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Following the 2015 general election, I decided to write a book, not only to find out why and how President Goodluck Jonathan lost but also to interrogate the recruitment process that keeps producing lacklustre leaders who are neither prepared nor have a clear vision of what they would do in office. In setting a deadline of November 2016 for the publication, I thought I had enough time on my hands.
However, a discussion with Dr Chidi Amuta, who has in recent years become a professional mentor, changed my thinking when he suggested that for the book to be authoritative, I must speak to as many of the principal actors as possible. With that mandate, I have spent the last six months travelling within the country and the West African coast. The outcome of that adventure is that I have learnt enough to write several books about politics and government in Nigeria as I listened to those who have held (and those still holding) critical positions in the affairs of our country. As to be expected, it is not a particularly pleasant story.
Some of the people I interviewed include former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan as well as former Senate President David Mark, former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Alhaji Mahmud Yayale Ahmed; APC National Leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and the PDP National Chairmen at two critical epochs, Dr Okwesilizie Nwodo (2010) and Alhaji Ahmed Adamu Muazu (2015). I also spoke on record with serving and former governors: Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, Nasir el-Rufai, Kashim Shettima, Aminu Bello Masari, Muazu Babangida Aliyu, Gabriel Suswan, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi among several others. I equally got invaluable insights from the Convener of the National Peace Committee, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, former Army Chief and current Interior Minister, Lt General Abdulrahman Dambazau, SA to the former INEC Chairman, Prof. Mohammed Kuna, founding National Secretary of the dissolved CPC, Alhaji Buba Galadima, and many other actors, including in the National Assembly, federal executive council, security agencies, military and private sector.
While the book, Against The Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Nigeria should be out hopefully by April, it was my interactions with President Jonathan and the former Senate President Mark that I consider relevant to this intervention. Even though the recollections are not part of my book, they are nonetheless very important for this season as the duo shared with me revealing insights into some of their experiences when my late boss, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was hospitalised in Saudi Arabia. What their separate narratives, which I was never aware of at the time, suggest very clearly is the far-reaching implications for governance and national security of even a hint of illness in the president of a country as diverse as ours.
Meanwhile, on January 7 this year, for the third time within a period of eight months, President Muhammadu Buhari wrote to notify the National Assembly that he would be proceeding on a leave of 10 working days in the course of which he would also temporarily transfer power to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in compliance with Section 145 (1) of the 1999 Constitution. The statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, added that the president would, during the vacation, also undergo some “routine medical check-up” before returning to resume work next Monday, February 6.
In a nation where rumour mongering has become a religion, it did not take long before there were “news reports” of how President Buhari was in coma, on life support, gasping for breath, lost consciousness etc. all at the same time! And since these tale-bearers have also perfected the art of smoke without fire, the 36 governors had all been assembled in Abuja to discuss “succession.”
President Buhari is expected to return to the country by this weekend but even that will not be enough to dispel the sordid tales about his health. In fact, from now on, the rumour industry has been given a new raw material. The day he cancels an assignment within the Villa, refuses to undertake a scheduled local or international trip, leaves an engagement earlier than planned, then there will be “stories” about his health, especially since those with an ambition to replace him are already making their own calculations. On the flip side, in the absence of any tangible achievements or coherent policies from the administration, some rogue security men can also orchestrate ‘death’ hoaxes and other elaborate schemes to divert public attention.
In their much acclaimed book, “When Illness Strikes the Leader: The Dilemma of the Captive King” which combine medicine, politics and psychology with interesting anecdotes drawn from several leaders across the world, Robert Robins and Jerrold Post provide insights into what happens behind the scenes when political leaders have health issues and the implications for their country. It is a book that speaks to a season like this in Nigeria.
Except the handlers of the president want to deceive themselves, their man has frittered away most of the goodwill that brought him to power while the situation has been compounded by the issue of health on which his opponents will now focus. How the administration responds to such provocations (because there will be many outlandish stories) will determine the direction of the country in the next two years as we move into the transitional phase. If for instance, Buhari intends to go for a second term, then we should expect a draconian pushback from his handlers in a manner that will erode not only his credibility but also turn him into a puppet of power with governance put in abeyance.
In a peer review of “When Illness Strikes the Leader” in the New England Journal of Medicine, Edward J. Burger, Jr., a respected American surgeon, explained that the relation between the state of health of political leaders and the institutions of state that they govern are necessarily complex. “The authors of this book describe these relations as though a leader, whether a monarch or a democratically elected president, presides over a group of courtiers and possesses all the instruments of a palace. The description is not inappropriate. Staffs of latter-day presidents and prime ministers behave in many ways as did courtiers of old. The political surroundings of democratic leaders retain much of the colouring of intrigue and the rewards usually associated with older regimes” wrote Burger.
Every society, according to Burger, desires to have leaders “who are strong, wise and powerful and is made very uncomfortable even by hints of illness or incapacitation” yet people who advance in age before reaching political leadership are “particularly vulnerable to physical and mental incapacitation.” And because of “these very circumstances, which makes a king’s illness more special than that of his subjects, it tends to be treated differently. The fact of illness is downplayed or not disclosed” said Burger.
While I find the book very revealing, where I differ with the authors and the reviewer is in the assumption that “members of the court” are always to blame for whatever “loose conspiracy” that arises from such development and I am borrowing from personal experience. That explains why I sympathise with President Buhari’s spokesmen who are being assailed for what is not, and cannot, be their fault. Spokesmen report only whatever their principals want to be reported, so long as it is not a lie; and African leaders generally are very secretive about their health. But there are far more serious issues of governance that should concern us.
Whatever anybody may say about President Buhari, even his most implacable foes will readily concede that he hardly dissembles. Two weeks before assuming office in May 2015, he said most memorably: “Now we have invariably inherited all the problems, especially in the north-east. A generation has been denied education and health care. Infrastructure has gone. You can imagine what is happening in the high seas where up to 400,000 barrels of crude oil which we rely on is stolen everyday with the full cooperation of those who are supposed to protect it. The price of oil has gone down and 90 percent of the foreign exchange we rely on comes from that. So, you have to convince your constituencies that we have virtually arrived at the wrong time and that they have to temper their expectation with some justice towards the leadership.”
Three weeks after assuming office, on 16th June, 2015 to be specific, Buhari told a cross-section of Nigerians living in South Africa on the sideline of the African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg: “How I wish I became the head of state when I was a governor, just a few years as a young man. Now at 72, there is a limit to what I can do”.
Given those two moments of introspection, the first to dissect the enormity of the challenge he had to confront; the second to admit his own frailties, I feel for Buhari. When a man with as much patriotic fervor has vague ideas about how to tackle serious national problems that seem to overwhelm him, they would continue to weigh on his mind, with all the medical and psychological implications. Yet, at a time the opposition has a major market (the hungry, the jobless, and the displaced) from where to recruit “reporters”, those who seek to preserve their own privileges at the expense of the same social media emperors who helped to bring Buhari to power may choose to subvert the law. That is the danger that I see ahead.
If he is to regain lost momentum, there is only one option left for the president. He must rid himself of the “grass cutters” and other in-house rodents that he has been petting with “deodorants” (Senator Shehu Sani is very wicked!) and revamp his administration by bringing in those who can really help him. At a most critical period in our history, there is an urgent need for fresh ideas that can get us out of the current economic recession, put our people to work and reposition the country for peace and prosperity. Even the most fanatical of Buhari’s supporters know that he doesn’t have a pool of such talent in his government.
The urgency for President Buhari is underscored by the fact that even some of the people who helped him to power have started backtracking from their support. For instance, in the course of my interview with President Obasanjo, I accused him of being part of the “cabal” that gave President Buhari to Nigeria. “I didn’t join them in supporting Buhari, I joined in opposing Jonathan so Buhari was just a beneficiary of my position which was Any Option But Jonathan” President Obasanjo replied, before theatrically reeling out the acronym for me: A-O-B-J!
As things stand in Nigeria today, I know many people who have already made up their minds that should this administration continue on the current course and President Buhari seeks re-election in 2019, their position would be: AOBB!
The ‘Prophesy’ of Menchen
In his article titled “Bayard vs. Lionheart” first published in the “Baltimore Evening Sun” on 26th July 1920, and reprinted many years later in the book “On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe”, Henry Louis Mencken, a respected 20th century journalist wrote what is now being circulated widely, especially on WhatsApp, for obvious reasons. Here is what Menchen wrote some 97 years ago now drawing huge attention on social media:
“…In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
While I leave readers to make their own conclusions, I have uploaded eight new Verdicts from the 2004 series on my web portal, olusegunadeniyi.com.
This article was first published on ThisDay