Some Nigerians were at their fawning best when the wife of the President, Patience Jonathan, returned from her unannounced overseas trip recently.
A crowd of hangers-on in the Presidency trooped to the airport to receive her amid singing and dancing. Some wore T-shirts proclaiming their love and solidarity for the President’s wife. Though Mrs. Jonathan’s well-wishers reserve the right to celebrate the return of a woman who is probably their benefactor, it is awkward and bizarre for senior cabinet ministers to join in such banality. The main issue here is not about Patience Jonathan’s health but about misuse of public funds, abuse of power and lack of transparency.
In the United States where Nigeria borrowed its presidential system from, the Office of the First Lady is part of the Presidency and is maintained with tax payer’s money. Though unelected, Nigeria’s First Lady is also regarded as part of the Presidency. In the official website of the State House, Abuja, the Office of the First Lady comes immediately after that of the Vice-President and precedes the Federal Executive Council. According to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, the Office of the First Lady of the United States is accountable to the First Lady to enable her to carry out her duties as hostess of the White House, and is also in charge of all social and ceremonial events of the White House. It adds that “The First Lady has her own staff that includes a chief of staff, press secretary, White House Social Secretary, Chief Floral Designer, etc. The Office of the First Lady is an entity of the White House Office, a branch of the Executive Office of the President.” Mrs. Jonathan enjoys similar perquisites of office.
Some online media outlets had reported that Mrs Jonathan was flown to a German hospital for an undisclosed ailment. Speculations were rife that she was being treated either of food poisoning allegedly contracted in Dubai, or appendicitis. Some even claimed she went for a “tummy tuck” medical surgery to reduce the size of the stomach. The Presidency stoked up this fire of rumour when it refused to clearly disclose her health status. Rather than make her return a quiet affair knowing that Nigerians were not informed about her real reason for going abroad, the Presidency decided to hold a carnival-like reception for her and there were reports of a grand reception being planned.
It is not as if Mrs. Jonathan’s health condition has any critical bearing on the running of government. But when secrecy is baked into the government culture, public trust takes flight. It is only in countries where openness is a luxury, like North Korea, that such things can happen. Incidentally, the North Korean First Lady, Ri Sol-ju, has also disappeared from the public for more than a month now, fuelling speculations about her fate. Some reports say she may have fallen out of favour with the ruling Communist Party in the country; some say she may be pregnant. But North Korea is a totalitarian, single party state while Nigeria is a supposed democracy.
Nigeria has gone through this cycle before. Former President Umaru Yar’Adua was in a Saudi Arabian hospital for months, but Nigerians were kept in the dark about his trip and illness. Ironically, President Goodluck Jonathan was his deputy then and directly suffered the consequences of the secrecy and lies that surrounded Yar’Adua’s absence. It took the intervention of the National Assembly which invoked a “doctrine of necessity” to bring sanity back to the country.
Like in Yar’Adua’s case, public funds were wasted in the inglorious trip of the Mrs. Jonathan. A Presidential jet took her to Germany and brought her back. The cost of whatever treatment she underwent in Germany was likely borne by Nigerian taxpayers. Shouldn’t these taxpayers then be informed about her condition?
As if to insult Nigerians the more, Mrs Jonathan has denied ever going to any German hospital. As she put it, “I read in the media where they said I was in the hospital. God Almighty knows I have never been to that hospital…I do not have terminal illness, or any cosmetic surgery, much less tummy tuck. My husband loves me as I am and I am pleased with how God created me.”
She missed the point here. We do not think that any rational person would want to contest the love her husband has for her. Nor are sane Nigerians praying that she develops a terminal illness. Being the wife of our President and a public figure whose welfare is taken care of with public funds, she owes it as a duty to Nigerians to explain her whereabouts. If she is ill, it only means she is human and will elicit the sympathy of Nigerians if she makes it public. If she said she didn’t go to the German hospital, then where did she disappear to for almost two months? And why did she say Nigerians gathered and prayed for her and God listened and heard their prayers? Mrs Jonathan’s health controversy has entrenched the climate of secrecy in government.
In saner countries, the Presidency would have been answering some penetrating questions by now. The United States taxpayers, for instance, do not pay for their First Lady’s private trips abroad. And it would have been a return to the Stone Age for Americans to troop out to sing and dance for Mrs Obama for travelling overseas secretly and returning with a swagger. The female ministers and other government functionaries who went to the airport to sing and dance with T-shirt-wearing aides of Mrs. Jonathan should be ashamed of themselves. Where in the civilised world do senior ministers leave their job to welcome the first lady from a private trip?
In a democracy, it is argued, the principle of accountability holds that government officials whether elected or appointed by those who have been elected – are responsible to the citizenry for their decisions and actions. Transparency requires that the decisions and actions of those in government are open to public scrutiny and that the public has a right to access such information. Both concepts are central to the very idea of democratic governance.
Nigerians should begin to demand accountability from their public officers. There should be transparency in government. A transparent government plays a critical role in a functioning democracy. Our public officers should learn some lessons from countries that run an open and transparent system. Earlier this month, the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, informed his people that he had prostate cancer and would undergo surgery. His people wished him well. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, was taken to the King Edward VII hospital, London, in June this year for a bladder infection and that was also made public. The world no longer operates like a secret cult. That is the civilised trend our leaders should emulate.