Nigeria’s lawmakers want to limit medical trips abroad for government officials

Vice president Osinbajo welcomes president Muhammadu Buhari on arrival from his first medical leave.
Vice president Osinbajo welcomes president Muhammadu Buhari on arrival from his first medical leave.
Image: Sunday Aghaeze/Nigeria State House via AP
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Medical trips abroad for government officials may soon become a thing of the past if Nigerian lawmakers have their way.

Over the years, public office holders in Nigeria have typically resorted to seeking medical treatment abroad. The most recent example came last year when president Muhammadu Buhari spent over 150 days in London receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness. In another instance, four months after commissioning a $95 million hospital as governor, in September 2015, Godswill Akpabio was flown to London for treatment following a car crash.

While Nigerians have protested these trips in the past, it turns out members of the federal house of representatives have also had enough. The lawmakers are debating a bill to amend the national health act to “regulate international trips for medical treatment by public officers.” The bill will look to specify the amount of public funds spent on public officials seeking foreign medical treatment. There is nothing to prevent a government official using private funds to pay for a medical trip. The bill, which was introduced by an opposition party lawmaker, has now passed second reading.

The problem with government officials spending taxpayer funds on seeking treatment abroad is simple: it funnels public funds abroad to already developed healthcare systems and leaves local hospitals stripped of much-needed cash. Even more, it reduces public faith in local healthcare and, perhaps most crucially, local hospitals are not prioritized by government officials as they don’t depend on them to stay alive. Frequent strike actions by doctors at public hospitals protesting low wages and poor working conditions are a steady reminder of that reality.

It’s not just a Nigerian problem either as leaders across Africa have a similar history. In fact, six of the dozen African presidents who have passed away while in office over the past decade did so while seeking foreign treatment abroad.

This bill presents a second chance of sorts for president Buhari if the lawmakers send the bill to the presidency for assent before his term is up in May 2019. Back in April 2016, his administration committed to restricting allowances for medical trips by government officials when the cases can be handled locally, but, two months later, president Buhari was off to the UK to treat an ear infection.