Nigeria is repeating the same old mistake by shrouding the president’s health issues in secrecy

Not hale and hearty.
Not hale and hearty.
Image: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
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On the day he was due to return from what was seemingly a simple 10-day vacation in the United Kingdom, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari has rocked the country by extending his stay for medical reasons.

A statement by Nigeria’s presidency says Buhari, 74, needs to remain in the UK ”in order to complete and receive the results of a series of tests recommended by his doctors.”

Buhari’s sudden announcement of health concerns, on the back of several recent denials by his media aides of any health problems and the lack of any new return date, is predictably stoking fears and setting off rumors in Nigeria’s fragile polity.

Nigeria’s late president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Nigeria’s late president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Image: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde/Files

Many Nigerians rightly feel like they’ve been here before. In 2010, then president Musa Yar’adua passed away in office, at 58, after months of ill health despite repeated assurances by the presidency. Before passing on, Yar’adua did not transfer power to his vice president Goodluck Jonathan, thus leaving a brief, but tense, period of uncertainty and a power vacuum.

For many Nigerians, the major grouse following Yar’adua’s death was the secrecy in which his ill health had been shrouded and less than a decade later, it appears another president is repeating the same mistake. By yet again failing to manage the message from the onset, the presidency has sparked off a stream of wild speculation which will set the narrative. But in Africa, as Quartz has previously reported, the story of sick presidents going missing while seeking treatment is all too common.

In another respect, Buhari’s decision to seek medical attention abroad flies in the face of rhetoric from his government to prioritize patronage of Nigerian businesses and industries. Signaling a possible shift in practice which previously saw government officials fly abroad for medical care, last April, Buhari’s government announced it would not no longer provide allowances for medical trips by government officials.

The president’s decision to seek treatment abroad also reveals a lack of trust in Nigeria’s local healthcare facilities while millions of Nigerians cannot afford expensive medical trips abroad. Despite a well-funded state house clinic, this is Buhari’s second medical trip in less than a year after traveling to the UK to treat an ear infection last June.