By Okey Ndibe
Last year, Nigeria's First Lady, Patience Jonathan, spent six weeks in a German hospital, receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment. Nigerians footed the bill for her treatment but neither her office nor that of her husband considered us deserving of the slightest bit of truth-telling.
It took the effort of enterprising online reporters to inform Nigerians that their president's wife was sick and that she was undergoing treatment in far-away Germany. Even so, her spokesman countered – in a facile response – that Mrs. Jonathan was a picture of buoyant health.
She'd traveled back, he said, to rest after the fatigue of hosting a meeting of African First Ladies in Abuja. Of course, the irony of the claim didn't strike the fibbing spokesman. If the spouse of Nigeria's president does not find Aso Rock – the most palatial address in Nigeria – conducive to resting, then the country her husband runs must be pure hell for other (by far less fortunate) Nigerians.
During Mrs. Jonathan's absence, I came to find out how patient and forgiving Nigerians can be. On Facebook, Twitter and other online forums, many wrote that they were praying for their ailing First Lady. Amazed by such gush of generosity, I wrote a column, calling on Mrs. Jonathan, once she recovered and returned to Nigeria, to repay the love nudging her husband to become a responsive, public-spirited leader.
I suggested, for one, that she must impress on Mr. Jonathan that he has a duty to give Nigerians a healthcare system that's worthy of humans. It's a scandal that Nigerian officials (as well as the broader class of the well-to-do) now troop to the UK, France, Germany, South Africa, India and the US for medical treatment. Part of the scandal lies in the fact that Nigerians are some of the top doctors in any field of medicine. Given a visionary leader committed to transformation – as opposed to a poseur, who likes to fancy himself a transformational figure – many of these doctors will need little prodding to come home and set up practices. But no: most of our so-called leaders are deaf to the shame of running a country that has no coherent health policy.
Consider this: Nelson Mandela is one of the worldэs most revered persons. Yet, whenever he takes ill, he's treated in South African hospitals by South African doctors. He's not flown abroad with the kind of fanfare that Nigerian officials organise, a fanfare that advertises Nigeria as a failed, forlorn state. Consider this, too: when former Ghanaian president, John Atta-Mills, battled a serious ailment, he stayed and was treated in Ghana. Yes, he died in the end – as all must die – but he made the point that he had confidence in his country's medical institution.
By contrast, no Nigerian official wants to be caught dead or alive in a Nigerian hospital! They know how dismal Nigerian healthcare is; they know because, in the final reckoning, they had a hand in gutting the system.
I'm the first to admit that I had no reason to expect that Mrs. Jonathan would rise to my lofty challenge but I issued it all the same. As Nigerians, we had paid to enable her to receive the best possible treatment from fine German doctors in a hospital with sophisticated diagnostic equipment.
At minimum, she owed it to us to become an advocate for a significantly improved healthcare in Nigeria. It's since become clear that Mrs. Jonathan is preoccupied with other plans and priorities. Nigerians were stunned to learn that the Federal Capital Territory has asked for N4 billion to construct a huge building for Mrs. Jonathan in Abuja.
There's no way to euphemise it: the idea is wacky. It’s astonishing that the president, his wife and a bevy of officials around them would allow this project to go beyond conception and make its way into the FCT's budget proposals.
Does it mean that nobody within that circle has the sense to recognise an outrage? In a country where many workers are yet to receive the minimum monthly wage of N18,000; where roads are a shambles; where hospitals are a mockery; where universities and polytechnics are bereft of equipment and research funds; where generators snarl and rattle because electric power is erratic; where cities have no trash disposal systems; where police training schools are in squalid shape; where many adults are so crushed by hardship they declare their own children witches and wizards – in such a country, how did the ensemble at Aso Rock permit the impunity of a N4 billion building for Mrs. Jonathan to see the light of day? Pray, how?
Such a project makes sense only to that insouciant coterie that inhabits the rooms and corridors of power. It's not enough insult to our sensibility that Mr. Jonathan is spending N2 billion to build a larger banquet hall for his feasts.
It's not enough outrage that billions more has been allocated to build an even grander residence for the vice president – who already lives in one of the grandest homes in Abuja. Now, the First Lady – just recently rescued from sickness by the collective wealth of Nigerians – must add to the list of outrages a project that amplifies a vulgar, self-aggrandising taste.
Last year, Mr. Jonathan and his ministers ramped up the message that Nigeria was virtually broke and that the government could no longer afford subsidising the cost of fuel. Did the president not dial the same message of economic scarcity to his wife? For that matter, did he not internalise the message himself? Why do poor, misgoverned Nigerians get one message of dire economic times but the nation’s spoilt, mediocre officials act in a way that suggests the country has a slush of cash – the only problem being how to spend the damn thing?
How does the First Lady's N4 billion fantasy "mission house" advance the healthcare of Nigerians? How does it add to the quality of life of a people trapped in conditions that should not exist in the 21st century? The people of the Niger Delta – President Jonathan's home zone – decry the slow progress in rehabilitating the all-too important East-West Road. Instead of focusing on such people-oriented projects, why does the present administration set its sights on decidedly wasteful, useless projects that merely inflate the egos of a few?
It's time those closest to Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan told them a few home truths. The country's first citizens ought to be told that power is transient. Nobody is assessed a great leader on the basis of acts that served his – and/or his wife's – fantasies of grandeur. If Mrs. Jonathan is incapable of realising how offensive her immoderate N4 billion project is, somebody around her should rise to the occasion and do her the favour of spelling it out. We don't owe her a N4 billion house; she owes us to be a voice whispering an insistent message into her husband's ears: Let's serve, rather than be the served.