For 7 weeks, Nigerians had no idea where their president was. They did not even know whether he was alive or dead. After being rushed to Saudi Arabia for emergency care, Nigerian officials could only give flimsy reassurances as to the well being of President Yar'Adua, leading to calls for his resignation and many rumors. Amidst the resulting confusion, a NEXT article asserted that the President was "brain damaged" thus raising the Constitutional matter of whether the President should be deemed permanently unfit to lead and be replaced by the Vice President. Two days after that report, however, President Yar'Adua gave a 3-minute telephone interview to the BBC Hausa service to clarify that he is not dead and plans to resume his duties. Reacting to the interview, the NEXT news organization chose to stand by its original article about the President's brain damage. This is a decision that puts the journalists in the crosshairs of Yar'Adua and his sometimes violent handlers. In the past, Yar'Adua has reacted harshly to discussions of his health, begging the question of whether this current situation could lead to a repeat of the 2008 arrests and unlawful detentions carried out by the administration. But above all else, the main issue remains - Is the President brain damaged or not?
YAR'ADUA VS. NEXT NEWS
In the BBC interview, a weak sounding Yar'Adua thanked citizens for their prayers, wished the national football team luck at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations and hoped that his treatments will produce "tremendous progress, which will allow me to get back home..." Editors at NEXT directly challenged the interview with an article entitled "A man claiming to be Yar'Adua speaks to the BBC". In it, they stated,
"we stand by our story, to wit: we have it on good authority that the president has suffered brain damage and other impairments, and is no longer able to effectively discharge the office of president. Anyone who claims we are wrong should please produce our president, so that he can speak to us directly as Nigerians, and not via an audio clip through a foreign news organization."NEXT went on to assert that it is willing to send its correspondents to verify that the President is indeed well enough to speak and would immediately do so if given the green light by the Executive office.
The significance of this challenge cannot be lost on observers of the current political debacle in Nigeria. The Nigerian Constitution provides for the removal of the President if the Federal Executive Council (FEC) determines that the President is permanently incapable of satisfying his duties. Hence, the report that Yar'Adua was brain damaged, and the growing reception it received from the Nigerian public, likely forced the hand of Yar'Adua and his handlers to try and convince citizens that he is still capable of being President. It is disappointing that this is the news that forced the President out of 'hiding' because the ensuing international problem of Nigeria being placed on a list of "Terror Prone" countries should have been the more appropriate impetus needed to force Yar'Adua to speak.
THE BBC HAUSA SERVICE ANGLE
Additionally, the decision to reveal himself solely to the BBC Hausa service was not just poor but indelicate. This is not the first time that Yar'Adua has made this mistake as the first time was declared dead during the 2007 presidential campaign, he opted to give an interview to the BBC Hausa service as well. However, doing so only fuels tribal anger, concerns and distrust. It is of no consequence that the BBC Hausa radio service primarily caters to Nigeria's Hausa speakers, as Hausa is not the official language of Nigeria. Yar'Adua should at least have given an interview on film to the Nigerian Television Authority or any of the other news organizations in the country. The choice to give a foreign outlet this key interview also shows a complete disrespect for Nigerian news outlets and Nigerians themselves who deserve to have their President speak to them directly and not via foreign outlets.
SUPPRESSION IN A 'DEMOCRATIC REGIME', AGAIN?
In 2008, the Yar'Adua administration, which had lauded itself as being focused on the 'rule of law', opted for draconian measures in addressing concerns over the President's health and leadership ability. Although he had publicly committed himself to selflessly serving the people, Yar'Adua's personal intelligence unit, the SSS, now rebranded as the DSS, arrested and unlawfully detained 2 political bloggers. In reaction to an inaccurate news report that he would step down on account of health problems, Yar'Adua's SSS shut down Channels TV and temporarily withdrew its broadcast license. The administration also had journalists from Leadership Newspaper arrested over another health related report. These are just some of the more glaring acts of suppression carried out by the current administration.
Given these overreactions to a frank discourse on the President, one can only wonder what the result of NEXT's challenge will be. It will be interesting to see if Yar'Adua and the SSS will once again resort to draconian measures in trying to stem NEXT and its stories on Yar'Adua's capacity to be President. What is certain is the fact that it is time for the National Assembly to pass the Freedom of Information bill that Nigerians have been waiting for as it would give more access to basic information that should be the right of every citizen especially in regard to the President and other officials.
Whatever the fallout may be as a result of NEXT's challenge, President Yar'Adua and his handlers would do well to remember something important. Nigerians are a passionate people, and that passion should be tapped into, not repressed, if Nigeria is to truly accomplish the feats its leaders have declared that it will. Clamping down on free speech and expression is not the way lead Nigeria. Consequently, this administration should not bother to 'deal' with anyone as a result of its failures to take appropriate steps at the appropriate time during the Presidents absence. Instead, the President should simply produce concrete evidence (i.e. not audio evidence) that he is capable of fulfilling his duties and he should return to Nigeria immediately to recover fully from whatever ailments he was treated for. His presence in Nigeria might lower the rhetoric calling for his resignation, no matter how fragile he might be. In fact, him revealing himself in a fragile state would be a perfect opportunity to turn the discussion to his side if done properly and with considerable humility. Nigerians would love nothing more than a concrete reason to pray even harder for their frail president if he gave them a chance. Such a move would require a savviness that this President is yet to show. Hopefully it is not too late to rectify mistakes and dampen the confusion created by Yar'Adua's absence and the NEXT article.
* The 'Missing' Poster was borrowed from N.I.M.M.O.'s site.
From The Archives:
- Nigeria's President Absent During Crisis
- More Yar'Adua Health Uncertainty
- Yar'Adua Health, Resignation & Nigerian Cost
- Suppression In A Democratic Regime
- Yar'Adua And The Continuing Heath Issue
- The Consequences of Yar'Adua's Mysterious Health
- Nigerian Blogger Arrested!!!
- Channels TV Shut Down By Yar'Adua
- Nigeria, Be Careful What You Wish For
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