By Wole Olaoye
“One of these days, His Excellency is going to put all of us in trouble”, said G1. The governor’s security aides all had ‘G’ prefixes and were identified by their number.
“Yes, o, I was thinking so, too, when he ordered us to stop in that bush for him to pee”, replied G2.
G1 continued moaning: “How will I defend myself if anything happens? Would anyone believe me if I said the governor was killed while peeing?”
The story was that the governor had a condition that made his doctors advise him to stop drinking but that he couldn’t follow their instructions. Just half a glass of wine was all that was needed to trigger their boss’s urinary urgency. If a toilet was not close by, or if the official convoy was travelling between cities, Oga would order them to stop, no matter how dense the jungle. If the driver did not stop in time, Oga would jump out of the car with urine dripping down his legs. His aides found out that he had had the condition for many years before assuming the governorship but it was a closely guarded secret known only to close aides and, of course, his local specialists and foreign doctors.
Why would such a man put himself through the hassle of contesting for public office and the rigours of the job? It must be because the law permits him to get away with hiding his ailment from the electorate and under-serving the people in the long run. The more one thinks about the matter, the more the question pops up: Why haven’t we thought it necessary to enact legislation making medical certification compulsory for office-seekers?
Very soon, the Nigerian Senate will vote on the proposed amendments to the 1999 Constitution. I don’t think they will make tertiary education and a minimum of a first degree compulsory for whoever wants to contest for the post of governor or president. In their collective ‘wiseness’, too, they will not approve any suggestion, such as is being made here, that medical certification be made compulsory for all elective offices.
All applicants for civil service and private sector positions at whatever level are required to pass medical examinations. A medically unfit employee is a liability. You’d think that elective political posts ought to attract greater scrutiny because they affect the lives of millions of people. But, no; the higher you go, the lesser the requirement.
In some oil companies, graduates are employed as drivers while the decisions that affect the operations of those companies and even the nation at large are taken by elected politicians without tertiary education. But educated or not, an elected political leader can still be ‘managed’ (as we say in Nigeria) if he is at least healthy. It is a double whammy when you elect a person who is wanting in health and erudition. That is why a requirement for medical certification is one of the most urgent amendments that ought to be inserted in the Nigerian constitution.
The issue of ensuring that those who put themselves forward for elective office are not carrying any medical baggage that could impede their performance and shortchange the electorate is even more apposite in matters of national security. The most recent example of this is the situation in Gabon that almost toppled the political order of the country.
When some soldiers attempted to take advantage of the ill-health of President Ali Bongo to stage a coup, only the solid coalition of beneficiaries of the Bongo dynasty saved the day. President Bongo had suffered a stroke during a visit to Saudi Arabia for an investment conference in October 2018. After initial treatment in Saudi Arabia, he was transferred to Morocco. Everything about his condition was a closely guarded secret. As usual with such situations of ultra secrecy, rumours took over. The political tension in Gabon boiled over with the failed coup.
President Bongo has had to quickly get off his wheelchair to make a few crucial public appearances, just to reassure his people that he was still in charge. Not that he is indispensable, though. Tongues are still wagging, especially in opposition circles, that Mr. Bongo is not really a Gabonese. The story being peddled is that he is actually a Biafran child adopted by Gabon’s second President, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba who ruled the country for 42 years, from 1967 until his death in 2009.
A French historian who has written authoritatively on Gabonese politics, François Gaulme, confirms that Ali Bongo was viewed as an outsider by many people: “He wasn’t born in the presidential palace, but almost. He was about eight when his father became president… The fact that he went to the best schools in Libreville and didn’t learn local languages was something he would get criticised for later on. He was sent to a private school in the upmarket Paris suburb of Neuilly, and later, to the Sorbonne where he studied law. This international upbringing led many in Gabon to view him as an outsider.”
People will always have divergent views about their leader. They will tolerate a leader who is up and about, even if it is mostly motion without movement. But when their national purse is being depleted to restore a medically unfit leader to health, all sorts of stories will come out, including different versions of his paternity.
We are not saying that a medically certified candidate cannot fall ill in office. Anyone can fall ill. But falling ill is totally different from having a condition precedent. The constitution ought to make it mandatory that anyone seeking public office should publicly disclose his state of health and submit himself for medical examination to be conducted by a duly constituted panel of the Nigerian Medical Association. Don’t tell me that Nigerian politicians will find their way around it. Simple checks and balances professionally supervised by the NMA will frustrate their tricks.
What about the right of candidates to their privacy? Aha, anyone who wants to enjoy privacy in such matters should not seek public office. If one of the conditions for being electable is full disclosure of your medical condition, the choice to contest or not, is yours. The least the people can demand is that you are at least healthy enough to serve them, even if what you eventually do is serve yourself.
Between 2007 and 2017, six of the twelve African leaders who died in office did so while seeking medical attention abroad. President Yar’Adua was a lucky exception only because his demise came in the wake of returning to the country after months in a Saudi hospital. The issue of his ill-health and how it affected the politics of the country reverberated when President Buhari spent months in a London Hospital.
President Mugabe’s second home was in Singapore because that was where his doctors were. One year before his demise, I was desirous of interviewing him during my visit to Harare. My attempt failed because back-room channels warned that his successor might not be well disposed to the old man talking to a foreign columnist.
But I digressed. Former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos went on regular medical pilgrimages to Spain. Like Nigeria, Angola is blessed with oil riches but its people live in abject poverty. Rich country, poor people, sick politicians.
President Patrice Talon of the Republic of Benin had two surgeries during a visit to Paris in 2017. On his return home, he did a totally ‘unAfrican’ thing — he disclosed his health status to his people. A statement released by the presidency disclosed that the president, who was 59 years old at the time, underwent two procedures: one procedure was due to doctors finding a lesion in his prostate while the second operation was in his digestive system. The statement said the president was fully recovered and was “fully exercising his constitutional duties”. Different presidents, different strokes.
Don’t get it twisted, not all old men are afflicted by ill-health and not all young men are healthy. However, it is reasonable to expect, in the natural degeneration of mortal beings, that there will be a world of difference between an old young man, a young old man, and an old old-man.
Those who have been clamouring for a shift in focus in favour of the younger generation have more than a point. Old men are great advisers. Young men are great do-ers. In terms of the requirements of the nanotech age, every nation that wants to be up there among the stars needs a leader who is not just well educated but also healthy and physically fit. The healthier, the better.
(Wole Olaoye is a public relations consultant and veteran journalist. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @wole_olaoye; Instagram: woleola2021)
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