The Nigerian media continues to be transfixed by the question of President Buhari’s health, with rumor and innuendo flying, including the “fake news” of his death. Buhari went to London on January 19, for ten days of rest and medical tests. However, he has since extended his stay twice, and at present there is no set date for his return.
Buhari’s press people insist that he is healthy. And, his Febuary 13, telephone meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump should have dispelled rumors of his death. Senate President Bukola Saraki and two other political figures visited him in London on February 15. Following the visit, Saraki released a tweet stating that the president was in good health. Subsequently, on February 21, the president sent a message to the Nigerian people saying that there was no cause for alarm. Photographs of the president (there has been no film footage) from London indicate that he has lost weight but is still capable of standing and mobility. However, the Nigerian press complains that the people around Buhari stone-wall them, just as deceased Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua’s family and close political operatives did when he was dying in 2010.
Contributing to the air of suspicion is the frequency with which African chiefs of state die in foreign hospitals. Robyn Dixon notes that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in a Belgian hospital in 2012, Guinea Bissau President Bacai Sanha died in a Paris hospital, also in 2012, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa died in a Paris hospital in 2008, his successor Michael Sata died in a British hospital in 2010, and Gabonese President Omar Bongo died in a Spanish hospital in 2009. President Mugabe of Zimbabwe makes annual trips to a hospital in Singapore, where he spends a substantial amount of time; it would be no surprise should he die there. Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua did die in Abuja, but only after a lengthy stay in a Saudi Arabian hospital where he was almost entirely isolated from contact with Nigerian political figures and media. He apparently died in a self-contained medical unit at Aso Villa (the presidential residence) that flew back with him from Saudi Arabia. In virtually every case where an African chief of state or head of government has died abroad, his inner circle has insisted that he was healthy—until he was pronounced dead.
Predictably, there has been criticism in Nigeria over President Buhari’s desire to seek medical treatment in London, especially after the construction of a medical facility at the Villa that, according to Robyn Dixon, cost $16 million, “more than the total capital budget for Nigeria’s sixteen federal teaching hospitals.” Nevertheless, by Western standards, medical care in sub-Saharan Africa is typically abysmal, with the exception of South Africa. Hence, rich Africans routinely seek medical attention in London, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Johannesburg. In addition, in some cases and under certain circumstances, presidential suspicion, if not paranoia, about the circumstances in which they work makes a foreign venue attractive when they are weak or incapacitated.
Meanwhile, Buhari spokesman Femi Adesina said on Nigerian television, “The fact that the president is receiving visitors, the fact that he has spoken with the American president, and the fact that he asked us to tell the world that he’s fine, I think that’s just enough.”