After 140 days of uncertainty about his whereabouts, Enugu State Governor Sullivan Chime last week emerged from his hideout to defend his long absence from office. Looking frail but determined, he revealed in a press conference that he was in London to undergo medical treatment for cancer of the nose. Chime was unapologetic about his decision to not reveal to the people of Enugu State the reason for his absence from office.
Sounding a bit cocky and impenitent about the way he handled the situation, Chime said he had no obligation to inform the public about his medical condition because he was on a personal vacation. Besides, he said, he handed over power to his deputy and conveyed to the Speaker of the state House of Assembly a letter that officially notified the House that he was taking his leave. All these, he said, meant that he had fulfilled the constitutional requirements ahead of his overseas trip for medical treatment. Many people could not believe that a state governor went on vacation for more than four months and returned to feel smug about it.
In his press conference, Chime raised a number of issues, in particular the sensational reporting style of Nigerian newspapers and the lack of accuracy in news reporting. He said while it was unsettling to read news of his death in the online editions of Nigerian newspapers, he felt amused that Nigerian newspapers often dressed and presented rumours as factual reports.
He said: “So when I started reading in the papers, how I went to India, how I died at so, so place, to us it was a kind of entertainment. Anytime we felt like being entertained, we call up the Nigerian papers online and we will be laughing. So it was a lot of entertainment to us but what became worrisome was the deliberate and sustained attempt to undermine the government of Enugu State.”
Chime also defended his staff who, despite his claims, steadfastly upheld the plot to suppress from public knowledge information about his failing health. He said: “Coming to my staff, all attacks on them that they were hoarding information and all that was an unfair attack. First and foremost, they didn’t have all the information, all they knew was that I was going on vacation and I didn’t know it was the business of people to know what my activities will be when I am going on vacation… I don’t see how it should concern anybody, I don’t see why we should owe anybody any apologies.”
The notion that Chime, an elected state governor, owed nobody an apology for being away from office for so long because he was on personal vacation is wrong, indefensible, and objectionable. Whether he was on private vacation or on official assignment, Chime has a moral duty to inform the people of Enugu State about his health condition and his holidays.
There is nothing sacrosanct about Chime’s health. Chime is a public figure because he is the governor of Enugu State. He was elected by the people and he owes the people an obligation to furnish them with news of his ill health and his overseas trip. Chime is equally obligated to the people, the electorate, in the same manner that he was obliged to inform the Speaker of the State House of Assembly. However, the argument by Chime that he was on a private vacation and therefore that he owed nobody an explanation about his movement or his health condition is thoughtless, illogical and arrogant.
Public officers have limited rights to secrecy. As a public figure, Chime ought to understand that he has limited privacy. If he is in poor health, it is in the public interest that he should inform the people of Enugu State. A culture of secrecy about his 140-day absence from office has undermined rather than enhanced his image.
Despite the climate of official secrecy that blanketed Chime’s weakening health, rumours of his ill health still pervaded the public sphere and attracted extraordinary and critical commentary in the Nigerian press. This is not surprising. Rumour flourishes when official sources of information are sealed or corrupted.
As the period of Chime’s absence from office prolonged, the people of Enugu State watched eternally as the press, politicians and the public argued about whether the governor was undergoing medical treatment overseas or whether he was on vacation, as the official lines maintained. Regardless of the sustained misinformation that was fed to the public that Chime was on vacation, his long absence increased public scepticism that he was on vacation.
Rather than furnish citizens of the state with clear and unadulterated account of Chime’s whereabouts, the state government and the leadership of the state House of Assembly maintained silence, thus allowing gossip and misinformation to fester. By refusing to clarify Chime’s situation, Enugu State officials worsened public anxiety. That conduct, the attempt to hose down rumours about Chime’s ill health proved disastrous. As much as state officials tried to hide the truth from the public, their efforts were frustrated. They could not legislate against rumour.
It is absurd for a freely elected state government to attempt to suppress the public’s right to know, or the public’s right to discuss the governor’s health. Former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua tried a similar tactic (when his health was failing him) and it proved unsuccessful. The significance of all this, for those in Enugu State who tried to conceal the truth about Chime’s health, is: Official silence feeds gossip. And gossip nurtures anxiety.
If Chime and his special assistants, advisers and commissioners were offended by whirling rumours about the governor’s health, they must take a large part of the blame. Rumours about Chime’s health (including newspaper reports of his demise) degenerated into a circus because of official attempts to hide from public knowledge the facts about Chime’s medical condition. The rumours were given further impetus by the failure of Chime’s deputy, his special assistants and advisers to feed the pipelines of public information with credible and believable information concerning the governor’s reason for being absent from duty for more than four months.
The confusion in Enugu State over Chime’s whereabouts and the clumsiness of not knowing who was in charge of the state showed quite clearly that Chime and his government held the people of the state in contempt. It is only in Nigeria that an elected state governor would disappear for a long time without informing the people who elected him.
With constant denial by Chime’s aides that the governor was in poor health and no one willing to hazard a guess as to where he was and when he would return to resume work, there was the impression that the governor could take off any time he wished and stay away from office as long as he wished. Is it any wonder why the rest of the world would continue to laugh at us?
Having accepted responsibility for leaving the state for an interminable period of time without informing the public about his movements, Chime seems unconcerned about the consequences of his prolonged absence that led to public (mis)perception of a power vacuum in the state. His plan was deliberate but, more significantly, the entire scheme gave the impression that he didn’t care about the information needs of the people, including the welfare of the people.
As we sympathise with Chime for his bout of illness, certain truths about his conduct must be told. His behaviour reeked of contempt. For the four and half months that Chime was absent from office, the people of Enugu State yearned for official clarification over his absence. Rather than receive accurate information about their governor, the people were berated for asking questions. Worst still, the people and the press were served by Chime’s aides a cocktail of lies and differing accounts of the man’s whereabouts.
To restate an earlier point, the argument by Chime that the state of his health is a private matter cannot be correct. The people of Enugu Stare are entitled to know whether their governor is in good health or in adverse health condition. Those who argue, as Chime did vigorously during his press conference last week, that the governor’s health situation is a private matter and therefore should not be open to public discussion, do not understand the connection between public office holders and limited privacy. Again, Chime’s health is not a private matter. Enugu State citizens are justified to know whether their governor is fit or unfit to govern.
Does Chime deserve everyone’s sympathy? You bet, he does! But do the people of Enugu State deserve the kind of treatment that Chime and his government imposed on them for more than four months of uncertainty and lack of information? No, the people of the state deserve better, much better than the level of disregard that Chime and his aides showed to them. Chime obviously believes his personal interests should override the interests of the people. This is not the hallmark of a governor who subscribes to the philosophy of servant-leadership but one who believes in the principle that the people should serve their leader.