We have never been this sick!

President Muhammadu Buhari confessed on Friday that he was ill. “I have never been this sick,” he lamented. He isn’t the only one sick. The whole country is. It is just that he has been the only one forthright enough to confirm what we find convenient to deny. He wasn’t at home for 50 days, yes. Millions of other Nigerians are also far from living, seeking solutions to ailments of existence. For some, the ailment is physical; for many, it is financial. Daddy and mummy may be at home but their minds are elsewhere. They are absent, not there for their children anymore. And this has reached an epidemic proportion. Absentee parenting naturally leads to parenting deficit. What Nigeria suffered wasn’t exactly absentee parenting when President Buhari was away. I have heard of absentee parenting. I have seen its high cost to the child and to the home and to the community. I have heard of its debilitating social and economic effects – broken marriages and homes and stress-caused illnesses. It is costly. It is expensive. But are its negative outcomes as wrecking as a whole village not knowing who and where the head is? We didn’t suffer from a lack of a president and presidential actions while Buhari was away. What we suffered was an overdose of presidential actions. What we had was parallel to ambiguous parenting. A horrible spectacle of a child torn between two fathers. Who really should he turn to in times of crisis? We had a president in London convalescing and conversing officially with foreign and local powers. We also had an acting president at home who was moving from north to south exercising the powers of the president. One was ensconced in his ubiquitous brown robe, the other was clad in what he himself called a borrowed robe.

Whenever one is worsted by a big misfortune, small ones mount to pummel one – eyes and nose. The foreign media saw a buffet and helped themselves to our sorrow. The influential Financial Times started the bad narrative. It said our president was missing. The media everywhere are amebo, they poke their nose into matters not brought to their court. “Nigeria’s president is missing in action” was the title of its mischievous piece published on February 8, 2017. It amused itself that a whole retired General could be missing practically in action at a time his country was tottering on the brink of an economic Armageddon. After describing what it called the “slow-blinking leadership” of Buhari, the newspaper capped it with a verdict that the tragedy of post-2015 Nigeria was that “policy making has been so ponderous” that whatever happened or happens or may happen, the difference won’t be clear to anyone. Others soon followed in the steps of the Financial Times. The New York Times of February 17, 2017 wrote on “The case of Nigeria’s missing president”, saying “it seemed odd (for anyone hale and hearty) to leave the warmth of Abuja for the misery of English winter.” Even from India came an insult of a piece titled “Nigeria: A missing president and a reeling nation.” The Indian Economist of March 3, 2017 which published that piece reviewed the state of the nation, its contracting economy and the pains of living through the hard times. It came up with the dubious conclusion that with everything in Nigeria, time was the most reliable prophet and only luck could be of help.

While all these were on, politicians were positioning themselves for advantage. Those who were out of the country came home; those who always travel cancelled all trips. There were prayers and calls for more prayers. We do not know who paid whom to pray what prayers. From Borno to Sokoto to the Niger Delta to the PDP and the APC, all lines were blurred just as the blurred vision of the moment. Politicians do not care a hoot if anyone lives or anyone dies. Power and the privileges it confers are more prized than any other thing under the sun. The economy continued its contraction and no one cared. What deserved care was power and…power.

But thank God, all these appear over now. Buhari came back into the country on Friday, 10 March. His arrival turned out as controversial as his exit. A newspaper preemptively reported at dawn that he arrived 4am in Kaduna and was moved by helicopter to Abuja. The internet immediately went into an overdrive, questioning his arrival under the cover of darkness on March 10. It went back to Umaru Yar’Adua and exclaimed that he was also brought in on 10 March, 2010 under the cover of darkness, asking: “is March 10 smuggling day?” It turned out that Yar’Adua was not brought back on 10 March, 2010. He left Nigeria on 23 November, 2009 and returned on 24 February, 2010. It also turned out the report of Buhari sneaking in at 4am was false. Buhari arrived some minutes to 8am – on his feet and in one piece – ending weeks of speculations and wild guesses. And there has been no apology from those who misinformed us. We suffered. Our economy suffered. Our politics suffered. The media suffered. The president too said he suffered. He was honest and forthright about the whole thing. He wasn’t hale and hearty. He was ill, very ill, he said. That admission was a redeeming moment for him. He almost bared it all, even disclosing that he got blood transfusion. He volunteered more, warned against self-medication, counselled us to trust our doctors… What ails him? We will know more in weeks to come.

The greatest victims were Buhari’s media aides. Their friends in the mainstream media did esprit de corps, treating them nicely, but the Internet, as usual, proved a worthy adversary. They were abused and harassed like the Kaura Namoda corps member who was slapped and detained for doing his duty to Nigeria. But while the Internet bailed out the corps member, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu found themselves in the mouth of the carnivore called the Internet and its social media platforms. These platforms can be channels of truth, but they can also be runways giving wings to falsehood to fly and travel abroad. They won’t stop rupturing the tendons of truth, creating deep impasses between what is true and what we are told. David Myers, Professor of Law at Valparaiso University, United States, in a 2005 piece, believes “quiescent anarchy is a fitting description for the Internet.” It remains “quite resilient to government regulation,” and is so unrepentant in leaving its victim in its wake. While Buhari was away, everyone with Internet connectivity became an authority on the news of his condition and on what ails him. The internet is ever the vehicle of information, disinformation and misinformation. There were/are several colours of truth competing for attention in the marketplace of believability. Politics and ethnicity and class determined what you chose and how you chose it. It became difficult to know who really was the “constituted authority” on Buhari’s health, ill-health, recovery and arrival in Nigeria. We suffered. And, has the suffering stopped?

Buhari did well trusting his deputy enough and respecting the law by handing over the government while he was away. If he did not, the law would have forced it. But he did and that was a major gain for this democracy. Errant governors whose core duty is sneaking out of the country now have nowhere to hide again, they must hand over. A former governor in 2001 likened his deputy to a spare tyre. You do not need a spare tyre until and unless you have a flat tyre. If the need does not arise, the extra tyre remains locked away in the dark enclosure where it is free to waste and even go flat. Now, Buhari has educated the ignorant with his long absence. Let your spare tyre be as brand new as the ones in use. You do not know where unfriendly nails will rip open the prized ones. Buhari’s deputy has shown how effective a spare president could be. Many governors deliberately went for disused, expired tyres as their spare. Such governors now have to choose between staying at home and handing over to their unwanted deputies. You and I also now know that as we choose our governors and presidents, we owe ourselves the duty of care of choosing competence as the spare tyre. Subservient State Houses of Assembly too can now go get some sense and earn their pay by getting governors to do well. The people gain when the law rules, otherwise we all remain sick and unwell.