Of three sick Presidents

By Minabere Ibelema

It is not much of a consolation, but we can at least rest assured that Nigeria is not the only country coping with the vagaries of an ailing president. Zimbabwe is having the same experience, and some say that so too is the United States. If there is any consolation in this for Nigerians, it may well be that the Nigerian situation is the least foreboding — to the extent that that can be said of Nigeria.

The illness of President Muhammadu Buhari is well known. He has been in Britain on medical leave for more than two months now. And he spent about the same time there in January and February apparently for the same undisclosed illness.

After a long silence on his condition, there is suddenly a flurry of information. First, it was first daughter Zahra Buhari responding to an inquirer that her father was “doing pretty good.”

Then first lady Aisha Buhari declared on Facebook that the “lion” is set to roar again and drive out the hyenas and jackals from the kingdom. And then, after visiting Buhari, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo confirmed the essence of the family hints.

“We had a very good conversation on wide-ranging issues and he’s in very good spirits,”Agence France Press quotes Osinbajo as saying. “He’s recuperating very quickly and he’s doing very well.”

It is not exactly clear to whom the first lady directs her oblique threat. There have been calls for Buhari to resign because of his prolonged ill-health, but those have come largely from opposition members whom Buhari can’t readily banish. That leads one to speculate that there may have been some “palace” intrigues. That is, among people that the president has the power to dismiss. That’s certainly something to watch on his return.

Of greater interest to the Nigerian polity is what to expect of Buhari’s health after he returns. His health problems were evident during the campaigns in 2015 and they persist till now. It all means that the 74-year-old is chronically and seriously ill. So his expected return is unlikely to be the end of his health leave saga.

As I have written before, the good thing for Nigeria is that it is in the hands of a capable acting president. I must confess that when Osinbajo, the lawyer and pastor, was announced as Buhari’s running mate in 2015, I was one of those who greeted the announcement with scepticism. Like many others, I thought it was a deft political manoeuvre to corral the Southern Christian vote. I still believe that it was.

Still, I am now a convert to the view that Osinbajo was a good choice. He has certainly proved to be a dynamic leader with a more astute sense of the political than his inexperience in politics would lead one to believe. One has to nod to a pastor who tells the faithful that it is not enough to fast and pray, that they have to work toward goals.

This is not to say that Buhari’s illness is of no political consequence. It is just that Nigeria is lucky to have a capable — and equally principled — fall back.

Corpse as candidate

In contrast, the situation in Zimbabwe is bordering on the macabre. There, first lady Grace Mugabe has vowed that even if President Robert Mugabe dies before the presidential election next year, his corpse will still contest the presidency. Yes, seriously. So, where Aisha Buhari is hopeful that her husband will roar again and drive away the hyenas and jackals, Grace Mugabe is vowing that her husband will retain power even in death. After all, what’s the point contesting the presidency as a corpse if he doesn’t preside thereafter?

Incidentally, the 93-year-old Mugabe vowed long ago that he would remain president until he dies. Now the wife is saying that that is not enough. To her, there is no point letting death end a 37-year presidency.

The talk of keeping the Mugabe presidency alive after his death wouldn’t have arisen had the hitherto age-defying president not begun to show signs of mortality. Like Buhari, Mugabe has been having stretches of time away from public events and he has made frequent trips overseas for medical treatment.

Besides deteriorating cataracts that have hampered his vision, he is reportedly afflicted with prostate cancer. And so he frequents cancer specialist hospitals in Singapore and Malaysia. His personal doctor reportedly told him in 2008 or thereabout to resign the presidency because he had about five years to live. He has surpassed that by four years.

Even then, there is no guarantee that Mugabe will live long enough to see through his candidacy in the 2018 election. In that case, the world may witness the first case of a candidate in a hearse cruising the streets campaigning for office.

Trump’s ill-health

Now to the United States. What is emerging from whispers to op-ed pages and legislative manoeuvrings is that the U.S. President Donald Trump is probably sick. Not pathological sickness necessarily, but mental. Nigeria has a plan for its presidential sickness and, bizarre as it may be, so does Zimbabwe. The U.S. case is much thornier. The basis for declaring a president mentally incapacitated is complicated.

Yet Trump’s increasingly intemperate Tweeter outbursts have made it something to ponder. When recently he tweeted an attack on a female talk show co-host and posted a simulated video of the president slamming an image of CNN in a wrestling match, even his fellow Republicans began to wonder aloud about his mental fitness.

“America’s leaders and allies are asking themselves yet again whether this man is fit to be president,” wrote Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on June 30. “We have our doubts, but we are both certain that the man is not mentally equipped to continue watching our show, ‘Morning Joe’.”

A number of American legislators agree. According to a Yahoo News investigation, at least 25 Democratic members of Congress have signed on to a bill that would create an oversight committee empowered to declare Trump mentally incapacitated. Even they know that it is a tricky proposition, but few doubt that it could become necessary.

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