes a public citizen, owned by the people who elected him into office. He no longer has a private life.
Interestingly, this latest trip is coming on the heels of the president’s directive last month that the State House Medical Centre (SHMC), also known as Aso Rock Clinic, be reverted to a clinic to serve the original purpose of its establishment — primarily to serve the first and second families and those working within and around the Villa. This was announced by the Permanent Secretary, State House, Mr. Jalal Arabi, in Abuja.
Arabi had appeared before the Senate Committee on Federal Character and Inter-Governmental Affairs for the 2019 budget defence, where he said: “Without prejudice to what is currently obtainable at the SHMC, the intention to revert to a clinic is a presidential directive.”
Also last month after the directive was given, the president had lamented Nigeria’s loss of over N400 billion yearly to medical tourism, saying the inability of government to address various health challenges had resulted in increasing medical tourism, that costs Nigeria over N400 billion yearly.
Later, Arabi explained to journalists that the reversion of the centre to a clinic was a case of cutting one’s coat according to one’s cloth. He said: “It was initially meant to serve the first and second families and those working within and around the Villa. The overstretching of facilities at the medical centre by patients is some of the challenges the centre has been going through. It wasn’t meant for that purpose.
“Nobody was charging anyone for any services and relying on appropriation means we will depend on subvention when it comes to running the centre. Whatever comes is what you utilise and if the last patient comes in to take the last drugs based on the last budgetary release, that is it and we have to wait till another release is done. But this new development means that services will be streamlined to a clinic that will serve those that it was meant to serve when it was conceived.”
It would be recalled that in 2017, Aisha, the wife of the president, publicly upbraided the Chief Medical Director of the SHMC, Dr. Husain Munir, for the poor state of the health facility. Mrs. Buhari admitted that Nigeria was unstable for over six months owing largely to the president’s ill health that forced him to remain outside the country for months.
She wondered what could have happened to the common man on the street if Buhari could spend several months outside Nigeria for health reason. She also recalled that she was sick and was advised to travel abroad because of the poor state of the clinic, adding that she had to go to a private hospital owned by foreigners when she was told the x-ray machine in the SHMC was not working. The president’s son was also flown abroad when he had a bike accident last year in Abuja after being initially treated at a private hospital in Abuja.
Despite top presidency officials routinely flying out of the country to seek medical attention, the Federal Government has allocated a total of N4.17 billion for the operations of the SHMC between 2015 and 2018. The figure could, in fact, hit N5 billion, if the N823.44 million the government proposed for the operations of the facility in the 2019 budget is not slashed by the National Assembly.
In 2018, the SHMC for the exclusive use of the president, vice president and their families had a total budget of N1.03 billion, with N698 million as capital expenditure and N331.7 million as overhead cost.
Besides this, contained in the State House 2019 budget proposal of N14.3 billion is N416,668,229 for the new construction of the presidential wing of the State House Medical Centre; N1,001,318,171 for Buhari’s local and international travels – N250,021,595 for local trips and N751,296,576 for overseas travel.
In the 2018 budget, the presidency had proposed N1,030,458,453 for the State House clinic after Aisha Buhari had criticised the medical centre for not having an “ordinary syringe”, but was slashed by the National Assembly to N823,441,666. In the 2017 budget, N3.2 billion was allocated for the upgrade of the state clinic, including “the completion of ongoing work as well as procurement of drugs and other medical equipment.”
Many are left to wonder why such huge expenditure is expended on a facility the president and his family routinely ignores for their much fancied medical treatment abroad. This further enforces the continuation of the Buhari secrecy.
Meanwhile, the continued secrecy about the president’s state of health and whereabouts has reignited the rumour mills, which went into overdrive after his time in London last year, leading to the Jibril from Sudan clone story. And this may regain some momentum as the private visit winds down.
What is however trending this time around is that it is not a twist of fate and coincidence that APC’s national leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the party’s chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, and Lagos governor-elect, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, among others are also in the UK on private visits. However, both Tinubu and Sanwo-Olu returned to the country on Monday and were seen on Tuesday at the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) induction for new and returning governors in Abuja.
The word on the street is that the president is taking a break to restrategise for his second term and is compiling the list of those who would play active roles as cabinet members in the second-half of his administration, while possibly evading the distractions of Aso Rock regular callers of aides, politicians and close friends.
A peep into the last minute intrigues that may shape the next administration and possible actors played two week ago when a directive was issued for all ministers to submit progress reports of their various ministries, a pseudonym for handover notes, to the Permanent Secretaries in their respective ministries before April 30.
Last week, while briefing journalists at the end of the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting presided over by the vice president, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, had said President Buhari would dissolve his cabinet seven days to the end of the administration, on May 22, as the president has scheduled to hold a valedictory session with members of the FEC on May 22 ahead of his inauguration for the commencement of his second tenure on May 29.
Although there were speculations that the president was going to dissolve his cabinet last Thursday before his trip going by the earlier directives for all ministers to submit their progress reports, Mohammed, moments after his briefing in an afterthought, clarified that the valedictory session of the FEC on May 22 would not mean the cabinet would be dissolved on the same day. According to him, “it is inaccurate to extrapolate from my statement – that the FEC valedictory session will hold on 22 May – to say that the president will dissolve the cabinet on the same day. They do not mean the same thing.”
Insiders in Aso Rock say the politics of the next cabinet might have forced the president’s private visit, rather than insinuations of a health challenge. They claim the president wants to avoid the repeat of 2015 mistake when he deliberately waited for six months to form his Change Cabinet.
A source confided that it was such scheming that made Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, rush to commission uncompleted projects with the president in attendance much against the advice of the Lagos leader, Asiwaju Tinubu. “Ambode is racing against time to impress the president as the new ‘Mr. Infrastructure’ for the Next Level. That was why all the Southwest leaders were in attendance except Tinubu and Fashola.”
According to another source within the presidency, the president has resolved to source seasoned technocrats as members of his new cabinet to help him actualize his agenda for the ‘Next Level,’ saying that part of the reasons he travelled was to avoid distraction by political jobbers, who have been mounting pressure on him.
However, back home, the polity is being heated by statements credited to the presidency that Buhari has not contravened any section of the constitution by not transmitting power to the vice president before embarking on the trip.
Special Assistant to the president on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, while speaking on a television programme, said the president can work from anywhere and discharge his duties from any part of the world.
According to him, Buhari would only be accused of not transmitting power if he stayed beyond the shore of the country for more than 21 days without doing so.
Shehu said: “The president can exercise authority from wherever he is as he is currently doing. This is a relatively short absence. If you check Section 145 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, you will see that the law is only infringed upon when such absence extends to 21 days.”
But a Lagos-based lawyer and human rights activist, Inibehe Effiong, faulting Shehu’s position, said: “Whenever the president is proceeding on vacation or is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, he shall transmit a written declaration to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives to that effect, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, the Vice-President shall perform the functions of the President as Acting President.
“In the event that the President is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in subsection (1) of this section within 21 days, the National Assembly shall, by a resolution made by a simple majority of the vote of each House of the National Assembly, mandate the Vice-President to perform the functions of the office of the President as Acting President until the President transmits a letter to the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives that he is now available to resume his functions as President.
“The literal, grammatical and commonsensical reading of Section 145 (1) and (2) evinces the true purport of the said provisions and does not leave any room for ambiguity or debate as to the actual intention of the framers of the Constitution.
President Buhari does not have the discretion or prerogative to embark or proceed on vacation outside the mandatory constitutional framework of Section 145 (1) and (2) of the Constitution.
“It is immaterial that the President’s spokesperson, Femi Adesina, mischievously decided to play with words when he referred to the President’s 10-day visit to the United Kingdom as “a private visit”.
If Adesina by his evasive statement intended to distinguish the instant foreign trip of his principal from the vacation enshrined in Section 145 (1) and (2) of the Constitution, he, unfortunately, has ended up exposing his ignorance of the law and contempt for the Nigerian people. The President’s so-called private visit is a vacation simpliciter. It is a distinction without a difference to assert a contrary view.”
Also, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has said that “President Muhammadu Buhari’s private voyage out of the country without transmitting power, as required by the constitution, is an act of dereliction, which confirms that the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Buhari Presidency are not interested in governance but seeks to vacate our constitutional order and foist an authoritarian system on our country.
“Such dereliction of office can only come from leaders, who do not have respect for the people they governed but always muscling their way to power through intimidation and official manipulations, as witnessed in the rigging of the February 23 Presidential election by the APC,” it insisted.
The party, in a statement by its national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, alleged that “Mr. President’s abandoning of governance, particularly at this critical time when our nation is facing grave security and economic challenges, signposts the level of impunity and recklessness that will characterize our nation in the next four years, if the stolen Presidential mandate is not retrieved from the APC.”
It queried: “What else, beside an authoritarian propensity, can explain why the Buhari Presidency relegated our Constitutional Order by declaring the application of Section 145 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which directs that the President transmits power whenever he is travelling out of the country on vacation, as a mere “convention”.
The opposition party declared that the import of this “relegation of Section 145” is also a clear absence of a constitutional command structure which the part noted “leaves our nation at the mercy of the extremely corrupt, vicious and anti-people cabal with whom President Buhari presided over the most corrupt and most incompetent administration, which wrecked our economy, divided our nation and opened her up for escalated insecurity.
“Such dereliction at the high levels emboldens bandits, bolsters insurgents and fuels cruel acts such as extra-judicial killing, illegal arrests, detention of innocent citizens, constitutional violations, attack on institutions of democracy as well as reckless looting of our national treasury by members of the cabal because they know that “nothing will happen.”
The PDP urged Nigerians to unite in condemning this act of impunity in the interest of the nation.