Presidential ailments and public disclosures

Habib Yakoob

One of the most cherished rights that you lose as a leader is your privacy, that common liberty to do whatever pleases you without public scrutiny.   You have won the people’s votes, but they have also extracted an implicit commitment from you to pry into your private affairs whenever they deem it necessary. They would have interest in virtually all your affairs, including who you relate with and how you relate with them. If they had their way they would even want to see your record of manly performance in “the other room.” Sometimes, when these facts are beyond their reach, some overzealous people among them go to irresponsible extent of cooking up falsehood to force you into a recant or disclosure.  Perhaps, the recently rumoured death of President Muhammadu  Buhari who has been on medical vacation in London since January 19, 2017, exemplifies such irksome tendency. Though this gauche rumour invented by a phoney online outlet lacked a long lifespan in public space, several unsuspecting Nigerians fell for it and even contributed in sharing   it both on the social media and by word of mouth.

It will be naïve to argue that the originators of this fake news did not know that the President was alive. Like most hoax stories, it could have been aimed at assaulting people’s sensibilities, stoking up political tension and disharmony, driving web traffic to amplify pecuniary gains, engaging in awkward adventures, among others. However, whatever its  motive, this  fake news somehow stirred  up agitations in some quarters for the President to personally address the nation from London as well as  release  his personal health records. While the President, in his wisdom, has yet to accede to the call to speak to the Nigerian people, he has however, spoken on phone to Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, Senate President Bukola Saraki, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dogara Yakubu, and lately the Governor of Kano State, Abdullahi Ganduje, and a few others, assuring them that he was  alive and  kicking. The All Progressives  Congress national leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, former Interim National Chairman of the party, Chief Bisi Akande, Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State, also visited the President in London and informed the nation blithely that the President was in  good health and spirits. All this was refreshing, but it has refused to completely mitigate the cynical speculations among Nigerians that he might be sicker than  imagined. This fear was heightened by the President’s statement this week that his medical tests indicated he would need a “longer period of rest, necessitating the President staying longer than originally planned.”

Actually, that the President is sick is no “state secret.” What is, probably, is the nature of his sickness; and unravelling this ailment may remain a subject of conjecture for a very long time. But then, that would not be something unusual. Personal health revelations by presidents are a rarity in many democracies, as most leaders prefer to keep their major ailments under wraps, unless such illnesses become inescapably noticeable.

It was Francois Mitterrand of France, who was said to have considered his cancer of the prostate “state secret” and had hidden it from the public throughout his tenure. His predecessor, Georges Pompidou, had died of cancer in1974 in office after repeated denials he had the ailment.  Twenty first president of the US,  Chester Arthur,  had a severe kidney problem; John F. Kennedy had chronic pains; Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke leading to the paralysis of his left side and partial blindness; Franklin Roosevelt, who as president of the US for 12 years, had his legs paralysed by polio and was confined to wheelchair for the greater part of his 12-year tenure. All of these presidents made determined efforts to hide their various sicknesses from the public.  The case of Clover Groveland is perhaps the best cited cover-up of presidential ailments.  In his second term in office in 1893, he was diagnosed with cancer of the palate, and was subsequently operated on twice, but he had denied this affliction throughout his tenure even when it became obtrusive.

Nigeria’s former president,   Alhaji Umar Yar’Adua, was believed to have died of a kidney-related illness, but sources hinted how the late President had kept it away from the public for a long time. Indeed, history is replete with many more presidents and public figures who tried to keep their illnesses in private mode.

But why are presidential ailments so much shrouded in secrecy? First, nobody wants to be associated with a life-threatening disease, especially, in a world characterised by political cynicism, mischief and witch-hunt; where the mention of such a sickness itself is redolent of death and where the sick president becomes an object of distasteful ridicule and contempt rather than of humble self-reflection and fellowfeeling. Second, public disclosure of presidential ailments does not, after all, result in medical therapy for the patient. In other words, it is not like a final cure is coming from any quarter among the crowd. Third, it could merely help to reinforce the invidious     sanguinity of the president’s adversaries that he may die even sooner than expected.  Four,  citizens are quite sceptical about presidents (especially African presidents)   who would need to travel more regularly abroad or be away for too long to keep up with medical appointments at the expense of taxpayers’ money and governance.

So, presidents may well ask why the heck I need to reveal that I have been diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, Narcolepsy or any of those side-splitting medical conditions that make no sense to anyone except medical practitioners?

But, in truth, it matters that the people from whom you have derived political legitimacy are acquainted with their president’s health status. Yes, such disclosure is not mandatory, but it can be an uncommon demonstration of openness, transparency and integrity. That sickness may not kill the president as he may live several more years than estimated. It may not essentially impede the president’s administrative performance. Besides, it could even save the President from the hands of hoax news merchants, who will not stop manufacturing for him some much deadlier ailments than he is presently afflicted with. The need for presidents to reveal what ails them will remain for a long time; and how frankly they deal with it would  show how much they appreciate  the moral burden the office they so much covet,  places upon their shoulder.

Dr Yakoob wrote in from University of Abuja via

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