We did not see moments of national empathy for President Muhammadu Buhari when he fled Nigeria for his routine medical checkup. After all, it was not like in 2016 when the morbid hour threatened, or Yar’Adua 2.0. Nothing startled in our presidential comfort zone.
The thing was the president was well. But what of the country? The president has a jet to fly out, but what of its citizens? The president has a doctor, but what of Nigerian doctors? The president’s doctor was not on strike, but wore his frock and wielded his scalpel. At that time, the Nigerian doctor was striking a match of protest so he can wear a frock and wield a scalpel. London was cold, our president was warm, but Nigeria was boiling hot.
Garba Shehu, ever making a wrong leap, said the president had a physician in the United Kingdom, long before he became president. He demystified his principal’s image of the common touch. The talakawa captain ate with the poor but healed with the rich. When they chanted Sai Baba, they returned to their huts when hurt. He hurtled to the Queen’s bosom.
We have no record how many Nigerians slumped and expired here while his doctors doted over him. How many kidney’s failed, hearts arrested, wounds bled without stop, tumours that halted humours at home. Or how many died from malaria or routine birth pangs.
Yet, we cannot say the president does not deserve the best medical care. He is the leader of the country. He should be in the best health to decide on education, the infrastructure deficit, the herdsmen forays and the thieves on official prowl.
He had the benefit in 2016. He was a baby president, apologies to Ayo Fayose. He still needed to put things in place for medical care. He had to thresh the floor for policy, to turn Nigerian hospitals from mere consulting clinics to full-fledged clinics and hospitals, to reengineer personnel recruitment and training to make our hospital on the march to the 21st century. We have not seen this, and when he decided in the sixth year of his stewardship to travel for mere checkup, we can understand why many Nigerians are not asking whether our president is doing well. He did not speak to Nigerians but he made himself an epistolary poet, a man of letters. He wrote a letter to another leader about his welfare. Not to us who pay the bills, but to some fellow elite enjoying the same perquisite.
There are some members of the elite who feel Buhari’s pain. They can afford the thousands of pounds it must cost for a day at the hospital. They spend it without apology. They can afford it, and why not. They don’t run our healthcare system. They have no say. They just consume. And if they must consume, why should they wait and die in consulting clinics. They put their dollars where their health is.
But that elite self-justification has been purloined by their political elite. They set up a few clinics with a few drugs, and hail themselves as the John The Baptist of good governance. Years after year, our health indices fall. OBJ’s centres of excellence became excellence in cretinism.
Six years after he was sworn in, Buhari has no reason to seek empathy. He did not need to have brought us to healing pond or Pool of Siloam. But we should see it in the works. No one forced him to proclaim that no public servant should seek medical attention abroad. He is seeking it. That does not make him a hero. It does not make him Sai Baba but “Baba say”. Many say baba does not say anything these days.
In 2016, many thought he would go. His great foes were his associates. Some of them were in the frenzy of permutations. Who would replace him? Underhand plots unearthed and cracked like pots of clay. Colleagues jousted in furtive places. Meetings and counter-meetings. On the streets, some prayed in the spirit. Some prayed against his spirit. Churches and mosques were vessels of heavenly invocations. Prophets mumbled his apocalypse. Imams saw the new successors. Newspaper editors were imagining headlines. Talakawa beggars triumphed who raised their hands in divine pleas.
When he erupted through the Abuja skies, we saw bedlam on the streets. I wonder what is going on in the minds of those Nigerians who fell in a trance for him in 2016. In their delirium of joy, they carped and howled as he returned after the medical suspense. A certain joy-clad fellow poured water on the ground and drank. That person may have headed to the hospital afterwards. Dances. Claps. Songs. Sai baba. That was then. He was draped in messianic robe. This time, no éclat, no claps. We can say also, there was no stake. His health was in no danger. That exactly is the point. Since he was in no danger, he did not need to go, not when medical care was in turmoil at home.
Not long ago, I learned of a Nigerian who lives in the United States who had a pacemaker for his heart. Former Vice President Mike Pence had a similar procedure last week. The Nigerian would love to retire home, but he said he could not. “We don’t even have the drugs I need here in this country,” he explained. “When I had the surgery, there were six doctors who spent hours in the operation. I can’t count the nurses and support staff. When they were done, the doctors said I would be up and running in six weeks. The way I was feeling, I did not believe them. But they were right. If I was living in Nigeria, I would have been history. They said they gave me presidential-style treatment.” He is a regular US citizen.
This is why many go abroad. This is why the president did. He has the power to set such infrastructure up. That is why many are not happy, and would not as much as say, hope all is well, our dear president. The average Nigerian is like the blind Bartimaeus in the Bible crying for miracle as Jesus walked by. Many of them are not as lucky. They don’t get their miracles.
I wonder if the president grieves over the graying of his myth, that his faithful now choke on his mantra, that baba and sai no longer occur in the same breath. I would want to enter his stream of consciousness, to know whether, like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s novel, he suffers delusions about himself, or remorse. Not whether he failed his people, but whether he failed himself. That is what this essayist likes to know.