Nigeria: Concerns over Buhari’s health as he returns to his doctors in UK

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Friday, 25 June 2021 09:01, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:53

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is back on medical leave (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

What exactly is the health status of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari? No one still knows, more than five years after his first medical trip to the United Kingdom as president. As he jets off for yet another overseas medical trip on Friday, the 78-year-old former army general has come under growing pressure to disclose his health condition. And once again, Vice-President Osinbajo has not been left in charge, despite constitutional rules over vacations. UPDATE: The trip has been postponed, according to an aide to the president.

10 weeks after President Buhari returned from London where he had gone to receive medical attention, the presidency announced on Thursday that he is returning to the UK for “a scheduled medical follow-up”.

As usual, Buhari’s aides did not disclose what the medical follow-up is for, only adding that he will be in the UK until the second week of July, for what is his sixth medical trip since he was elected in 2015 to lead the country of over 200 million people.

ARTICLE UPDATED: Earlier on Friday 25th, Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, announced this trip was postponed, with a new date to be announced in due course.

“I think in the spirit of transparency and the highest ideals of accountability, Mr President should be able to provide his health assessment to Nigerians,” says Seun Onigbinde, co-founder of BudgIT, a leading Nigerian civic organisation.

Suspicion over frequent medical check-ups

Onigbinde told The Africa Report that President Buhari “has left things at routine medical checkup and that leaves room for suspicion” – and many Nigerians would agree with him.

While in the UK in April, he said he was taking “a short rest” – one that lasted for 15 days and which the presidency had earlier described as “routine medical check-up.”

Friday’s trip adds to the 183 days Buhari had already spent in the UK, more than any other Nigerian president, records show. And of all the times he has travelled, it was only once that he disclosed what treatment he was going for – in June 2016, about a year after he took over from Goodluck Jonathan.

At that time, Buhari’s spokesman Femi Adesina had said he was suffering from “a persistent ear infection”. That was the last time the president’s health status was disclosed. All Nigerians get to hear from the presidency are clichés such as ‘medical vacation’, ‘check-up’ or ‘follow-up’.

With eyes overseas, healthcare at home is overlooked

The president’s choice for overseas treatment will affect his commitment to improving healthcare provision in Nigeria, according to Ifeanyi Nsofor, a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University.

Nsofor, who is the director of policy and advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch, told The Africa Report that because “universal healthcare coverage is a journey and not a destination”, Nigeria needs the political will “in moving towards that journey.”

“And that political will is to ensure that he [the president] doesn’t run out of the country every time that he falls sick. Because what does that say about our own healthcare system? I don’t know what the president is suffering from but is it not time for him to even set up a centre of excellence to be dealing with the health issue he is having?”

Adesina and Garba Shehu, Buhari’s spokespersons, did not respond to The Africa Report’s enquiries on the issue. But in April, the duo struggled to defend the president’s trips and reject his tag as a medical tourist.

“President Buhari is not a medical tourist — if somebody has kept retainership with medical experts; we are talking about 30 years and plus. Each year, they view you and examine you and give you a pass and advise you on what to do. Would you, given this position, be changing your doctors every other year, because there is a chance the distance will be shortened?” Shehu had said.

Doctor’s welfare

This might give you some headache: As Buhari was set to travel to the UK on Friday, Nigerian doctors were still receiving N5,000 ($12) as a hazard allowance despite the government’s promises to increase the amount. Some health workers known as house officers have also not been paid their salaries for as long as five months, according to Uyilawa Okhuaihesuyi, national president of the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD).

Okhuaihesuyi told The Africa Report that the resident doctors are now contemplating resuming a strike that they suspended in April, if the government does not fulfil its promises of better pay for doctors.

There are other issues of concern including salary shortfalls between 2014 and 2017 and provision of basic needs at health facilities. But Okhuaihesuyi’s major concern is that the government often reneges on its promises to doctors whenever they embark on industrial action.

“We had a memorandum of action and we signed that the salary shortfalls for 2014, 2015 and 2016 will be paid. Only for us to go when we were called by the speaker and the same people sent by the head of hospital services and the permanent secretary [at the Federal ministry of health] were saying that the government does not have money to pay; something we already signed and agreed to. So, why did you sign at all?” Okhuaihesuyi said over the phone.

“We lost 17 members to Covid-19 in 2020. And we have lost members to Lassa fever, HIV and so many other diseases. But hazard allowance is still N5,000. How can you protect yourself? And if anything happens to you as a doctor or health worker, who takes care of your own family?”

Power vacuum persists

As is often the case with previous medical trips, Buhari did not reveal any intention on Thursday to hand over power to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, angering many Nigerians who accuse him of flouting the constitution.

According to section 145(1)(2) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, amended in 2011, the president is under a constitutional duty to transmit power to the vice-president who will then act in his place whenever he is “proceeding on vacation or is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office”.

“In the event that the president is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in subsection (1) of this section within 21 days, the national assembly shall, by a resolution made by a simple majority of the vote of each house of the National Assembly, mandate the vice-president to perform the functions of the office of the president as acting president until the president transmits a letter to the president of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives that he is now available to resume his functions as president,” the constitution adds.

President Buhari once argued that he has not broken any law by failing to hand over to Osinbajo but there are speculations that while acting as president in 2018, Osinbajo’s action – when he fired the director-general of the Nigerian secret police who was a close ally of Buhari – could be the reason that the number one citizen is clinging to power even on his sickbed.

As Buhari goes for a ‘follow-up’ for an undisclosed health issue, Nigerians worry about the consequences of the president’s secretive medical adventures overseas, the health sector whose annual federal allocation has not exceeded 5.9% of the entire budget (the last time it did was in 2015) continues to be overlooked and many citizens in Nigeria, currently the world’s capital of extreme poverty, will continue to see adequate healthcare as a luxury they may never afford.

“The government is not responsible enough to take care of the health facilities where we work. We don’t have the basic things to see patients; things that are common when you go abroad. So, what do we do for our own people here who can’t travel?” asked Okhuaihesuyi.

For Nsofor, Buhari’s medical trips show one thing: “That the health system is not befitting for a president like himself. And for me, that lack of political will for prioritising Nigeria’s health system is not good for us as a nation.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options