Ailing Nigerian leaders and the reality of health care in the country

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By Hauwa Abubakar
The debates, protests and counter protests surrounding the issue of President Muhammadu Buhari’s health and stay in London has definitely heated up the political sphere in Nigeria and it has set the tone for the 2019 elections.
In my hunger to understand better the situation and keep abreast with latest developments, I stumbled upon an article by Washington Post whose headline really caught my eye and left a sour taste on my tongue.
“Buhari has been gone for months. The last Nigerian president absent this long died in office,” the article written by Kim Yi Dionne read.
It was definitely catchy but what struck me even harder was when the report x-rayed African leaders who were ill in office and who died in active service, while dissecting the succession process that ensued.
The report, which was the aftermath of findings from a research by the author and other researchers revealed that 11 African leaders died in office between 2008 and 2012.
“Our research identified 11 deaths in office of African leaders between 2008 and 2012. In nine of those 11 cases, the succession followed constitutional procedures, typically the transfer of power from the leader to his deputy. (The two others were a coup d’état in Guinea in 2008 and a revolution in Libya in 2011.),” the report explained.
A BBC report said out of 13 deaths of Presidents worldwide by 2012, a whooping 10 were of African leaders, many of whom had sought health care abroad at one point or the other.

Many African leaders who passed on in office received treatments abroad

The list is endless
In 2008, President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia died in France where he was taken to after he collapsed at a meeting in Egypt. Still in 2008, Guinea’s President Lansana Conté, 74, who had been receiving treatment in Switzerland and Morocco for several years died in Conakry.
In 2009, Gabon’s President Omar Bongo Ondimba who had ruled for 34 years, died at age 73 in Spain.
The year 2012 was to see yet more cases of African leaders seeking medical treatments abroad. Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi died in Belgium where he had been receiving treatment. He was just 57 years old.
Guinea Bissau’s President Bacai Sanha, also passed away while receiving treatment in a hospital in Paris in 2012.
President Michael Sata of Zambia died in London in 2014.
Coming back home, in 2010 Nigeria’s Umaru Musa Yar’adua died in Abuja after returning from receiving treatments in Saudi Arabia. He was the only Nigerian President that spent so long receiving treatment abroad, well, until President Buhari. The list of African leaders seeking medical healthcare abroad is definitely inexhaustible.
As a matter of fact, many of these leaders even had to travel from one country to another in search of treatment for their ill health.
Some of their treatments are for those illnesses that our hospitals either do not have equipment or infrastructure to treat well, or lack funds to maintain consistent treatments.
I am not concerned about the succession drama that surrounds ill presidents in Africa and Nigeria at the moment. I am very concerned about the “fashion” of seeking medical care by African and Nigerian leaders abroad while our health systems remain in shambles.
A crowded emergency room

Declare emergency on health
If there’s anything African leaders’ lust/love for medical care abroad proves, it is that our health system is in a state of emergency and that our governments need to deliberately declare it so and begin to take action to revive it.
Amid these long health sojourns, herbal medicine is very popular in Africa but is constantly crying for research and funding. Our hospitals lack adequate equipment, treatment of even popular illnesses like malaria and typhoid is hard to come by in some parts of the country – especially the rural areas. Imagine how bad it is when patients with rare or more demanding conditions can’t get the kind of treatments they need.
Some people might say what is wrong with going abroad for treatment if one can afford it?
First of all, the treatments of public officers based on what is obtained in Nigeria and indeed Africa are paid for by the state. Even where it may not be a constitutionally arranged system, we all know how much mismanagement occurs in government in this region.
But the reality is that these leaders aren’t seeking medical help abroad just because they have the money to do so.
A lot of them and their aides believe Presidents and other political personalities deserve the “best” medical care and the best is only found “abroad”. It is definitely a brutal admission of the fact that adequate medical care is totally absent in Nigeria and many parts of Africa.

I have had colleagues whom our professional unions had to raise funds from the public to get flown abroad for treatments.
Why do we have to always rally round for funds to fly someone abroad when they need certain treatments?
I once read a report about how in the whole of National Hospital Abuja, cancer patients had to rely on one radiotherapy machine. Imagine how long the waiting list would be and how many would not be able to pull through the wait and die while waiting.
We can’t keep clapping for our presidents and governors, Senators and co and report with glee how they seek medical attention abroad while their people suffer and die from illnesses such as malaria.
Our hospitals should be such that once our leaders are ill, we do not hesitate to take them there for treatment because of their standards and quality of service.
Huge investments needed
Other people may argue that medical health science and treatments abroad are more advanced and Nigerian doctors can’t just treat some conditions.
To that I say a big NO. A recent report indicated that there is a massive exodus of medical workers from Nigeria, with about 2500 Nigerian medical workers, especially doctors expected to leave the country by the end of 2017 alone to seek better opportunities.
But why not? Hospitals in Nigeria are ill equipped, they run on a generator, so many things are outdated. Doctors are always embarking on industrial actions to demand better health standards and remuneration. All they get is constant negotiations which demand more strike for agreements to be implemented.
Imagine in this day, many general hospitals still file patients data in physical files piled up in a room from the ground up, many of them worn and torn.
Each time you go there, you have to buy a new card and open a new file because the old one won’t be found in the pile of files screaming for help.
It won’t take much from the government to invest in a computerised system, where patients data would be stored both on hard and softwares and in the cloud for reference anytime and anywhere in the world. Of course, that would look like a herculean task when there won’t be electricity to power the computers and work smoothly.
Imagine being in the hospital and the clerk tells you “I can’t bring out your file now because there’s no light to access the computer”. Ah, that’s if the clerk won’t need some form of training to use the computer. It’s a horrendous cycle of inefficiency at every level.
This is just one of many ills in our hospitals. The advanced quality of medical practice and services obtained abroad wasn’t advanced by magic. It was by hardwork and commitment of their governments to provide better living conditions for their people.
If their leaders ignored improving healthcare in their countries and traveled abroad at the slightest instance, their own health system won’t be good enough for our leaders to run to when they are ill.
Hard truth
Governments at all levels must begin to be truthful to themselves and to Nigerians. Good governance is not determined by who protests for or against you on the streets. It is not measured by the number of followers you have or the level of sycophancy displayed by the people in your government. Good governance and achievements of a leader are definitely not demonstrated by your consistent patronage of foreign medical care while your people die of malaria and typhoid for reasons as flimsy as not being able to afford treatment.
Health service in the UK is free for every citizen. Here in Nigeria, we are still struggling to put all civil servants and workers on the NHIS. What about the market women, how about the farmers, what about the unemployed? Are they not Nigerians? Do they not one way or the other pay taxes to their local and state governments? And don’t they fall ill? Sadly enough, they need these free health services even more because they have little or no source of income.
But Nigerians all have a role to play and that role is simple. Elect the people who mean well for you and your family into public offices because if we do not have the right people in office, we will never get the political will that’s needed to improve our health system. President Buhari is one good well-meaning Nigerian. But we all must vote well-meaning Senators, Governors, Representatives, local government chairmen, to get the Nigeria of our dream. Because make no mistakes, theirs may not be as public as the Presidents, they also seek medical care abroad as often as they like. God bless Nigeria.
Hauwa can be contacted on reachus@digitalmarketingroup.com

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