The recent news that President Buhari has taken ill and travelled to England to treat a discomforting left ear infection called Meniere Disease has brought to the fore the compassionate side of Nigerians. After the story, first reported by Premium Times on June 4 2016, was finally confirmed by the presidency, the social media began trending with compassionate ‘get well soon’ messages and prayers for the president’s quick recovery.
The concerns and compassions, even from the President’s most ardent critics, (and most of these concerns appear genuine to me) tell me that the ‘banality of good deeds’ must be a necessary complement to what the German-American political theorist called the ‘banality of evil’. Arendt had argued that the great crimes in history were not committed by psychopaths but by ordinary men and women who accepted the premises and rationalizations of those deeds. I believe that the ‘banality of good deeds’ could be explained by the fact that there is a spark of divine or God’s DNA in all of us which pushes us into morally uplifting deeds. The ‘banality of evil’ competes for space with this ‘banality of good deeds’ in pretty much the same way that the flesh and spirit part of us compete for space and dominance.
This tension between good and evil deeds is probably what the American politician Edward Wallis Hoch had in mind when he famously declared:
“There is so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us”
Hock reminds us that the best of us are capable of mean and mischievous acts just as the worst of us, including terrorists and armed robbers, are capable of noble acts.
The outpouring of compassion for the President’s illness reminds one of a similar outpouring of ‘get soon’ messages to Ibrahim Babangida, when in 1987 he was hospitalized in the American Hospital in Paris, France, for a condition known as radiculopathy, (which had something to do with an injury he sustained on his left foot during the Civil War). The irony here is that Babangida had become a bit unpopular at that time because he had a year before (i.e.1986) introduced the highly unpopular IMF/World Bank-supported structural adjustment programme (SAP), which many blamed for emasculating the middle class and further pauperizing the citizens. There is therefore a parallel between the economic hardship of the time and the current economic difficulties in the country. Babangida really had very little choice on the matter of SAP because the era was dominated by the doctrine of ‘cross conditionalities’ (i.e. if the two Bretton Woods institutions do not approve your economic policies you cannot reschedule your debts, open new letters of credit or even get aids and grants from major donors) Like Babangida, Buhari’s medical trip is coming at a time of economic hardship and also when his popularity is on the wane.
I believe that another reason that Nigerians showed much compassion and empathy for both Babangida and Buhari’s ill-health is that both leaders did not try to pretend that they are super humans who are incapable of getting ill. It is nothing to be ashamed of that one is ill – even if you are President or Governor.
While I join millions of Nigerians in wishing our President quick recovery, I also believe the period of his rest will give him an opportunity for sober reflection. One year in office may be still within that stretch of the learning curve, but it is also a period long enough for one to begin to decipher what has worked so far and what has not, including where one has made mistakes.
From the early years of this regime, I have been a consistent advocate that the President should be a reconciler and should re-think the rhetoric of ‘probe’, which essentially only assuages those baying for the blood of their assumed regional, ethnic and class enemies. We can still achieve the same goal using less polarizing means or means that unduly overheat the polity while entertaining a few that regale in media trial.
Related to the above is that the president should also reflect on how he deals with dissidents and groups it disagrees with. The presidency should for instance consider whether the continued detention of Nnamdi Kanu is serving any meaningful purpose or unduly turning him into a hero and radicalizing his followers. He should also consider whether the nation really gains anything by the continued detention of Sambo Dasuki and El Zakzaky. I am happy the government has announced it is suspending the militarization of the Niger Delta in favour of exploring peaceful resolution of whatever grievances the Niger Delta Avengers and other neo militants say they have. I believe we should also assess whether, given the damage the group has already done to the national economy, the negotiation option shouldn’t have been our first line of engagement.
While I join Nigerians in commending the President for transferring power to the Vice President as required by the Constitution during his time of being away (unlike what the cabal around President Yaradua did before his death and what some Governors did in the last dispensation), the President’s illness also draws eloquent attention to the gross information mismanagement in his government. For instance, when the information was first broken that Buhari was ill, the SSA Media to the President, Femi Adeshina, an otherwise affable man, claimed the news was a figment of the imagination of their purveyors and proclaimed that the President was as fit as a fiddle. A few days later, he swallowed his vomit and tweeted that the President would indeed be travelling abroad for medical treatment. Adeshina, who is increasingly turning himself into a gaffe machine, also reportedly claimed that the Biafra agitation arose because President Jonathan lost the election to Buhari. The implication of this is that Biafra agitation was aimed at destabilizing the Buhari regime. This is the sort of simplistic analysis that former President Jonathan fell for regarding Boko Haram. He was convinced that Boko Haram was formed by some northern politicians to destabilize his government even when some of us maintained that the sect was symptomatic of groups delinking from the Nigerian state and regarding the state as the enemy.
The truth is that Biafra agitation was there from the inception of this Republic. At a time the then Governor of Anambra state Peter Obi had to give a shoot-at-sight order on members of MASSOB, which was championing the agitation. Like most insurgency groups, MASSOB later factionalized into IPOB and other groups. The relevant question therefore is not when or why it was formed but the reasons for its radicalization and growing membership.
Some of us had expressed concerns that the detention of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of IPOB, would only turn him into a mythical group and radicalize his followers and that it is precisely for this reason that even hate groups like British National Party in the United Kingdom or the KKK in the USA are never banned or their leaders clamped into detention. Rather such groups are kept on the fringe of society by drawing their ideas into the marketplace of political ideas and outcompeting them.
When the President has fully recovered and returns home, we should also encourage honest conversation on the small matter of medical tourism. We should accept the argument that our hospitals cannot be brought to world standard overnight. But it will be difficult to convince many Nigerians that the Villa Clinic cannot be so equipped that it will become unnecessary for top government officials to seek medical treatment abroad.