Having gone to London to watch the crowning of England’s King Charles III earlier this month, a friend joked last week, President Muhammadu Buhari extended his stay so his dentist could crown his teeth. That was how he read the line from the presidency that General Buhari had stayed back in London for a dental procedure. Ten days before the end of his presidency, on his return to Nigeria, Buhari commissioned the Presidential Wing of the State House Medical Centre (SHMC). Estimated to be worth 21 billion Naira, this project provides an insight into the mindsets of Nigeria’s higher-ups.
By 2020, the SHMC was reputed to cater for over 32,000 people annually but in reality, it was anything other than what its name suggested. Originally established to “provide health care services to the president, vice president, their families, as well as members of staff of the Presidential Villa”, the clinic became the place where the lowly servants of the rich and powerful rulers of Nigeria in Abuja go to mercifully receive analgesics for their aches and pains. When they died, their families sometimes chose to relieve their pain by announcing that the bodies of their loved ones have been deposited in or moved from the temporary morgue at the Clinic. For the most part, many believed – not without good reason – that the role of the clinic was to hasten the passage of those who used it to the mortuary.
Yet, this Clinic was one of the better funded medical units in the country. In the four years preceding 2020, it reportedly received average annual appropriations of over N2.5 billion or a cumulative appropriation of over N10 billion. However, the president and his family and staff for whom it was designed were more comfortable getting their medical needs fulfilled outside Nigeria.
No one will ever fully know how much time President Buhari spent with doctors during his eight years in the presidential villa. By November 2022, one account reported that he had spent at least 237 days of his presidency with doctors outside the country. By the penultimate week of his presidency, the count was 250. These numbers are floors not the ceilings. Tired of the public carping from disaffected Nigerians about his hypocrisy on medical tourism, it seems certain that Buhari’s handlers occasionally dressed up his medical jaunts overseas in a bodyguard of misrepresentation.
Underlying this approach to their management of the relationship between the president and the country was the philosophy, laid bare by Garba Shehu speaking for the presidency in April 2019, that the president “can rule from anywhere in the world.” One decade earlier, in the middle of December 2009, then Attorney-General of the Federation, Michael Aondoakaa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), first claimed this prerogative of a presidency-at-large on behalf of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, whom, we now know, was battling for his life at the time and probably lacked any awareness that his presidency was in the hands of unknown persons. It is entirely coincidental that Yar’Adua and Buhari were military mates who come from the same Local Government Area in Katsina State.
In the period since Aondoakaa made that claim, Nigeria appears to have evolved a brew of sovereign mendacity in the service of state capture as a unique doctrine of state-craft.
In the week that Buhari was busy attending to his mandibles in London, his chosen successor was reportedly busy in Paris attracting foreign investors to Nigeria. In the period since the Professor of history at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced the person he would prefer as Nigeria’s next president; the designated successor has mostly been overseas.
Twenty days after the announcement of the result of the presidential election, he flew out of Nigeria on 21 March supposedly to perform the Lesser Hajj in the Muslim Holy Lands, returning 35 days later on 24 April. Sixteen days thereafter, on 10 May, he left again this time it was said, to “woo investors” to Nigeria for ten days. It goes without saying that for many people, this claim tasked credulity. For every day he has spent in the country since being announced as Nigeria’s next president, President Buhari’s chosen successor has spent at least one and a half days outside.
Understandably keen to inoculate his principal against what could be read as a familiar pattern of a ghost presidency, his spokesperson, Bayo Onanuga, explained that he traveled only to avoid pressure and distraction, reminding us, however, that “even if he is in Russia, he can hold zoom meetings and do all kinds of things.”
Even before the onset of the next presidential term, therefore, it has become quite clear that the travel calendar of Nigeria’s next president will be a site of intense scrutiny. Perhaps, anticipating this, President Buhari has sought to buffer his successor by equipping this new VIP wing of the State House Medical Clinic. Conveniently unaware of her own record of medical tourism, Buhari’s wife, Aisha, has been quite voluble in taking credit for this project. Sadly, it seems quite clear that neither President Buhari nor his partner “in the other room” have learnt anything from his peers in other parts of Africa nor from their years as avid medical tourists.
When former presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, wrote in 2016 about becoming “convinced that there must be something supernatural about power and closeness to it”, it became a subject of much mirth and laughter with even Buhari’s own spokesperson laying the boot too. But after seeing one African president fart his way through the halls of a major international conference in Washington DC, and another extensively urinate on himself while officiating a public event in Juba, it is not hard to see how or why any presidency could be clothed in wonderment about the wild and weird.
Fantastical tales and theories about the wellbeing of presidents are as old as power in and beyond Africa. Courtiers exist to spin those yarns. When he toppled President Ben Bella in 1965, Algeria’s famed guerilla leader, Houari Boumédiène, was a dashing 33-year-old. By early 1978, his public appearances became occasional and then rare. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Algerians were massaged with all manner of stories while their president received medical attention in Moscow. In November 1978, he disappeared from public view, eventually dying on 27 December 1978 after 39 days in coma.
While he received medical attention in Belgium for a terminal condition for most of 2012, the public disposition of the government he led was that then Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, was in either robust health or suffering from a routine infection.
In October 2018, Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, suffered a stroke while traveling in Saudi Arabia. One month later, he was transferred to Morocco to continue his recovery and rehabilitation, staying there until mid-2019. Back home in Libreville, the public and Gabon’s institutions got tired of a steady supply of misinformation, which triggered a coup attempt. After some 10 months out of public view, a barely recognizable Ali Bongo finally made a public appearance in August 2019.
The people who spin these fables have no interest in the wellbeing of the state or indeed of the occupant of the office but in their benefits from propinquity to him, which must be preserved at all costs. The two most effective ways to do this are to misrepresent the facts or to hide the evidence. Many people may not know it but as powerful as they may seem, presidents can often be glorified prisoners. In this new VIP wing of the SHMC, President Buhari has chosen to invest in a glorified prison as his preferred legacy for his successor.
When they arrive in less than a fortnight, those whose livelihoods depend on this successor may decide that using that facility does not fully conduce to the goal of misrepresenting the facts or of concealing the evidence. Goodluck Jonathan was the Facebook president; Buhari is the medical tourism president. Nigeria may be about to transition to an encounter with the Zoom president.
•A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]