News that Abba Kyari has contracted the novel coronavirus, and that Muhammadu Buhari might also be infected with it in spite of denials by his handlers, has centralized conversations about the propriety or lack thereof of compassion for unfeeling and soulless leaders who are ensnared by personal tragedies.
The vast majority of Nigerians that I’ve encountered on social media seem to be enraptured by news that Kyari and Buhari—and possibly many others in the circles of political power and influence in Nigeria—have fallen victims to COVID-19.
But their joy, as I understand it, doesn’t stem from a perverse delight from the misfortunes of others.
It stems, instead, from their perception of coronavirus as a social leveler, which has forced their leaders to experience the health care sector they have abandoned for years since foreign medical tourism is no longer an option at least in the foreseeable future.
In other words, they see coronavirus as the karmic payback to their leaders for their enduringly criminal neglect of the health of the nation.
The overwhelming attitude of celebratory acclamation of the personal catastrophes of Kyari and possibly Buhari and others has also been met with calls for compassion from many people.
Gloating and taunting over the tragedies of people, however terrible they may be, bespeaks a diminished, stunted humanity, they seem to suggest.
But here’s the deal.
First, testing positive to coronavirus is not a death sentence. More than 90 percent of people who contract it recover.
Second, our compassion or ill will are totally immaterial to the resolution of the infections that afflict Nigeria’s oppressors now.
Nature is insensitive to our emotions and sense of righteousness.
That’s why horrible things happen to pious people and why malevolent people can be triumphant.
Coincidences are not iron-clad rules of nature.
Sani Abacha’s death wasn’t a consequence of his malevolence. If that were so, to what would you attribute the death of MKO Abiola about the same time that Abacha died? The notion of karmic retribution is humanity’s quest to impose simplistic order to the chaos that is nature.
So what people wish and don’t wish their leaders—and others— is wholly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
Plus, however hard you try, you simply can’t legislate people’s emotion or determine for them how they should feel about people and events.
In any case, everyday Nigerians increasingly realize that the compassion they feel for their leaders when they are afflicted with personal catastrophes is hardly requited.
For instance, in April 2017, then governor of Zamfara, Abdul’aziz Yari, said the meningitis that devastated thousands of people in his state was “divine” punishment for their moral transgressions.
And in the aftermath of the horrendous mass massacre of poor people in Borno by Boko Haramearly this year, Buhari, as always, was unconcerned.
When he was, as is now customary, compelled by deafening public outcry to visit Borno, he showed zero empathy for the people.
He never uttered a single word of comfort to the people and never even visited the real theatre of bloodshed in the town of Auno. Instead, he blamed the people, as he has done elsewhere whenever he is forced to pay visits, for their sorrows.
“This Boko Haram or whoever they are, cannot come up to Maiduguri or its environs to attack without the local leadership knowing,” he said on February 13, 2020.
While he blames the poor for their personal tragedies and does absolutely nothing to attenuate their hurt, he goes to London to treat his illnesses, including even mere ear infections.
Abba Kyari was reported to have gone to Londonon December 2, 2016 to treat “breathing problems” at taxpayers’ expense, and Punch reported on March 25, 2020 that “Doctors attending to the Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, have obtained his medical records from Wellington Hospital, St. John’s Wood, London,” suggesting that none of Kyari’s medical records exists in any Nigerian hospital.
And while northern Nigerian Muslim masses were slaughtering rams and getting rapturous in prayers for Buhari’s recovery when he fell critically ill in 2017, the man was receiving modern, world-class treatment in London from the public treasury.
He didn’t attribute his sickness to divine affliction. In fact, when he returned home, he rhapsodised over the medical advances in UK hospitals, as if to mock everyday Nigerians who couldn’t afford to go to London to treat their illnesses.
In Nigeria, before coronavirus, when the rich were sick, they sought the best medical treatment abroad while the poor at home prayed for them to recover, but when the poor are sick, the rich tell them they are suffering divine punishment for their moral failings.
Why should ordinary people who are the victims of the callous ineptitude and lack of empathy of their leaders be invited to show compassion to their leaders now in their moment of helplessness?
Why shouldn’t the poor celebrate that the rich are also crying and have nowhere to go but the same hospitals they allowed to rot for years?
At the same time, hate and other kinds of toxic emotions do more violence to the people who harbur them than they do to people to whom they are directed. While I won’t tell anyone to love people who hate them, I’d only counsel that hate is both ineffective and self-annihilating.
Nonetheless, there is an additional reason why people are antsy about Buhari’s health, particularly in light of his suspicious seclusion from the public: it uncannilyevokes memories of how the late Umaru Musa Yar’adua’s health was managed.
This is not the first time this is being done. In my June 11, 2016 column titled “The Yar’aduaisation of Buhari’s Health by His Media Adviser,” I pointed out that,“In more ways than one, the media handling of [Buhari’s] health eerily recalls how former presidential spokesman Segun Adeniyi and what infamously came to be known as ‘the Yar’adua cabal’ managed the late President Yar’adua’s health and robbed him of the sympathy he deserved from Nigerians.
“Everything about his health was cloaked in secrecy and doublespeak. The truth and the Nigerian nation also became casualties of the president’s sickness. (I’m not by any means implying that the same fate that befell Yar’adua would befall Buhari; I am only comparing the media handling of the health of the two leaders).
“There is nothing to be ashamed of in sickness. It’s a garment we all must periodically wear in the course of our ephemeral earthly existence.”
The exact same thing is happening again. Nigerians suspect that Buhari has contracted coronavirus and is probably in a bad shape now, made even worse by the fact that he can’t go abroad, as he always does, for medical treatment.
Wildly morbid rumors and disconcerting conspiracy theories are being spun daily on social media.
Instead of telling the truth, or getting Buhari to address the nation in a live broadcast, his media team posted a still photo of him looking blankly at a piece of paper on social media as evidence that he is strong, healthy, and working hard in his office. Never mind that they had said the entire presidential villa had been evacuated and was being fumigated.
The current senseless, unintelligent lies and propaganda are a replay of the Yar’Adua saga. But when government information managers lie this shamelessly, they rob their principals of compassion from the governed when tragedy befalls them.