Throughout last week, it didn’t feel good to be Nigerian. On Tuesday in particular, reading the international media was a painful experience.
“Nigerian president to ‘work from home’ after rat infestation,” read the headline of a BBC report on Nigeria, with the lead going: Nigeria’s president will spend three months working from home after his office was damaged by rats.
“Rodents force Nigerian president to work from home,” Daily Mailwrote in its own version of the event. “Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari will work from home after rodents damaged his official office during a more than 100-day overseas medical absence,” it reported, quoting a presidential spokesman as telling the AFP.“The animals damaged furniture and air conditioning fittings in the president’s official Abuja office while he was in London receiving treatment.”
Quoting the president’s spokesman like others, Xinhua, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China, reported: “Nigerian president’s office damaged by rodents after long sick leave.”
The world must have summed Nigeria up as a huge joke: the people, the President, his spokesmen.
A barefaced lie
Rodents are not free spirits who go where the wind takes them. They’re constantly in search of two things — food and shelter — and they settle wherever they find them. To have invaded Buhari’s office, there must have been holes in the walls or floors; everyone knows this is impossible. The other option is that there was leftover food, unwashed plates or unkempt waste bins in the President’s office; this, too, is outright impossible.
Were rats to have miraculously made their way to the President’s office, it would certainly have been in numbers not enough to wreak havoc. Even if furniture and air condition fittings were damaged by the rodents, a 103-day absence was enough to fix the damage. To tell Nigerians such unwholesome lie means this administration and its media machinery cannot be trusted one bit.
What this lie means is that something is desperately wrong somewhere. It means, matter-of-factly, that Buhari is still not strong enough to contain the everyday rigour of running the presidency. It means that when the President’s media team releases a photo of him meeting Vice President Osinbajo, we can imagine that the President retreated to his bedroom right after to catch some rest. It’s clear the President’s public appearances are being micromanaged —something that cannot be done in his office without drawing the notice of one or two notoriously nosy State House correspondents.
Culprits of the damage
There is clearly a damage to the President’s office — ‘office’ here being the honour and prestige that should normally be commanded by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But it can’t be blamed on rats.
Instead, blame it on the President, a public official who continues to handle his health with privacy. Beyond the opening line, where he expressed gratitude “to God and to all Nigerians for their prayers”, Buhari addressed Nigerians on his return to the country without discussing his health, keeping in the dark millions of taxpayers on whose account he received treatment in London.
By obstinately adopting a policy of secrecy on his health, Buhari continues to inflict enormous damage on the President’s office. It is simple commitment to responsibility that a public official doesn’t leave the public guessing about any matter on which state funds are expended. It is this kind of responsibility deficit that has allowed Ayodele Fayose, Governor of Ekiti State, make wild claims on the President’s health, including once saying that he was on life support.
Elsewhere in mature democracies, public officials, even those of lower ranks, are living up to that responsibility.
Just last month, John McCain, current Arizona senator (elected for his sixth term in 2016) and former US presidential nominee of the Republican Party, disclosed that he had been diagnosed with cancer (specifically glioblastoma). The disclosure by McCain’s media office fetched him support from all corners of America, with Barrack Obama, who ran against McCain in the 2008 election, emotively tweeting: John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.
McCain returned to the senate days later to cast the decisive vote in the rejection of the proposal to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act, the New York Times describing his speech on the day as “having the potential to go down as a Senate classic”. That’s an 80-year-old; at 73, who says Buhari can’t disclose his health status yet function effectively if the right conditions are in place?
Rather than blame the damage on the President’s office on rodents, blame it on his spokesmen, who have so far failed to display the courage to handle the President’s coverage differently from how “yesterday’s men” did.
The average Nigerian President fails to succeed, in part, because he is surrounded by sycophants — yes-men who rarely disagree with him and hardly advise him to go the unpopular way even if it’s the right path.
Blame that sycophancy on our desperation to hang on to power regardless of the stakes. It’s something of a national culture; from the President to ministers and aides. Nigerian politicians never want to give up their jobs, even when their credibility is at stake; that is why Garba Shehu will confidently tell the media that rodents have infested the President’s office. He must keep his job; and to keep it he must defend the indefensible. But don’t blame him too much, knowing that even his principal would cling to power till 2019 at least, whether or not he is medically fit.
Blame it on the people — like the Buhari apologists in whose estimation the President can do no wrong; they are the people who embolden those in government to tell bewildering lies and act with impunity, knowing that they will always go scot-free.
Finally, blame it, one more time, on a President who cannot touch his own men regardless of the scale of embarrassment they cause the country. We’ve been there before. When Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech was plagiarised in Buhari’s ‘Change Begins with Me’ speech in 2016, the President vowed to punish ‘those responsible”. Eleven months after, the presidency has not named — much less shame — the “deputy director” being touted to have “taken responsibility”.
The ridicule that has recently been brought to the office of the President is monumental. To parody the title of the legendary Ola Rotimi’s most famous book, the rats are not to blame. The occupant of the office and his aides are the chief culprits.
•Soyombo, Editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo