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Yaradua: We Still Need to Know

President Yaradua’s illness exposed the weakness of our democracy. Its management unnecessarily stressed the polity and exposed Nigeria to ridicule. The hide-and-seek about presidential illness encouraged international media to create the impression that Nigeria was North Korea or Nepal, kingdoms where the leader is the state.

The international media put a search tag on the Nigerian President. it was as if some extraterrestrial beings stole the President in the dead of night.

The highpoint of the disgrace was the 58 seconds ghosting on BBC when a tired voice spoke as our President in a make-belief after protests rocked Abuja demanding evidence that the President was alive.

That presidential managers hurried the BBC to the rescue worsened the perception of Nigeria as a medieval kingdom where the health and death of monarchs are shrouded in secrecy and fetishism. Also, the politics of the former President’s sickness undermined democratic governance. It reinforced the culture of impunity and the privatization of statecraft in the presidency.

It is therefore painful that a sensible, though belated, motion in the Senate to investigate the management of the President’s illness was thrown on the basis of sentiments and puerile rationalizations. This means that democracy is yet to find comfort in Nigeria. We are yet to accept the ethical dimensions of democracy. especially accountability of decision-makers  and the right of citizens to know.

The National Assembly was expected to put the searchlight on the goings on in the presidency when Yaradua was indisposed and in the custody of a few aides and family members. It did not. And when the President submitted to his ailment , the National Assembly still brushed aside the need to know who did what in the presidential illness scandal.

The management of the President’s ill-health was terrible. The presidency became a plaything in the hands of presidential power mongers. Presidential power turned into unlimited privilege as the President lay dying.

The need to investigate the mismanagement of Yaradua’s illness is not to further vilify the former first lady. I believe she has been made the scapegoat of a poorly designed system of governance that fails in the most basic things a democracy should do. She now carries the cross for selfish and timid role officials who refused to do the needful. It’s no use beating ‘a dead horse’. It is time to ask what went wrong and set it right.

The hue and cry from the civil society when President Yaradua lay ill in a Saudi hospital was more about the responsibility of disclosure than the simple incidence of illness. Nigerians demanded to know the true ailment of the President as an expression of democratic citizenship. No one obliged them and some officials declared how the President could stay in outer space for eternity, conceal his illness and remain President.

The real tragedy was how low-level security staff held the body of the president hostage and neither the Vice President nor the Secretary to the Government of the Federation could give any account of the President’s illness. When the Secretary to the Government appeared at the Senate Chambers he created the image of an errand boy of government.

Allegations and counter-allegations of official connivance to hide presidential letter of vacation ruled the airwaves. In this chaotic state we never heard from the National Security Adviser, the Director of State Security Service and the Director of National Intelligences, key officers managing the nation’s security.

Nigerians are always in an indecent haste to move on. Many Nigerians will say “Now that President Yaradua is dead and Goodluck Jonathan is doing well in his stead why waste time on the little inconvenience of the mismanagement of Yaradua’s illness”. This is a wrong view. The mismanagement of the president’s illness is not a little inconvenience. It is serious threat to the survival of democracy in Nigeria.

In modern democracy, the presidency is the central security issue and protecting that office from harm and indignity is the highest strategic security challenge. Likewise, the person of the President, as long as he remains in that office, is no longer for his or her family alone to manage. The president of a modern country is the responsibility of its security institution. In a democracy, security management is a reviewable activity. The right to know is no longer a token or a mere formality. It is the reality of democratic governance.

President Bush aggrandized enormous power to himself in the wake of the 9/11 attack on the United States. Many of his aides and officials exploited fear of future terrorist attacks to violate the law and plague basic rights. The US Congress did not allow these violations to escape legislative scrutiny on the basis of sensitive security operations. The right to know and the need to know trumped plea of security sensitivity. Top level officials were forced to testify to legislative committees and to the FBI on how they managed security operations.

The problem with the management of President Yaradua is that low-level officials and the first family took decisions without reverting to established security and administrative channels. For example, the decision to shield the sick President from the topmost officials was not taken by the leadership of the security establishment. We need to know who decided to deny the VP access to the president. How much was spent taking care of the President? Which doctors handled him and in what circumstances did they manage the president?

Someone may argue that this sort of disclosure is not for ordinary citizens. I deny this claim. But even at that, let those authorized by law to know get the briefing about the management of President’s illness. It is a disgrace that President Yaradua stayed away in a Saudi hospital that long before the National Assembly could ask a question about his whereabouts.

May be, if the civil society did not march on the streets to ask for the whereabouts of the President elected representatives of the people would not have bothered whether the President was dead or alive. It is even more disgraceful that even now that the infamous ‘cabal’ has got out of the way a simple motion to inquire about the management of the President was summarily throw out of the window.

Much ado about an illness, one may say. Precisely for the reason that a President’s illness is not just another illness. The office of the President is not the living space of a man, his wife and children. It is the expression of democratic responsibility. Presidents as long as they are in power are ‘common property’. So when they are ill their bodies do not rest only in the care and control of their spouses.

The real reason we need an inquiry into what happened to President Yaradua is the possibility that many high crimes or reckless dereliction of duty may have occurred in the management of an illness. For a start we need to know how the budget was signed and no one responded to legislative resolution to hand over a vacation letter. We need to know how the decision to fly the President to a Saudi hospital, instead of, say, US hospital, was taken; and whether it was made by the right persons.

If there are no other reason to have this inquiry, we should have it for the sake of citizens who need to know. And that’s why we claim to be a democracy.
Dr. Sam Amadi
Abuja, Nigeria


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