WHEN it emerged on Monday that President Goodluck Jonathan will address Nigerians in a nationwide broadcast billed for 7am Tuesday, the thought that immediately came to my mind was of his wife, Patience, who is reported to be convalescing in far away Wiesbaden, Germany. I feared that an unfortunate change of situation had compelled the president to finally dignify his “beloved” Nigerians, at whose instance he exists as president and commander-in-chief, with an update concerning our first-lady’s health situation.
The expected reaction of the average decent human is to hope that Mrs. Jonathan gets better soon. Therefore it is only natural for one to hope that the president’s address would not be over some negative news concerning her health condition. After all, for several weeks now, Nigerians have read all sorts of diagnoses on what ails the first lady, from Parkinson’s, to food poisoning and ‘side-effects of a surgical procedure’ – no thanks to the silence of Aso Rock, the unofficial name of the presidential villa, in the face of raging curiosity over Mrs. Jonathan’s health condition.
It turns out on Tuesday morning that President Jonathan's address had little to do with the first lady’s health. Instead the president dealt with the issue of devastating floods that continues to render thousands of Nigerians homeless, hamper many businesses and destroy infrastructure across large swaths of the country. The address is welcome, and it is unique in the annals of leadership in Nigeria, considering that previous leadership showed scant regard for such addresses in times of similar grievous natural disasters.
Yet the president’s address is curious for a couple of reasons, first of which is that Mr. Jonathan chose work hours, on a weekday when Nigerians will either be at work, or rushing to work, to make an important nationwide broadcast. When signals went out from Abuja to media houses across the country that the president will be addressing Nigerians on Tuesday, the impression was that presidency officials sought as wide an audience as possible – hence the announcement a day ahead of time. But this much is obvious: a 7am address on any given work day will only get a minimal audience.
Beyond the issue of the address or its timing, however, are more important things. There is, for one, the surface appearance that the Goodluck Jonathan government cares. And hopefully it truly does, for it is not unusual for governments to speak of specific or grand ideas with little to show for the effort. The flood disasters of 2012 have been deadly and widespread; if the government is able to handle its aftermath with as much compassion as with efficiency, it will be to its credit – a rarity in governance, both in Nigeria and in the region, as proven over several decades of self-rule.
It is not enough to rouse the nation to watch you say how many billions in local currency you are throwing at a problem, or how many committees you have created to tackle the problem, or, how many billionaires in the private sector you have entrusted with raising funds for the victims of a major disaster. Further steps must be taken to see that every step taken, and every initiative made, brings quantifiable results beyond the mediocre ones to which Nigerians are already used, as the government trumps same as great achievements. The Jonathan Administration can use a little bit of pleasant surprise – for itself, and for the Nigerian population over whose affairs it presides.
The air in Nigeria is thick with cynicism, justifiably so. It is why, when it turnsed out that the theme of President Jonathan’s Tuesday morning address centered on the flood disasters in many parts of the country, many Nigerians will scoff at his remarks, yinmu-ing their noses while expressing suspicions to the effect that the address was nothing but a stunt or a pretention to empathy at a time when the government’s popularity is rapidly waning, amid a myriad of challenges, from security to general instability.
Ordinarily, one should not doubt Mr. Jonathan’s empathy for the victims of the demoralizing natural disaster presently seen everywhere from Kaduna, in the north of Nigeria, to Anambra and Imo, in the southeast of the country. The images of the scale of destruction, wrecked by swelling of bodies of water in Nigeria, which in turn was occasioned by unusually heavy seasonal rains that have drowned as many persons as homes and businesses, tugs at the most rigid of hearts.
But, having been taken for granted for way too long, Nigerians have become deathly cynical – even on the relatively small issues addressed by government. Take for instance the issue of the health of their first lady, the president’s wife. Aso Rock has gone from pretension [that nothing was amiss – that no such thing happened to the first lady] to denial [that the first lady was only exhausted and therefore taking a deserved rest] and outright manipulation [through the release of grainy video clips and images of the president and the first lady smiling into the camera in some foreign location]. It is another instance of the government taking the citizens for granted.
Now, consider the option where shortly after Ms. Jonathan took ill, Aso Rock released an official statement saying that the first lady was indisposed and is receiving treatment for her health condition at a hospital in Germany. Consider also that such statement stated, without giving too many minute details of the ailment, what the health condition is and how the first lady is faring, while asking Nigerians for their support and best wishes for the first lady as she recuperates. Consider all that and more, and imagine what would have been, as opposed to what is.
It is highly doubtful that if the above option had been adopted by Mr. Jonathan and his communication experts in Aso Rock, Ms. Jonathan’s health condition would be the subject of the type of insensitive avalanche of ‘diagnoses’ that we continue to see on the pages of newspapers and on the social media websites, courtesy of the same old ‘informed sources’. If Mr. Jonathan is cavalier with facts on matters small or personal, why should anyone expect any better on issues bigger and more critical in nature?
Truth be told, it would have been mostly goodwill messages for the first lady if Aso Rock had frontally addressed the issue of her health situation with the Nigerian people. Unfortunately, as an African and as an African leader, President Jonathan has doubled down on that culture of secrecy that stems from a popular mindset that sees enemies lurking in the shadow of every success or affliction – ‘enemies’ who are ready to take one’s joys and replace it with sorrow, or add to whatever affliction or ill-luck with which one may be contending. It would be quite accurate to imagine that as I write, there are victims of flood out there who are ascribing their current travails to the handiwork of such “enemies.” And you wonder why ‘pastors’ are thriving so much in Nigeria.
The president and the first lady ceased being private citizens the moment they offered to enter the gilded cage of public service at the very zenith of leadership in Nigeria. They cannot eat their cake and have it; attempting to do so only exposes them to the very kind of invasions [of privacy, psychologically or otherwise] that they seek to avoid. Mr. Jonathan would do well to address the issue of the health condition of our first lady, not just for his own sake, but out of respect for the people whom he referred to as “beloved” in the opening line of his Independence Day address, only last week.