Throwback: How presidents everywhere hide sicknesses

(First Published in May 2017)

Buhari dying for Nigeria is a way of keeping his oath. And Nigerians don’t have to know how. Most presidents like to take that to their graves

By Elijah Olusegun

Many American past presidents and British former prime ministers had one malady or the other they kept under their top hats, from the beady eyes of critics and newshounds, when they were in power. So if Nigeria’s 74-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari tucks his under his Arewa cap—big deal!

It’s only that we have an army of truthers that believe hiding Buhari’s medical record is a no-no for the well-being of an 18-year-old democracy.

“I believe strongly they (presidency) need to stop lying to Nigerians about Mr President’s health,” said former Rep Junaid Mohammed. “Can they actually tell Nigerians what this medical leave or routine check-up is?”

That’s one hardnosed critic from the north.

Some from the other side of the Niger are itching for something bigger than the truth: his resignation.

“The Constitution anticipates a fit and proper chief executive to be in charge of and run the affairs of Nigeria, which General Buhari cannot presently fulfill” lawyer and activist Ebun Adegboruwa wrote few weeks ago. “We do not need to wait for the Yar’adua scenario before we take steps to save the President from himself and his handlers.”

Point is: From George Washington to even the also-ran Hillary Clinton, none of the POTUSes have willingly outed they were in bad shape. Not even in the Queen’s country.

It’s a norm—in history.

America’s President Grover Cleveland lied about his mouth cancer in 1893. He said it was a bad toothache, which was “extracted”—by a team of six surgeons and four dentists —during a four-day “fishing trip” on a yacht. Five teeth, a cancerous mound, and a well hidden scar were the outcomes of the extraction.

John F. Kennedy was in the pink, apparently, at 43, when he became US president in 1960. But in reality, he had been sustained by doses of steroids and vitamins—against Addison’s disease or autoimmune polyendocrine syndrome type 2. His opponent knew and made an issue of it during their campaigns. His doctors, however, insisted Kennedy did not have Addison’s disease. And that settled it. Except that the American No. 1 citizen collapsed twice during a congressional visit to Britain. Addison’s causes dizziness, tiredness, sweating, and mood swings.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was 38 when he lost his limbs to polio in 1921. Eleven years later, he became U.S president, and served until 1944. But all along, he had been battling high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease with its syndrome of angina pectoris and congestive heart failure—all hidden from the public.

Like the hale-and-hearty sing-song Buhari’s media handler Garba Sheu and Info Minister Lai Mohammed have been selling, Roosevelt’s personal physician Ross McIntire would say, “The president’s health is perfectly OK. There are absolutely no organic difficulties at all.” But Roosey, the Guardian wrote, eventually croaked after a cerebral haemorrhage. By the way, the president was a chimney—right from 9 till death.

France’s former President Francois Mitterrand died of prostate cancer a year after he left the Elysee Palace, at the end of his second term in 1995. But all through his presidency, his cancer was a state secret.

According to author David Owen the Guardian quoted, when Mitterrand had to get a shot of intravenous oestrogen hormone therapy outside of the palace, the president’s personal physician would “hang the intravenous drip on a picture hook or a coat hanger so as not to have to hammer a nail into the wall of an embassy or another government’s guest house.

ALSO SEE: Lai Mohammed admits Buhari not fit to work

British former Prime Minister Harold Wilson suffered from colon cancer in his second term between 1974 and 1976. The UK newspaper said Wilson could have suffered from Alzheimer’s too because of the slur and other tell-tales that accompany the disease. Not many people knew this about Wilson. But he resigned eventually —which was a good thing.

Not so with many others. Winston Churchill also had many physical and psychological maladies: depression, and, much later in his second term, stroke upon stroke, pneumonia, and heart attacks. He was paralysed on one side. But it was all kept in the dark from the Brits, especially with the cover story that he was only depressed.

And the war hero conducted his official duties from his bedside—just like Buhari has been working from home—without anybody suspecting—until after  his retirement.

Among Churchill’s many successors, Tony Blair came across as one of the springiest. But something was eating him while in office, and the voters never knew until 2004 when, the Guardian reported, he was rushed to the Hammersmith Hospital.

The PM was suffering from this jaw breaker: supraventricular tachycardia. He was later treated for a heart flutter. Blair was able to convince himself first that his faulty ticker never hindered him from doing his job. And he sang it out loud at every opportunity.

Might this be funny—or not?

Well, President Washington lost all his white pearls by the mid-age. He was using falsies while in office. But that was little compared to the army of never-get-overs that buffeted his body. He had diphtheria, malaria, pneumonia, dysentery, and epiglottitis that eventually killed him.

America’s ninth President William Harrison was four years younger than Nigeria’s President Buhari when he got to power in 1841. He was pretty old all the same. And the age was going to ruin his campaign. So he decided to work hard before and after he won the election—to impress America that age was a number, and to cover for his calcifying old bones. So did he—with his back-breaking campaign, and 8145-word inaugural speech that lasted two hours on a cold day. He came down with pneumonia later, and died after a month in White House.

Down here, in the twenty-first century, Buhari is fighting the battle of his life with some old-age infirmities, too. At least, Nigerians have known a pinch about his prostate flare and the intestinal strain.

But he’s not incapacitated yet, according to his supporters. He’s just kicking his heels, resting as doctors advised. The APC governors have even said the president can lead from behind—or anywhere.

True. That’s nothing out of this world.

Nigerians only want to be put out of their misery the same way these developed democracies groaned too when their leaders pined away in bad health, and nobody knew enough.

Perhaps critics of Buhari’s health information management have to know they can’t be more democratic than those citizens of the world’s freest countries.