It is a classic case of ‘One Week, One Controversy’! And the inimitable Dame, Mrs. Patience Jonathan, has been in the news again. She hardly disappoints. Perhaps, before your read this piece, Mrs. Jonathan would have returned from Germany where she had gone “to have some rest,” or receive medical treatment, or both, depending on whom you choose to believe between the media, opposition parties and Aso Rock spokespersons. Or her husband, our president, would have decided to come clean about her exact state of health and whereabouts.
But the latter may eventually not happen. Indeed, President Goodluck Jonathan understands this game very well. So, he is not unduly perturbed by all the din saturating the polity because of what his wife chooses to do with herself or not to say about her health condition. Yes, he does not “give a damn” because he knows full well that no sooner than his wife’s plane touches down in Abuja, and she sweeps across the red carpet like the marvelous Dame that she is, than she would stumble onto another controversy which would immediately and effectively kill and bury the present one over which the media and the opposition have raised ear-splitting cries. And so life goes on. Who, for instance, is still talking about her controversial appointment as Permanent Secretary in Baylesa State or the famous purchase, (or is it donation or lending or all three?) of posh cars scandal that embarrassed us all during the African First Ladies Summit in Abuja recently.
But the problem with always refusing to “give a damn” about public opinion and hoping that each controversy would soon burn itself out and be forgotten is that, like we all know, all postponed evil days only offer temporary relief. They always have ways of returning at very inconvenient times to haunt the person concerned. And so, the best, time-tested option has always been to be open and tackle matters as they come.
Now, even though the story about Mrs. Jonathan’s alleged ill-health had already appeared in the media, probably, before the president thought about how to manage the information about it, what would it have cost him to immediately confirm it, if it was true? Or summon his wife out of her “rest” to briefly show herself to the nation, to see if that would solve the often intractable traffic situation in Lagos or bring down the price of fish in Oyingbo market? Well, I can appreciate the psychology of the “most criticized president in the world.” I can imagine him wondering what his battalion of implacable critics would do with such information at that time. Would they join him to pray and wish his wife quick recovery or find ways of reaping some emotional and political capital out of his trying moments? Well, while his dilemma is somewhat understandable, it does not constitute sufficient reason for underlining the damaging impression that his paid advisers are incapable of generating a sound response to such a simple development.
Now, let’s see it this way. Assuming the president woke up the next morning after the media broke the news and mustered the will to tell us that his wife was sick, how would that have enhanced some lives at Ilaje or affected the taste of cassava bread? Now, even if he decides to do that tomorrow morning, will that change the colour of his hat? Is his wife a co-president? Would there be any vacuum created by her absence since she does not occupy any statutorily established office at the presidency? Or would she be compelled by any law to hand over to some “deputy wife” – a harrowing nightmare dreaded by many wives – if the nation hears that she is sick? Who, by the way, is that human being who has never fallen sick? As a permanent secretary in Bayelsa, she is already on a permanent leave, so what is the matter? Why unduly complicate what is otherwise a simple, straightforward matter?
Okay, I think I can understand now. The president may have been worried that he might be asked why his wife was receiving medical treatment abroad while other Nigerians like her patronized local hospitals, more so, when he recently announced that foreign medical travels by public officials and their relatives would no longer be allowed by his administration. If he had no faith in Nigerian public and private hospitals and so had to use public fund to ferry his wife to a German hospital, why should he expect any other Nigerian to? This would naturally remind one of the edifying example of Mrs. Cherry Blair, wife of the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, who was delivered of a baby in a public hospital while her husband was in office, and stayed with ordinary Britons in a public ward. Given her earning as an upper-drawer lawyer, Mrs. Blair could afford the services of any quality hospital anywhere in the world, but she chose a British public hospital to demonstrate to the people that under her husband’s watch, public hospitals in Britain have not lost their value. So, by underlining her preference for foreign hospitals over local ones, what point then was Mrs. Jonathan making about the health of Nigerian hospitals during her husband’s tenure as president?
That may probably explain why the Presidency chose to insist that she had gone to Germany to rest. But that only made the matter worse. How can the wife of a Nigerian president go all the way to Germany at a heavy cost to the country to just “rest” when there are countless very conducive and comfortable spots where she could do that in Nigeria, and at less cost? In a more serious country, this may become a strong campaign issue and might grossly lower the popularity of an incumbent. It may even bring down a government! Now if this information is in very bad taste, what her spokesman said the other day to justify his insistence that Mrs. Jonathan was entitled to an interminable vacation was more outrageous and overly revolting. Hear him: “She is not a regular public office holder who has a specific duration for vacation. Assuming that she has a specific duration for vacation, then we could have said the vacation will end on a particular day and she will return on a particular day. But as it is, she can decide to return anytime she feels she has rested enough.” (PUNCH September 10, 2012).
That should be very strange information to Nigerians, because, to the best of my knowledge, Mrs. Jonathan has not resigned her appointment as a permanent secretary in BayelsaState, from where she probably still draws unearned salaries. This statement alone speaks volumes about the chaotic nature of information management at the presidency.
I sincerely hope that Mrs. Jonathan would use this period of her rest and/or medical treatment to deeply ponder the sagging image of her husband’s presidency and determine who between herself and the army of detractors had constituted the greatest problem to the current administration? Why for instance did she agree to have a street named after her in Abuja or accept the scandalous appointment in Bayelsa when she could have scored a great point by dramatically rejecting them? Why did she publicly confront Gov Chibuike Amaechi of RiversState over the waterfront demolition of structures that affected her Okrika people when she could have achieved better results and avoided undue controversy by engaging the governor privately? What did she achieve by sparking off recently the very distasteful debate about payment of salaries and retirement benefits to wives of presidents and governors, perhaps, for idling away or wallowing in countless frivolities during their husbands’ tenure at our expense. The list is endless. From Bayelsa to Aso Rock, she has been trailed by overwhelming rumours of ethical problems, EFCC investigations, alleged cover-ups, high-handed treatment of public officers working under husband, excessive gallivanting, shopping sprees, wanton extravagance and the like!
A measure of how much Mrs. Jonathan is loved or despised by Nigerians was on display recently when she got embroiled in a land controversy with a former president’s wife (and by her aides), Mrs. Turai Yar’Adua. Now, because information about the land tussle was badly mismanaged, public odium had hastily flooded Mrs. Jonathan’s doorsteps, and many were already out there calling her all the unprintable names in the world until the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Mr. Bala Mohammed, came out with a convincing clarification which showed that she was not the guilty party in the land-grabbing scandal. But before then she had already taken an excess dose of public condemnation, and in the process saved Mrs. Yurai Yar’Adua the clearly justified public outrage that ought have naturally followed questions about how she had raised the millions of naira required to purchase such a choice piece of land – a question that we still need to ask. And the last time I checked, no one has thought it necessary to apologize to Mrs. Jonathan for that clearly undue outflow of misplaced aggression. Instead, what I see out there is a sad feeling like: “Oh, she escaped it this time!”
Indeed, whenever Mrs. Jonathan returns to the country, she will do herself and her husband’s political career a lot of good by grossly abridging her ubiquity and distancing herself from those friends who tell her that it is her own time to shine and dance in the open square and so should not “give a damn” about what any other person out there thinks or says about her preferences and preoccupations. Indeed, the less she is in the news, and the less controversies she stirs, the better for her husband’s presidency. I wish her a sound health and her husband better luck.