The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2011 mandates every government functionary to disclose official information of public interest, even if unsolicited, but the Nigerian presidency has openly disregarded this law by keeping the health status of President Muhammadu Buhari under wraps for months.
On May 7, the president left Nigeria on medical trip for the fourth time since his inauguration without telling Nigerians the reasons why their taxes would be expended in paying his specialist doctor in London.
Though the presidency said Buhari’s June 5, 2016 visit to the UnitedKingdom was for the “treatment of ear infection”, his subsequent medical trips have shown that what ails the president is more serious than ear infection.Altogether the president has spent over 90 days off duty without full disclosure about his health status.
During the second anniversary of his administration, the president’s spokespersons insisted they would not inform Nigerians about the condition of their principal’s health, despite the attempts by the press to seek the information.
While answering questions about the president’s ill-health from the state house correspondents in Abuja recently, Minister of Informational and Culture, Lai Mohammed gave a terse response: “Mr. President is in very competent hands and there is no cause for alarm.”
The minister had previously said his principal was “hale and hearty” until the president confirmed his infirmity.Earlier in March, Buhari’s spokesperson, Femi Adesina, said Nigerians do not have rights to ask about the health status of the president.
“The prerogative is his own to disclose and if he wants to disclose, he will. But nobody should be asking him to do it. That would be an infringement on his right.” On the eve of their second anniversary in office, Mr. Adesina told Nigerians on Channels Television that the president “is doing very well.”It was a statement that revealed nothing about the health condition of the president.
The president himself did not say much about what has ailed him when he returned from his second medical trip in March, except his declaration that he had never been so sick all his life.
The secrecy about the president’s health has cast doubt about the current administration compliance with FOIA signed in 2011.Section 1(1) of the Act guarantees the right of Nigerians “to access or request information, whether or not contained in any written form, which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution howsoever described…”
Section 1(2) states that Nigerians under FOIA “need not demonstrate any specific interest in the information being applied for.”Though the law frowns at a request that constitutes an invasion of personal privacy, but the Nigerian constitution is clear as to whether a public official such as the president can enjoy the privilege of a private person.
FOIA Section 12 (v) states further that any information that would better serve the interest of the Nigerian public should be fully disclosed.And in the case of infirmity of body or mind such that renders the president or the vice president incapable of discharging the function of their office, section 144 of the constitution provides that either of them should be relived of his duty.
Since February 6 when the president’s medical vacation in London was extended indefinitely until his return in March 10, Nigerians’ curiosity about his health status has waxed stronger.While they anticipate the quick recovery of their president, the secrecy about his condition has caused many to raise question about his presidency’s commitment to government transparency, and to the Nigerians’ rights to know, despite his party, All Progressives Congress’s pledge to bring ‘change’ to governance.
Former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Dr. Chidi Odinkalu, described the management of the information about President Buhari’s ill health as “squalid”.
Nevertheless, he is unsure whether Nigerians can effectively invoke FOIA to demand information about the health of their president.“I’m not sure that the FoIA is much use here, especially where the treatment of the President is taking place outside Nigeria,” he said.
He said Nigeria’s FoIA doesn’t have extra-territorial application, and therefore it is easier for Nigerian public officials to say the president’s medical record are with doctors outside the country who will not be bound by Nigeria’s FoIA.As it stands, it would be very difficult for Nigerians to invoke any law to access the president’s medical record because the legal framework on the full disclosure of the president’s health is obscure, said professor of Law, Fidelis Oditah (SAN).
He also said the health of the president should not be an open book because certain matters are not for public consumption.In other democracies however, especially in the United States which Nigeria attempts to copy, President Obama published two pages long medical report in 2016.
The report contains basic vital information such as his height, weight, body mass, resting heart rate and blood pressure, as well as numbers from laboratory tests for his cholesterol, glucose and vitamin D levels, among other information.
The report also lists the results of tests for Obama’s physical and neural health, lists the medication he was taking including the occasional use of nicotine gum and mentioned that the former president drinks alcohol only occasionally.
A similar report for George W. Bush in 2006 was four pages long and included a lengthy medical history. The Chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association, Professor Mike Ogirima said only the personal physician of the president can produce a report about the president’s health, and it would require the resolution of the National Assembly on the recommendation of the medical panel including the personal physician of the president.
Given the attitude of the presidency, it is unlikely President Buhari will make his medical record public. It is common among handlers of presidents in Africa to be secretive, therefore little information should be expected from Buhari’s spokesperson, Oditah told The Guardian in a phone interview.
Odinkalu said this attitude shows that minder of the presidency information either have no respect for the basic values and decency of the Nigerian citizens or simply don’t care about their own standing with Nigerians.