When President Buhari returns…, by Jideofor Adibe
n a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria, where the fault lines are deep, the politics of symbolism, has been shown to be effective in increasing a leader’s national acceptance
People who believe that Nigerians asking questions about when Buhari should come back to the country are ‘busy bodies’ who should leave the President alone to recuperate and return to the country at his convenience, do not get it. There is something called ‘suspense’ – one of the hallmarks of a good story. An ‘exciting’ story is driven by suspense: it leads us down a path of expectations and builds tensions as the plot unwinds. Suspense helps to capture and sustain interest in a story.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s medical vacation in the UK has been turned into a suspense-packed story. The competing narratives from the various centres of power around the presidency have helped to deepen distrust of official versions while strengthening the suspense. Like in any good story, ears are wide open on how it will all end.
The initial story was simple enough: the president was proceeding on a ten-day holidays, during which time he would use the opportunity to carry out a routine medical check-up. He duly notified the Senate and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo became empowered as the Acting President. As would be expected in a low-trust and polarized environment like ours, conspiracy theories and grapevine talks took over, with some claiming the President was dead. It was probably in a bid to debunk this that the President’s media aides went into over drive: they claimed he was hale and hearty but at the same time urged Nigerians to keep praying for him; then there were several Nigerians that visited him in London for a photo op. Buhari also reportedly called some Nigerians, including Femi Adeshina, the President’s Senior Special Adviser on the media. Just a few days ago, there were reports that the ‘cabal’ were trying to hurriedly bring him back to the country before the official closure of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja for repairs on March 8. When Buhari did not make it back before the closure of the airport, the social media became agog with stories that his UK doctors refused to give him a clean bill of health. Obviously the way Buhari’s medical vacation has been handled infused much suspense into the story and no one should blame anyone for being inquisitive (that is what suspense does in a story) or creating their own stories to explain the situation – either out of mischief or because they do not trust official explanations of the situation.
What would have changed, if, from the beginning, Nigerians were told that the President was feeling unwell and needed medical attention in the UK (without specifying the number of days he would be away)? What would have the President lost if he had addressed Nigerians through a video conference from the United Kingdom instead of allegedly selectively speaking to some people over the phone or having a photo opportunity with a stream of visitors? Even if he looks unwell or his voice is shaky and husky in such a video, Nigerians will understand that such conditions come with illness, even with malaria. It can even galvanize compassion for him. The suspected fear that such would trigger calls for him to be declared incapacitated seems therefore misplaced especially as there is no sense of vacuum in governance.
There are a number of issues around the politics of the President’s medical vacation in the UK:
One, if the President stays for too long outside the country, the halo of the office will gradually move from him to the Acting President. Right now while the Acting President is only the President in law, Buhari remains the President in fact, and the legitimacy of the office resides with him. However, if Buhari remains outside the country for a prolonged period of time, the Acting President will also over time be seen as the President in fact and in law and the perception that Buhari is too sick to govern will harden. If the Acting President is still enjoying a political honeymoon by the time the President returns (every political honey moon eventually ends), his return may be seen as a sort of forward to the past. It is therefore imperative that the President reaches understanding with his UK doctors for his treatment to continue in the country. He can always shuttle to the UK to meet his doctors as the occasion demands.
Two, it is not written anywhere that a President who is ill, or even gravely ill, cannot be in office and rule through existing institutions and trusted aides. Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd President of the USA, served for 12 years while using leg braces, a cane in public, and a modified wheelchair in private. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the USA, served two terms as president, with the last three years of his second term being spent in a wheelchair due to a massive stroke. Similarly though John F Kennedy was only 43 years old when he became the 35th US President, he had Addison’s disease (which causes the adrenal glands that produce adrenaline and other hormones to wither resulting in symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss and difficulty standing up). In the same vein Francois Mitterrand had cancer while serving as French President just as Winston Churchill had depression, a heart attack and a stroke while serving as British Prime Minister. Another British Prime Minister Harold Wilson suffered from symptoms that were later diagnosed as colon cancer during his second term in office and might also have suffered from Alzheimer’s. Gordon Brown lost the sight in one eye after a teenage rugby accident and has a retinal detachment in his other eye, meaning he had serious issues with his eyes but it did not prevent him from serving as Prime Minister of Britain. Konstantin Chernenko, the fifth general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was terminally ill when he took office in February 1984.
Following from the above, the fear that political opponents will jump to declare Buhari incapacitated and unfit to rule if it is admitted that he is seriously ill is misplaced. Such can only arise if a vacuum is perceived to be created in governance as a result of the President’s illness. By empowering Osinbajo to create a sense of continuity in governance, that option is already foreclosed.
Three, given the dynamics of our politics and the fragility of our democracy and polity, we are all better off for President Buhari to be ‘helped’ to complete his tenure. It will be a legitimate aspiration for those who feel he has underperformed to organize and vote him out in 2019. Even if the President on his return decides that he is too ill to continue, constitutional imperative will still need to interact with political realities to create a political solution.
Four, if President Buhari (or the ‘cabal’ around him) tries on his return to cut Osinbajo to size to checkmate his rising profile, it will boomerang – unless Osinbajo’s current political honeymoon with Nigerians has already come to an abrupt end. In the same vein, Osinbajo’s ability to resist any temptations of becoming used to the spotlight as Acting President, and the ease with which he can quickly revert to his constitutional role as a ‘spare tyre’, (if that is what the President demands of him on his return), will go a long way in defining the future relationship between a President and the Vice President.
Five, in a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria, where the fault lines are deep, the politics of symbolism, has been shown to be effective in increasing a leader’s national acceptance. We saw this during the 2015 campaigns when photographs of Buhari in different ethnic costumes diluted perceptions of him in much of the southern part of the country as a provincial man with little knowledge and few friends from outside the Northern part of the country. While Obasanjo, Babangida and Atiku could be called the grandmasters of the politics of symbolism in Nigeria – they have networks from across the country and could show up at any local event in any part of the country and feel at home – Ag President has embraced this politics of symbolism and it seems to be working for him. He has for instance ordered companies to relocate their headquarters to the Niger Delta. While in practical terms this may not mean much (a company can designate any building as its headquarters while the real activities take place elsewhere), as a symbolic gesture, it means much. It is for instance likely to touch a chord among militants in the Niger Delta who feel that activities of the oil companies damaged their environments.
While Buhari may regard the politics of symbolism as “little lies” that are beneath him, in politics optics can be even more important than deliverables. And it is one of the areas that the President has not done well at all.
Adibe writes from [email protected] Twitter:@JideoforAdibe.