Monday, March 12, 2007

"A Rumour that shook the nation" by Reuben Abati

Ok, so with April only a few weeks away, this (extracted) article is ever-so-relevant and raises a couple of issues: Why is Yar'Adua (and more importantly, OBJ) so desperately trying to downplay his health problems? Should the health of a (THE) presidential candidate be a deciding factor on whether he should win the presidency? Why has OBJ made his campaign a "do or die affair"? Reading this article made me wonder why our politicians are allowed to utter such silly (for lack of a better polite word) statements/untruths...is it that they think we're stupid, or because they know we don't have the guts to call them out on their ignorance? I really wonder...

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NIGERIA is surely an interesting country. Wednesday, March 7 would go down in history as a very important moment in Nigeria's preparations for the April 2007 elections and for a rather curious reason. It was the day when a rumour, taken off the wings of what seemed like a truthful report in the news media assumed a life of its own, and was soon stretched most imaginatively by the Nigerian public, into something dramatic, nationalistic, and for the moment, demonstrating the power of the spoken word, and also, the people's anxieties about the character of Nigerian politics.

The health of the PDP Presidential candidate, Umar Yar'Adua, the outgoing Governor of Katsina State, Obasanjo's anointed successor, was the issue of the day. The newspapers had reported, on page one, that the gentleman whose health had been a subject of much speculation and analysis had slumped suddenly on Tuesday and had to be rushed into an air ambulance to Germany. There was a kind of death-wish in nearly all the reports, both spoken and written. The Nation newspaper went a step further by asking the question: "If...who steps in?" You can fill in the gaps.

One of the major ironies of the 2007 electoral process has been the decision of the PDP to choose as its Presidential flagbearer, a man with a record of ill-health, problematic kidneys and what Alhaji Muhammad Balarabe is quoted as having described as "some ailments". The PDP leadership, President Obasanjo and Yar'Adua himself have been in a state of denial about Yar'Adua's health but what transpired on Wednesday clearly indicated that his medical state is bound to affect the fortunes of the PDP in the coming elections and if he emerges as President, in spite of the people's fears, Nigeria may end up in a long or short season of doubt and anxiety.

It is important to underline the reactions of Nigerian to the news of Yar'Adua's sudden collapse. Before noon, the country had been littered with all kinds of experts on the nature of the human kidney, instant medical doctors who offered free opinion about how delicate the kidneys are. There were different versions of how the man slumped and how he was rushed out of the country. He sneezed. He inhaled dust. He could not breathe properly. Only Ojo Maduekwe, the Secretary of the PDP insisted that the man had only travelled for a "routine medical check up". But how routine?

By noon, the word started going round: "Yar'Adua is dead".

"You see what Obasanjo has done to Nigeria", a friend declared.

"What has Obasanjo got to do with this? I had said defensively, out of mischief of course.

"Everything", the other fellow said. "He knows that Yar'Adua is not medically fit and yet he wants to impose him as President. This is the third term agenda through the back door."

"How?"

"Can't you see? There is a clause in the Electoral Act which allows government to postpone the elections indefinitely in the event of the death of any of the Presidential candidates."

"But that is not as straightforward as it seems. The 1999 Constitution is superior to the Electoral Act. Under the Constitution, President Obasanjo and other elected representatives have a four-year tenure. That tenure expires on May 29."

"The Constitution can be amended"

"And who will do that?"

"The National Assembly"

"They wouldn't dare. We, the people will resist such a move."

The Yar'Adua incident brought out a part of the Nigerian character: our love of rumour, our imaginativeness, and the malicious character of Nigerian politics. Any attempt to preach that people should be cautious and not kill a man before he really dies was met with the retort that "in this country there is no smoke without fire". When the evening papers hit the streets, they added more fuel to the speculations. Breaking News, published by the Daily Independent, announced that Adamu Muazu and Babangida were already being considered as replacement for Yar'Adua.

Why is Yar'Adua's health so important to Nigerians? I think there was first a feeling of disappointment, a sudden realisation that both the President and Yar'Adua himself might have been lying to Nigerians. When questions were first raised about Yar'Adua's health, the President had played the role of a medical doctor by certifying him fit for the job. "I know all about Umar's ailment" he said "and it has disappeared since 2001. It was a miracle. So those calling him a sick man are the ones who are sick. After all, only God can tell who is sick or not. I wonder how somebody can open his mouth and say that a human being created by God is a sick man." In the light of current revelations, the President has to come up with new explanations. At least we now know that medical doctors can tell when a man is sick and that a sick man is simply a sick man. This is not a matter for politicking.

The second leg of the politics of Yar'Adua's illness is the Obasanjo factor; no one seems to understand why President Obasanjo is so passionate about a man who is widely regarded as medically unfit for the job. Questions: what does Obasanjo want? Why would he insist on giving Nigerians a President with health problems? It is not the people that are playing God, it is the President. He has been the chief campaigner for Yar'Adua's candidacy. He allows him to use the Presidential jet, and he says making Yar'Adua President is a "do or die affair" But when will the President draw the line between friendship/loyalty and the nation's interest? The only saving grace is that the people have a choice in this matter. In the April elections, the Nigerian people have a duty to look at every candidate dispassionately and make an informed choice. Do they want a President who can stand stress or a President whose kidney is a subject of close monitoring by German doctors?

President Obasanjo had tried to save the situation by Wednesday evening. He was at a political rally and he put a call through to Umar Yar'Adua in Germany.

"Umar, how are you? What is your message for Nigerians?"

"I am alive and well. It is a false alarm", Yar'Adua declared.

It was a farcical show. The President may have allayed our fears about the life of the Presidential aspirant, but he again confirmed the people's worst fears: that the PDP Presidential candidate is not the best of health. Is he now campaigning from Germany? The PDP must bring its season of denial about the health of its flagbearer to an end. The obsession with Yar'Adua's ill-health is becoming an irritable distraction. We should be discussing Yar'Adua's ideas about national development. We are not doing that, we are talking about his kidney and skin. We want to know what he and the PDP are planning to do about power supply, education, the health sector and so on, but what are we discussing (?): whether Yar Adua can breathe properly or not. This is not fair.

It is however sad and a comment on the status of healthcare in Nigeria, that the Presidential candidate of the ruling party had to be rushed to Germany before he could be sure of quality medical attention. If our hospitals were better equipped, if all the money voted for the health sector in the past eight years had been well spent, there would be no need for Nigerian leaders to seek help in other countries.

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Reuben Abati is Chairman of the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspaper. Since 1999 he has written two weekly columns in The Guardian and is now one of the most prolific and respected newspaper columnists in Nigeria today.

The full article can be found at The Nigerian Village Square

3 comments:

ooa said...

But even if the man is sick, all the other credentials he holds make him a decent candidate for president and in all seriousness how likely is it that he'll die before the elections in April?? Conspiracy theroists need to take a back seat to reality this time around. As for his manifesto, I think it goes without saying, he'll continue with most of the current president's policies. All that being said what about the other candidates??!!!

One of the problems with this whole electoral process is the lack of media coverage. The INEC list that came out cleared over 20 candidates vying for the position of president. Since the beginning of the year, most stories in the Nigerian media (at least the ones i've come across ) have only been about five of these candidates. Where are the others????? What about Pat Utomi, what about Adebayo Adefarati, Chief Sunny Okogwu, Lawrence Adedoyin.

Most of the names on that list don't ring a bell to me and (I'm sure) a whole host of other nigerians. Its quite sad that most of the media coverage on these elections have focused on 3 or 4 candidates. One of which (Mr. Atiku) might not be in the running anymore. this even lessens the number in the pool we are to pick from. In my opinion if columnists like Mr. Abati want to help the Nigerian people, if you want us to make a more educated choice on election day, it should go without saying, EDUCATE US! Let nigerians know more about these other 24 candidates. It is not enough to write intelligent articles about the sly political machinery pushing us towards one (probably unfit) candidate. It is even less sufficient to write only about a handful of candidates.

One nigerian is smart, 120million nigerians are not. If only a handful of candidates make the news, only a handful will be considered. The less options you have, the more likely you are to make an ill advised decision. The Nigerian media needs to play a bigger role in the upcoming elections. Go for the sensational stories that involve the sensatoinal candidates, but don't forget the less exciting, less attractive and probably more suitable candidates. If we all say we want whats best for the country we should act like it.

Misan said...

Thanks OOA :)

But the question I've been struggling with (among others) is how much does the public have a right to know about the health of the President/presidential candidates? I mean, look at Franklin Roosevelt, who dies a few months into his third term as President of the US, or other candidates who had near-deaths in the white house because of their undisclosed (to the public) health problems coupled with the stress of running the country. at least in the US, things like that flow smoothly...VP takes over, but in Nigeria, i'm less confidence that this sort of scenario would go down without wahala (for lack of a better description).

And you're absolutely right about the appalling media coverage of the other Presidential candidates (I will say in Abati's defense though, sometime last last year, he wrote a couple of articles where he (albeit briefly) mentioned the other candidates, one titled "where are the female aspirants?", "the sad story of nigeria", and "beyond voter's registration"...thank God for Google archives :)). Beyond the major ones (and then the Utomis and Okoties), I don't know any of the candidates or what they stand for. Celebrated journalists like Abati and Ndibe have a role to play in educating us about these other candidates, but REALLY it is the principle job of the candidates themselves! We give a whole new meaning to the word, "campaigning"...then again, one can argue that with ppp like Tinubu using $$ from Lagos state coffers to campaign for his selected candidates, the more minor ones don't stand a chance of getting heard, but at least a sliver of them TRYING would be encouraging.

Misan said...

ooh, here's a snippet from one of abati's articles ("The sad story of Nigeria) that alarmed as much as tickled me:

"You are supposed to be an enlightened citizen."

"I don't know the candidates. I don't know the political parties. I see some posters around the neighbourhood but nobody has come forward to ask for my vote. What the various candidates want to do, I sincerely don't know. Take the PDP Presidential Candidate for example. I know he is the brother of the late Yar'Adua. I know he has been anointed by the President as his successor, and that he goes about in the Presidential jet, even when he is yet to stand for elections. But that is all. What does he stand for? You can ask me. When I ask those who should know, they tell me he stands for continuity. Continuity of what? Continuity of power outage? When I ask for concrete proof, they point to the PDP manifesto. I am not sure anybody knows what that contains..."

"There are other candidates"

"Yes. But how many of them can win elections? There is one woman in our area, neighbours are saying we should vote for her because she is more beautiful than other candidates. So, I don't want to bother myself. In any case, the election may be postponed."

"Not likely. I think we have passed that stage. The President has given a valedictory speech at the African Union Summit.."

"Are you not aware that there is a clause in the Electoral Act which empowers INEC to postpone the elections indefinitely. The National Assembly amended the Act to allow the extension of the deadline for voters' registration but it failed to amend that section of the law. What does that tell you? Look, I don't want to waste my energy. On the question of the 2007 elections you could say I am a doubting Thomas. When I see it. I will believe it."