Presidents, like all of us, fall sick. Some even die while in office. This is the reality of governance by mortals. With Nigeria's leader battling a sickness that has slowed down the government, we are confronted with a President-in-absentia. While the tension of his intermittent absences lingers, it appears politicians in government are too coy to do anything but offer prayers, the opposition is too fractured, and the media will not back the calls of average citizens.
Nigeria’s bout with a sick President is well known; starting about a decade ago, and ending with the death of Umaru Musa Yar'Adua in 2010. However, that was ten years ago, in a different Nigeria. But have things changed? It doesn't seem so. Despite a 2015 campaign centred on 'change', the absentee president remains a feature of our politics. Just one of Nigeria's many paradoxes.
Sick Presidents are Normal
In almost every pseudo-intellectual Nigerian conversation, we compare our government to the West – particularly the United States and the United Kingdom. History teaches us that sick Presidents have been part and parcel of their politics too.
In the United States, eight Presidents have died in office, four of them from natural causes. Top of this list is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was diagnosed with coronary heart disease causing angina pectoris, atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure and total paralysis in both legs from polio. He eventually slumped and died in his cottage after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage.
And the list goes on.
In Britain, wartime leader Winston Churchill suffered a heart attack while visiting the White House in 1941, before going on to contract pneumonia in 1942. Between 1951 and 1955, he suffered another stroke, becoming paralysed on one side, but still conducted cabinet meetings without, it is believed, cabinet members noticing his illness.
In France, Francois Mitterand died of prostate cancer in 1996, only a year after his tenure ended. He was later accused of going to great lengths to conceal his health from the French public for over a decade.
If these examples are anything to go by, President Buhari is in esteemed company. Surprisingly, it is not so unusual to have a secretly ill President. But this is different. Nigeria has already experienced a sick President in recent times, and we would rather not repeat the political logjam that followed.
Once bitten, twice shy.
Nigeria is Different
Nigeria is a special country, in more ways than we would like. Not because we are a nation filled with passionate and selfless politicians, but the exact opposite. Therefore, while the British and American public may have been comfortable with sick leaders supported by robust and credible institutions, Nigerians hold no such illusions. We know our leaders, and we know that our governance is handled by individuals, not institutions.
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the US, suffered a stroke that left the public aware of his illness, but not its severity. During this period, First Lady Edith Wilson, the Chief of Staff and personal staff were the only ones allowed to see him. American historians have debated to what extent Edith Wilson wielded the powers of the Presidency, and whether she effectively 'ran' the country in good faith. But in Nigeria, when Hajiya Turai Umar Musa Yar'Adua played the role of gatekeeper to her husband, Nigerians did not see a doting wife at her husband's bedside, they saw a cabal, and Nigerians don't like cabals.
Worryingly, today's 'cabal' - if it exists - does not inspire confidence. For most of the administration, Babachir Lawal, the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) has been a core part of the government, even openly referring to himself as a member of the cabal. Having to imagine any group of individuals, whether the likes of Lawal or the more credible Vice President, making core decisions, is worrying. For all of Aisha Buhari's strength, Tinubu's brilliance and Osinbajo's effectiveness, none of these individuals were top of the Presidential ticket in 2015, and none should govern indirectly.
Time for a Miracle
Buhari's sickness and absence have created a political vacuum, if not in reality, at least in the mind of Nigerians, and that is enough of a problem. As one critic put it, the government should be concerned not just about the health of the President, but the health of all the Nigerians who voted him in. Today's stakes are higher because President Buhari was by far a more popular candidate than Yar'Adua, and commanded Nigeria's confidence in a way that Yar'Adua did not.
The President has missed multiple FEC meetings, skipped his usual Friday prayers, avoided appearing at the May Day celebrations and managed to make the All Progressives Congress midterm convention fade away. In his defence, the President made a 'surprise' visit to his office recently. But, 29 May is slowly approaching, and the President is expected to deliver a strong Democracy Day speech. Therefore, he either appears and reassures Nigerians that he is in charge of the Nation, or stays silent and fuels the sort of doubt that cripples Presidencies.
Either way, no one but Mr President can quell the rumours. And if he is as sick as the rumours suggest, then it is even more important for his administration that he performs a miracle. After all, President Buhari is the people's Messiah. Or at least, he once was.