Sunday, 7 September 2008

President Umaru Yar'Adua Also becomes ill

Nigeria: 17 Days of Waiting for Mr President

Vanguard (Lagos)

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Ben Agande

WHAT started as rumour became a serious matter ten days after President Umaru Yar'Adua left Nigeria for Saudi Arabia in what official explanation said was a trip to perform the lesser Hajj, an obligation performed by Muslims but less known than the annual Hajj which every Muslim who has the capacity is expected to perform at least once in a life time.

After announcing the retirement of the top echelon of the military, the special adviser to the president on communications, Segun Adeniyi, had said the President was proceeding on to Mecca to perform Umrah.

Although he did not include the day Yar'Adua was expected to return, many observers in the President Villa believed that the President would be back in a matter of days since a scheduled trip to Brazil was just days away. But as people say, man proposes, God disposes. The trip to Brazil was cancelled and the exact date of Yar'Adua's return has since been a subject of speculation.

If the President had retired from politics after serving for eight years as the governor of Katsina State and gone back to teaching analytical chemistry at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria as was being speculated before he was drafted into the presidential race by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the brouhaha that his continued stay in Saudi Arabia has generated would have been confined to his immediate environment and family. But from the moment he threw his hat into the ring, Yar'Adua has, like no other President in the history of Nigeria, had to have his medical record closely examined to the minutest details.

At the heat of his nationwide campaign to become the president, Yar'Adua had to break his campaign trail to dash off to Germany, where, as subsequent events proved, he had been a regular visitor to attend to his medical needs.

But for a man whom many agree is deeply reserved and emotionally reticent, the responsibility of making known to the Nigerian public the reason for his visit to Germany fell on the leadership of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, which many people believe poorly handled the information about his departure.

Three days into his trip, rumours about the deterioration in his health heightened so much so that it took a dramatic telephone call from Obasanjo which was televised and routed through a loud speaker for the anxiety of millions of Nigerians to be doused. Even after assuming office and severally assuring Nigerians that his health conditions were exaggerated, Yar'Adua has continually found himself in the public glare with questions being raised perpetually about his state of health.

Unfortunately, his ingrained reticence has tended to obscure rather than reveal his true strength.But, how did we get to this state where the nation was almost at a stand still with rumour making the rounds that the President's health has so much degenerated such that he was alleged to be on life support machine in a Saudi Hospital where, ab initio, he was said to have gone to, not on medical grounds but to perform a religious obligation? When news of Yar'Adua's indisposition in Saudi Arabia was first mooted by Saharareporters, the New York-based Nigerian website, the issue was only disclosed in hushed tones.

But when the same website reported and was later confirmed by officials of the Brazilian government that the planned state visit had been cancelled ("readjusted" in the words of the foreign affairs minister, Ojo Maduekwe), what was initially thought to be in the realm of speculative journalism" was gradually assuming the toga of truth. And, indeed, the issue could no longer be kept secret.

In deed, the concern by many Nigerians over the health of the President is borne out of two considerations; for many Nigerians, it is borne of a genuine concern that a President who struck a good cord with many Nigerians because of his perceived sterling qualities was being unnecessarily bogged down by sickness, while to the feeble political opposition, the "perennial" sickness of the President was a confirmation of their long held view that he ought not to have been there in the first place.

But, as if to compound the already complex issues surrounding Yar'Adua's health, there is scant information from official quarters on the true state of things. While the Minister of Information and communications, John Odey, and Maduekwe insisted that the president's long stay at the holy land and the cancellation of his planned trip to Brazil were nothing unorthodox, there were daily information which tend to create the impression that those saddled with the responsibility of managing the information of the President are either truly ignorant of the true position or are being economical with the truth. It would appear that the former appears to be more appropriate.

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While there is a loud silence on the true state of the president's health and indeed whether he is in hospital, the rumour mill has found a fertile ground to thrive. In fact, the last week, rumour about the death of Yar'Adua was so strong that the Minister of Information had to issue a two- paragraph statement reaffirming that the President was "hale and hearty". As it was during his campaign to be elected as president, rumour about death is again a constant thing about our President. Unfortunately, there appears to be nobody in the mould of Obasanjo to call Yar'Adua on speaker phone to assure Nigerians that he is not dead.

Despite the assurances from Odey that the President is well, there is no let to the anxiety and rumour about his health in the land. The local media have been trying to outdo each other on who would bring out the biggest 'scoop'. While some reported that the President had had a kidney transplant and was on a life support machine, others said the operation had not been done as a matching kidney has not found. The confusion in the coverage of Yar'Adua's health underscores the confusion in the land about the true position of the President's health.

The question being asked is,since Yar'Adua has consistently admitted that he is a human being and can be sick, why has his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to seek medical help, been so shrouded in secrecy?

According to impeccable sources in the Villa, with the exception of the Vice President and some Presidency key officers, many officials in government are equally unaware of the true position of things which informs the apparent confusion in the land. Nothing demonstrates this truism than the vague explanation from key government officials that the President will come back as soon as possible."

And to demonstrate that all is well with Yar'Adua, news was passed around that having performed his lesser hajj, the President was due to come back to the country, Tuesday last week, to chair the weekly Federal Executive Council meeting for the first time in three weeks the following Wednesday.

Though there was high expectation in the larger society about Yar'Adua's return plan, there was no sign in the Presidential Villa that such return was imminent. The usual activities associated with presidential movement was non-existent and there was deliberate silence by key officials to say exactly whether the President would come back on Tuesday as reported or not. Not surprising, Wednesday came and went and the President was nowhere around the council chambers.

While Yar'Adua is away,activities in the Presidential Villa appears to have come to a standstill in the over fifteen days that he has been out. Instead, the rumour mill is waxing stronger and the media especially the web based news services are striving to outdo one another on who has the most "authentic" update on the president's health. But the question that has kept agitating the minds of many Nigerians is why would the president's men deliberately keep Nigerians out of the true position of Yar'Adua's health when the President, on several occasions, has openly admitted that his health is not in the best of state and as a human being there is nothing extraordinary about it?

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The implication of the events of the last two weeks has done incalculable damage to the perception of Nigerians about their Presidency. The implication is that everything that emanates from such a government no matter how well intentioned might be taken with a pinch of salt. For a government that came in with so much goodwill, this is not the best way to be perceived. .

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