Looking at the trends of development so far on Nigeria’s political turf, the presidential election may feature two septuagenarian candidates that will represent the country’s two leading political parties. If any of the two is eventually elected, he would, most probably, be one of the oldest persons ever sworn in to office as President.
With Nigeria’s experiences with a former President who died in office after a long drawn battle with ill-health, and the current one that travels abroad frequently for health checks, It’s hardly surprising that citizens would want more information about the health of any prospective candidate gunning for the position of president. This curiosity is further heightened as COVID-19 rips across the globe, presenting an outsize threat to older people and those with pre-existing conditions.
While most Nigerians, due to cultural and religious influences, would prefer to observe things and make comments in hushed tones, same cannot be said of popular columnist with a knack for controversies, Farooq A. Kperogi.
In a recent article titled, “Tinubu: A Presidential Disaster Waiting to Happen?”, Kperogi, in his characteristic garrulous diatribe, delved into issues that threw up questions about the possible health status of a frontline contender for the presidency come 2023, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Kperogi opined that “anyone who has watched Bola Ahmed Tinubu closely and dispassionately can’t help but notice that the man is not well. His endless verbal miscues and nonverbal cues constantly conspire to construct the profile of a man who is battling a troubling internal turmoil.
“He slurs his words, slacks his attention, blanks out, has awkward gaits (which caused him to trip at Arewa House in Kaduna recently), that seem impervious to the world around him. That, for me, is the outward manifestation of an inner turbulence.”
Reinforcing this view with Tinubu’s slip on April 8 in Abuja at the launch of Aisha Buhari’s biography when he misidentified Dolapo Osinbajo, as the “wife of the president,” and another loss of footing during his 69th birthday celebration in Kano when he suggested that government should employ 50 million youth into the military, Kperogi delivered an uppercut conclusion.
“If Nigeria is to have a chance at survival, it shouldn’t make the mistake of replacing a dementia-ravaged Buhari with an emotionally and mentally troubled Tinubu.“
Tinubu has one of the most sophisticated media and mind managers in Nigeria and they descended on Kperogi like a pack of hyena.
In a key statement issued in Abuja, the Head of Media and Publicity of Tinubu Solidarity Group, Mr. Oluwatosin Johnson, denied what he described as “Kperogi’s wild claims and urged him to uphold the ethics of journalism practice without being mischievous”
Oluwatosin condemned Kperogi’s hypothetical submission, describing his narratives as fallacious and idiotic.
The group said it was shocked by Kperogi’s “curious and spurious allegations”, declaring that Tinubu is medically sound and fit to undertake any national assignments whatsoever.
The group went spiritual by admonishing those it accused of playing evil politics with human health to repent and turn a new leaf, adding that no human being has the key over any other’s life or death except God.
Rumpus on health issues surrounding presidents and aspirants to the position are not limited to Nigeria. There are records in Europe and America, of presidents and other leaders battling to hide their debilitating ailments. Most times it starts long before the primaries.
In the US, presidents have long been wary of allowing the public to see them as less than a picture of perfect health, and history reveals an astounding list of hidden truths when it comes to the health of America’s commanders in chief.
America’s former President, Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack and a stroke while in office. John F. Kennedy was plagued by a number of conditions, including Addison’s disease, hypothyroidism, and severe back pain, none of which was publicly disclosed during his lifetime. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke so severe that his wife took over many of his routine duties. His successor, Warren Harding, had congestive heart failure and died of a heart attack two years into his presidency.
One of the most unusual was President Grover Cleveland’s 1893 cover-up of his oral cancer surgery. He smuggled a surgeon and his team onto a friend’s yacht to remove a tumor from the roof of his mouth.
Under the guise of a fishing expedition, the president boarded a friend’s yacht and set sail for his summer holidays. Once aboard, a team of six surgeons used ether and nitrous oxide to anesthetise the president, and in less than two hours they removed the tumor, five teeth, and part of his jaw—without making a single external incision, and leaving his signature moustache intact. Everyone involved was sworn to secrecy, and within weeks Cleveland was speaking publicly. Cleveland emerged from his “fishing trip” four days later. The surgery was kept largely secret for nearly a quarter-century.
However, the question still persists over the years — what right do citizens have to know the intimate details of a president’s medical history or that of a presidential candidiate, either physical or mental?
In Nigeria, right from the time of President Umaru Yar’ Adua, there were calls for legislations that will compel elected political leaders to release their health reports.
Calls for presidential candidates to release their medical records presumably stem from citizens desire to understand whether an individual is likely to survive his or her term and meet the demands of what is perhaps one of the world’s most stressful job.
From the current level of curiosity, most Nigerians would agree that presidential candidates should release their medical records, while sitting presidents and governors should do same, probably annually. These demands for greater transparency, many believe, are not unreasonable. The public deserves a basic understanding of candidates’ health and that of their elected leaders since public funds would be used for their treatment if they are down. But as it is often pointed out in most medical issues, the question is whether, all things being considered, the benefits outweigh the risks.
Some health experts and analysts are in a different school of thought. They believe a wholesale release of medical records of any leader may do more harm than good. These pundits feel campaign operatives or other opponents, dissecting years of their opponent’s medical records, would only be interested in picking some fodder for political theatrics. They equally believe presidential candidates, sitting presidents and other top functionaries should have the right to keep their medical and mental health information private, just like other citizens. This, they opine, will help to ensure that any decision to seek medical care is a personal and medical one, and not done for political effect or from other pressures. Besides, this school of thought also believe some illness can be blown out of proportion by public discourse.
The fact is that with or without disclosures, there would still be public discourse and speculations on the health conditions of elected leaders and others in public service. Now does it not make sense to appropriately guide such conversations with facts? Until an acceptable middle ground is achieved on the issue, discussions, speculations, half-truths and assumptions on the health conditions of top public officers like the president, as well as those who aspire to succeed them, will persist in the polity.