President Muhammadu Buhari’s extended “medical vacation” has now gone into its fourth week. Despite rumours circulating about his death, he has refused to speak to Nigerians and instead has had his underlings release pictures of a gaunt president receiving visitors in an undisclosed London location. He also reportedly spoke to President Donald Trump on the phone two days ago.
Buhari was due to return to Nigeria on 6 February but wrote to the Senate claiming he had to remain in the UK for “further tests”. He neither disclosed what the tests were for nor whether he was ill. But it is now widely believed that illness is behind the president’s staying put in the UK, with no indication of a return date. There has been a lot of speculation about what the president is suffering from, but whatever it is, it is serious enough to keep him away from work and Nigeria for over a month.
Buhari is continuing the tradition of Nigeria’s rulers and their families not bothering with the country’s hospitals whenever they fall ill. So they have little incentive when they are in power to take any meaningful action to improve the deplorable state of healthcare in the country. Even Buhari knocked this medical tourism of the elite when he was a presidential candidate in February 2015: “Why do I need to go for foreign medical trip if we cannot make our hospital functional?” He would later admit (after he won the (s)election)that he has been reliant on UK doctors since 1978.
Incidentally, Buhari had a chance to make a difference in Nigerian healthcare when he was Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) between 1994 and 1999. The PTF was created by dictator Sani Abacha to use funds from the increase in the price of petroleum products to pay for development projects across the country. Those projects included “rehabilitation of health institutions”.
By the time the PTF was scrapped by the new civilian administration, most of Nigeria’s health institutions, including those in Buhari’s hometown Daura, were, according to Olusegun Obasanjo, who became president in 1999, “allowed to decay and collapse”. Because of the condition in which he found things, Obasanjo decided that health services would be one of his “priority issues”. Needless to say it was all talk, as there has been little progress from the conditions of decay ever since.
Buhari did little with the opportunity he had at the PTF to improve health services in Nigeria. Instead he left a litany of corruption at the organisation, with about 135bn naira squandered and misappropriated by his cronies.
His failure to deploy those resources for effective healthcare delivery may have been a factor in his current malaise. Access to primary healthcare facilities is critical to early detection, diagnosis, intervention and successful treatment. There is a strong likelihood that decent healthcare services in Daura, paid for with PTF funds, may have prevented the acute problem that is keeping the president in London today. Or at the very least, prevented the embarrassment of an extended “medical vacation” in London for a Nigerian president.