24 February 2013

Nigeria: So, It Was a Lie After All


First Lady Mrs Patience Jonathan recently opened up for the first time about her mysterious absence from the country for seven weeks from late August to mid October last year. Speaking at a special thanksgiving service at the Aso Rock Chapel in Abuja last Sunday, she said she underwent up to nine surgeries in one month and at some point, her doctors lost hope after she passed out for more than a week. She said she was ferried to the operation theatre almost on daily basis.

Addressing the congregation which included President Jonathan, her family members and many senior government officials, Mrs Jonathan said, "It was not an easy experience for me. I actually died. I passed out for more than a week. My intestine and tummy were opened." We join all Nigerians in sympathising with the First Lady over the serious medical travails that she went through in those days and we join in the rejoicing to celebrate her recovery and safe return to the country.

Also speaking at the occasion, President Jonathan said his wife's recovery from a life-threatening illness ended the Nigerian mystery about the death of a leader or his spouse at the Presidential Villa. He said, "The story was that one of us will die. Today we are celebrating her. Her recovery has put an end to that belief. I am not too good in celebrating but for this particular one, I think we have to thank God for keeping the life of my wife. If anything had happened, there would have been different stories. Fake prophets would have given their stories. As mortals, we must fall sick and die but how and when is what matters most."

We congratulate the president on his wife's recovery and safe return. We must at this point remind him and key officials of his administration that "how and when" a person falls sick and dies may be "what matters most" but for the nation's ruler and his very visible spouse, how the story of inevitable illness is handled is another issue that matters a lot.

When Mrs Jonathan, whose very active itinerary is usually made known to the public well in advance, travelled out of the country unannounced in late August last year, the news media reported that she fell sick and had gone to seek medical treatment abroad. In response to media enquiries, her spokesman Mr. Ayo Osinlu said she was only away to take a "moment's rest" given that she has not had a rest since the 2011 election. Asked when she was expected back, Osinlu said, "In the course of this week she will be back home. But remember, it all depends on her plans." Ayo Osinlu should be sacked this minute for telling Nigerians a bare-faced lie.

He was not the only one who did so. Two days after her departure, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity Reuben Abati also dismissed reports of Mrs Jonathan's illness as a rumour. He said "the story is a rumour and there is nothing like that." It is either Abati spoke without knowing the truth, which is gross incompetence; or he knew the truth but told a lie, which was irresponsible; or he asked his boss the president and was misled by him, which is doubly tragic.

Throughout the period of her absence, the Presidential Villa never came clean with the truth behind the First Lady's absence. It stuck to the discredited story that she was resting abroad. The president made a show of continuing with his work as if nothing was amiss. When he decided to visit her in Germany, he did so unannounced on his way to a meeting in New York. Not long after that, Nigeria Television Authority [NTA] aired a film clip, disingenuously planted by Aso Rock, which showed a smiling First Couple in Germany without saying what the occasion was.

Nor did Mrs Jonathan herself help matters. On the day she returned to the country on October 17, she spoke to reporters at the airport. She said, "I read in the media where they said I was in the hospital. God Almighty knows I have never been to that hospital. I don't even know the hospital they mentioned. I have to explain what God has done for me. I do not have terminal illness or any cosmetic surgery, more or less tummy tuck. My husband loves me as I am and I am pleased with how God created me." Her words were clearly designed to continue the official cover up of the true reason for her long stay abroad, even though some of her own words as well as the excitement of her welcoming party gave the game away.

If the Presidency thinks nothing about telling bare-faced lies in order to deceive the public, then it is no surprise at all that several state governments such as those of Taraba, Enugu and Cross River have emulated it and are playing games with the health statuses of their governors. The Jonathans in particular should have known better, given the sympathy they enjoyed from the Nigerian public when their predecessors at the State House played similar games with presidential sickness.

They have shown that they are not in any way different from their predecessors and have not learnt any lessons from the experience. They have damaged their standing in the eyes of their countrymen and women and have helped to deepen the cynicism with which Nigerians regularly receive official statements. They should apologise to Nigerians for telling lies with intent to deceive. Next time, we expect them to behave with more honesty and transparency in matters such as this one and all others.

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