By Reuben Abati
As someone who has been in that corridor recently, I do not share the view of those who insist that President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent 50-day medical vacation was mismanaged by his handlers, up to this point. I said this much during a recent interview on Channels TV’s Politics Today with Seun Okinbaloye.
In the face of the people’s rising and insatiable expectations, it is often an uphill task to balance so many considerations in a country that is so divided on all fronts. The duty of the President’s handlers is to prevent such unnecessary news that could destabilize the polity, or create a national security crisis.
The President occupies the most important office in a democracy such as ours because the people look up to that office and its occupier for strength, inspiration and confidence. When a President suddenly takes ill, the implications for politics, power play and national security are far-reaching. I have already dealt with the manner in which this is so, in an earlier article online, titled “From London to Abuja in 50 days: Buhari’s return”.
What is the general complaint? It is this: that the nature and the seriousness of whatever ails the President is deliberately shielded from the public. This has resulted in a lot of speculations, and anxiety. A Professor of Medicine, Femi Williams, became so concerned he began to diagnose the President’s ailment by just looking at commonplace photographs. His latest contribution is that looking at the President since he arrived, he seems to be suffering from anaemia.
I don’t know what branch of medicine allows professional doctors to do diagnosis based on ordinary photographs, but Professor Williams’ interest in the matter reflects the manner in which the general populace is curious about the health of the President. This can also be traced to the President Umaru Yar’Adua experience, who died long after the Presidency had kept the people in the dark and refused to respect Constitutional obligations – the outcome of which was a national crisis.
The people have the right to be inquisitive, but one of the things I learnt as Presidential Spokesperson interfacing with our country’s security agencies and agents (that is another complex and professional territory) is that there is a sharp line between the right to know and the need to know. As someone who needed information, I always insisted on the right to know, but the intelligence community on many occasions drew the blankets, and spoke about the need to know. Their argument as I understand it is that if the people are allowed to know everything then the state would be jeopardized, and national security subverted, but the grey boundary is this: whose security is more important in the long run, the people’s security or the security of power?
It would seem that if President Buhari’s handlers have committed any sin, it is that they were more concerned about the security of power and office. But I argued on Channels TV that this is nothing unusual, and has been the case in other jurisdictions in Europe and the United States. The most celebrated example is that of President Grover Cleveland of the United States, a case study on Presidential illness and the politics of power that is well reported in a book tilted “The President is A Sick Man” by Matthew Algeo. Cleveland, the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States, was one of the most popular politicians of his time. He was an orator who knew how to get the crowds excited. When he returned to power for a second time in 1893, he was regarded as a messiah of sorts.
He boasted about getting America out of recession, the first recession in American history, and setting the economy on a good path. He also boasted about dealing with corruption. He would fight corruption and run a transparent government! The people cheered. But then one morning, Cleveland discovered a swelling on the roof of his mouth. It got worse. It was diagnosed as cancer. He had just taken over power. Everyone looked up to him to do the magic. It was politically inexpedient to tell the public that Cleveland was down with cancer. But the cancer was benign. But the public could not even be so informed.
Cancer was a plague in those days as it is now. To undergo surgery, Cleveland’s handlers sold a dummy to the public that he was going on a vacation cruise, on a friend’s yacht for six days. A team of surgeons was put together and they performed the miracle of removing Cleveland’s cancer in 90 minutes while the yacht cruised on high seas. So important was power and Presidential appearance that they had to ensure the President’s trademark moustache was not tampered with in any way. The President returned. Nobody knew what actually happened while he was on a cruise. He wasn’t seen in public for 4 weeks. But as in Nigeria, people talk, human beings are human beings, so the story leaked and one journalist E. J. Edwards leaked the story. The White House descended on him. He was dismissed as a writer of “fake news,” and a “disgrace to American journalism.” The truth came out about 12 years later, long after Cleveland was no longer President.
Several American Presidents died in office due to ill-health. William Harrison, of pneumonia, Zachary Taylor of cholera, Franklin Delano Roosevelt of heart disease, George Washington served two terms struggling with malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, dysentery, before finally succumbing to epiglottitis. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson had stroke for the remaining part of his presidency. The left side of his body was paralyzed, he was blind in his left eye, and was bedridden for two years. By 1920, he had lost his memory and mental health. His wife, Edith Wilson took charge and all of that was hidden from the public.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for President in 1932 on a wheelchair, which was conveniently downplayed by the press. By the time he ran for a fourth time in 1944, he had heart disease. Harry Truman, his Vice President didn’t see him for a whole year! Calvin Coolidge was known as the do-nothing President. After the death of his son, Calvin Jnr., he lost interest in the affairs of state and slept for 11 hours a day! In 1955, Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack, an abdominal operation in 1956, and a stroke in 1957. John F. Kennedy took steroids twice a day to treat Addison’s disease. Bob Woodward reports in his book, Veil, that after the 1981 assassination attempt, Ronald Reagan was only alert for one hour a day! George W. Bush transferred power to Dick Cheney twice to undergo colonoscopy surgeries. In France, in 1981, Francois Mitterrand, who had promised that he would run “an open Presidency”, suddenly discovered that he had prostate cancer, which had already spread to his bones. He called his doctor aside and told him, this must be treated as “state secret”. He spent the rest of his Presidency battling with prostate cancer.
Far from justifying Presidential illness, the salient point is that Presidents are human beings and their immune systems can also fail, but the politics of managing Presidential illness wherever has always been a matter of optics and power. Every President wants to be loved by his people. No President imagines that he would occupy the highest office in the land and be disliked by the same people who voted him into office. Many Presidents even consider themselves supermen, and even when they are ill, they still want to be loved. Human beings can fall ill at any time, but the lesson of the Yar’Adua experience and now, Buhari’s, whose medical condition had been long announced by the PDP during the campaigns, teaches us that the medical condition of every aspiring public office holder should now and in the future be given special attention.
I stand by the point that President Buhari’s spin-doctors however did the best they could. They managed the optics: telephone calls, high profile visits. And when they saw power was beginning to shift base, they brought him back. Since his return, they have managed the optics even better. On Monday, he resumed in his office, informed the National Assembly and met with his Vice President who had acted while he was away. No one should be under any doubt that the people who manage the President would allow him to be projected as sick and incapacitated.
I recall a day in London. President Goodluck Jonathan suddenly had a stomach upset and he had to be rushed to the hospital. I was part of his Main Body, that is what we were called, that special team that he never travelled or went anywhere without and I am grateful for that special privilege. I was summoned shortly after to join him in the hospital because he wanted to issue a statement to inform Nigerians that he was indisposed and had been hospitalized. When I got to the hospital, I was received by a team of powerful players who delivered Oga’s message at the reception and asked me to do a draft there and then for all of us to consider and approve.
After preparing the statement, I insisted on seeing the President for approval. They told me the doctors were busy with him and they wanted him to rest. I protested that I could not issue a statement without his direct approval. They told me not to worry that this was an emergency situation, and I could see the President later. It was a short, harmless statement, informing Nigerians that the President was indisposed but it was nothing to worry about.
About an hour later, I went up to see the President. First, he asked why I didn’t come up to see him to issue the statement he wanted. I told him I already did so, because I had been told what he wanted me to say. He asked to see a copy of the statement I issued. I handed it over. He read it. He was upset.
“This press release does not disclose that I am here just because of a stomach upset. You have to tell the people what the exact ailment is to prevent any speculation. If you don’t state it as it is, you will allow people to start guessing.”
The powerful players who told me what the President wanted and that it was an emergency were by my side. I just muttered: “Sorry sir.”
“Anytime I am ill, just tell Nigerians what exactly is wrong with me. That is why I sent for you. Nobody knows tomorrow, but whatever is related to my health as President, you must inform Nigerians fully.”
When President Jonathan is interested in a conversation with you, he will look directly into your eyes. But the moment he looks away and starts fidgeting or he is busy trying to attend to something else, it means he has dismissed you. I got the message. “Sorry sir”. I left his bedside.
The people who talked to me, followed me. One of them said:
“Abati, don’t worry yourself, that is a very good statement. Don’t mind him. He wants you to tell Nigerians that he has stomach upset. Before you know it now, the papers tomorrow will report that the President has lost the stomach for the job, and our enemies will start using that against us.”
The job of a Presidential spokesman is definitely the second most difficult job in the Presidency. We were told for 50 days that President Buhari was hale and hearty, but he came back and said: “I have never been so sick!” He also gave the impression that his treatment is still inconclusive.