Confronted by journalists on the continuous absence of his boss, President Umar Yar’Adua from the country after the unusually short Federal Executive Council, FEC, meeting Wednesday last week, John Odey, the Minister of Information and Communication was obviously at his wits end on what to tell the news hunters. His dilemma was understandable. Odey, just like the other information managers working for the President, had been under considerable strain since Yar’Adua’s supposed few days trip to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday 20 August. Their problem has to do with how to manage the information at their disposal as well and the deft political moves going on.
Two days before the trip, Saharareporters.com, an online news agency, had reported that the President was going to the oil-rich country for medical attention. The choice of Saudi Arabia, the agency said, was to deflect panic and apprehension over the Nigerian number one citizen’s health that may result from another trip to Germany. Yar’Adua had been frequenting a German hospital before and after he was elected as Nigeria’s President to treat a kidney problem.
The Presidency was said to have been worried over the publicity and anxiety about the President’s health when he went to the German hospital for treatment earlier in the year. Nevertheless, Segun Adeniyi, Senior Special Adviser to President Yar’Adua on Communication, told journalists the same day the President left the country that the trip to Saudi Arabia was for the performance of umrah, the lesser hajj.
But some days after the trip, the assertion that Yar’Adua had gone to the oil-rich nation for medical treatment in the guise of going for lesser hajj was confirmed when news broke that he had been taking treatment at the King Fahd Armed Forces Hospital in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. French news agency, AFP actually quoted an administrative official of the hospital as confirming the development. “Yar’Adua has been at the King Fahd Armed Forces Hospital in the Red Sea city of Jeddah,” the agency said, quoting the unnamed official who was not specific on the President’s medical condition or the treatment he is undergoing. AFP also reported that Saudi military police were on guard at the hospital managed by the Asian country’s defence ministry and where ruling family members and senior officials are usually treated.
The belief that all is not well with Yar’Adua was further confirmed by the cancellation of a trip scheduled for Thursday 28 August to Brazil by the President. This was in spite of the fact that the advance team from the Presidency was already in the South American country awaiting Yar’Adua’s arrival. “The Nigerian Ambassador to Brazil presented a note to the Brazilian authorities saying the visit has been cancelled due to official reasons. He did not give details of the postponement. As far as we are concerned, we don’t know why the trip was cancelled,” Andre Luiz Azevego Santos, Deputy Chief of Mission, Brazilian Embassy, Abuja told The Punch, a Lagos-based national newspaper, in confirmation of the cancellation of the scheduled visit of the Nigerian president to his country.
The dearth of information on the President’s whereabouts and health has spawned a rash of speculations in the media and among the Nigerian public. But even with the overwhelming evidence that Yar’Adua is undergoing medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, his aides in Nigeria insist that their boss is in the foreign country for a religious rite. While answering journalists’ questions after the FEC meeting of Wednesday 27 August, Odey refuted reports that Yar’Adua was lying indisposed at a Saudi Arabian hospital. According to him, the President was still engaged in lesser hajj and would return to the country after the conclusion of the Islamic religious rite.
When confronted with the fact of cancellation of the scheduled visit of the President to Brazil as evidence that all was not well with the Nigerian number one public official, Foreign Affairs Minister, Ojo Maduekwe, who was to be part of the entourage, donned his usual double speak toga as he said the trip was only readjusted and not cancelled. However, if the Information Minister had intended to quell speculations over the state of health of his boss by his statement, he failed spectacularly.
Although Odey was playing pranks with the matter, the planned trip to Brazil exposed the minister and his troubadours. This situation was dramatised by a National Compass columnist, Dotun Oladipo, thus: “What gave fillip to the suspicion that Yar’Adua is sick was the cancellation of his scheduled state visit to Brazil, even after his security personnel and aides had arrived the country. A state visit is not something you cancel without very cogent reasons. Most of the presidential state visits that had been cancelled in the past were occasioned by diplomatic row or disasters of monumental dimension and not because a president decided, in an impromptu manner, that he needed to be cleansed, through a holy pilgrimage, before meeting the ‘devil’ that is hosting him. And you can indeed, despite the harsh economic environment in the country, credit Nigerians with some sense of dissection of issues. Thus, by the time members of the FEC and the presidential spokesman, Mr. Segun Adeniyi, were telling us that the President was on holy pilgrimage, we knew they were not telling us the whole truth, as you say in the courts, concerning the state of health of Yar’Adua.”
Rather than abate, rumours on the state of health of Yar’Adua had by Saturday 29 August reached a feverish pitch with the unconfirmed report that the President had undergone a successful kidney transplant in some national dailies. As published in the newspapers, the President had by his side while undergoing the transplant at King Fahd hospital only his wife, daughter, two physicians and security aides. Ironically, as grave as the information about the surgery was, there was no official confirmation or denial from the Presidential Villa.
The anxiety about the President, however reached a head on Sunday 30 August when the rumour mill went to town that he had passed on to the world beyond. As usual with such rumours, nobody can trace its origin. The lot again fell on the Minister of information to dispel the rumour. In a statement in Abuja, Odey said the President was expected back in Nigeria soon after his trip to Saudi Arabia “where he is on lesser hajj,” and urged all Nigerians to continue to be law-abiding and support the administration to fully realise its goals.
Virtually repeating his statement of the previous Wednesday, Odey said in a press release issued on Sunday night that Yar’Adua was hale and hearty. “The Federal Government wishes to appreciate the concern that has been raised in the newspapers and some sections of the media over the past few days on the state of health of Mr. President, Alhaji Umar Musa Yar’Adua. The Federal Government wishes to restate here that Mr. President is very well and healthy. He is in good health to steer the affairs of the state, to bring about better livelihood for the generality of the people of Nigeria. He is expected back in Nigeria soon after his trip to Saudi Arabia, where he has gone on lesser hajj,” the Minister said, without any reference to the story making the round about the treatment being received by the President at the Saudi hospital, just as he was vague about the actual date his principal would return to the country.
This prompted the opposition Action Congress, AC, to accuse the FEC of “feeding the public with deliberate lies over the health of President Umar Yar’Adua.” The party also said the state of the President’s health cannot be treated as a private affair, “because as a public official – and the foremost one at that – whatever happens to him is of interest to the citizenry and affects the entire country”.
In the statement issued in Abuja on Sunday 31 August, signed by AC National Publicity Secretary, Lai Mohammed, the party commended the media for “unearthing the truth: which is that President Yar’Adua is undergoing medical treatment in Saudi Arabia rather than going there for lesser hajj as deceptively disseminated by the FEC”. The party noted that government’s information managers have again failed the nation’s call for a full disclosure of the nature of the ailment Yar’Adua is suffering from. “We recall that while in office, (unelected) President Ibrahim Babangida told Nigerians when he was going abroad for radiculopathy treatment. Much more is expected from an ‘elected’ President,” the party said, noting that the veil of secrecy over Yar’Adua’s health “can only lead to unhealthy rumours, which will in turn create an atmosphere of panic over his (President’s) health status – with dire implications for the country’s overall wellbeing.”
Dr. Kayode Soremekun, of the Department of Political Science, University of Lagos advised that the situation required that the Information Minister issue bulletins daily on the state of the President’s health. Dotun Oladipo, a columnist with National Compass waved off those who he said were playing the ostrich with Yar’Adua’s health. He wrote: “In an age where information dissemination cannot be controlled again, courtesy of the Internet, and where public officials are now evaluated in the main by their sincerity, it is futile engaging in such infantile lie.”
The anxiety over President Yar’Adua’s health continued last week even as some newspapers indicated that the reported kidney transplant of the President was nothing but a ruse. Also, information attributed to unnamed ‘sources’ in many newspapers last Monday morning that the President would return later that day turned out to be false. In the same vein, there were reports that Yar’Adua would come back to the country last Tuesday night to enable him chair the weekly FEC meeting the next morning.
This information, which was as usual attributed to “highly dependable government sources” in one national daily, also turned out not to be true at the end of the day, as President Yar’Adua was conspicuously absent at the meeting. “When the President left Nigeria, he told us he is going to lesser hajj,” the Minister of Information said while carefully picking his words in response to enquiries on when Yar’Adua would return to the country after last Wednesday’s FEC meeting. Prodded further on the mission of the President in Saudi Arabia, Odey who said Vice President Goodluck Jonathan has been in constant touch with Yar’Adua, cautiously added a caveat: that the President may have decided to use the opportunity of his visit to the oil-rich country to do a medical check-up.
However, the Minister later told journalists that he would confer with the Vice President to know when Yar’Adua would come back to Nigeria. He promised to make the information available to journalists later last Wednesday. But this had not been done as at the time of writing this story last week. Rather, there was further confusion about the actual state of the President’s health as Saharareporters.com reported that Hajiya Turai Yar’Adua, the President’s wife who is with him in Saudi Arabia, was insisting that her husband be taken to the German hospital he was used to. The website said this was sequel to the request by the hospital to use one of her kidneys for her husband. “After running a battery of tests, the team of doctors concluded that the kidney meant for the replacement was likely to suffer tissue rejection from him. They advised that tests be conducted on his close relatives to find alternative donors. His wife and daughter were tested, and his wife proved compatible. She was, however, unwilling to donate an organ in Saudi Arabia. She instead opted for it to be done in Germany. Her condition would mean that Yar’Adua would spend a prolonged period of time in Germany to recuperate,” the online publication reported.
The news agency reported that following the refusal of the first lady to cooperate with the medical team, one of the President’s brothers it identified as Major Audu Yar’Adua, has been allegedly flown to Jeddah to undergo organ compatibility test.
Yet, there have been other reports which alleged that what the President is suffering from is Churg Strauss Syndrome, another serious illness associated with the inflammation of blood vessels which often results into allergy.
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