The viral video of the members of the National Association of Seadogs (Pyrates Confraternity) gyrating to a song about a presidential candidate’s health condition is a prelude to the satirisation that will still come as the 2023 elections draw closer. The song is about how a man who, despite his visible hand and leg tremors, insists on taking his turn at the presidency. Some have voiced disapproval at the indiscreet reference to debility. Thankfully, we have come a long way from when journalists were imprisoned for mentioning Gen. Sani Abacha’s health condition. These days, such talk is regulated by people who are concerned it violates cultural values.
Policing rhetoric in an election season so as not to offend delicate sensibilities is, well, a shortcut to shutting down legitimate issues. The Pyrates singing about the health condition of the All Progressives Congress presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, whose aspiration to the exalted and stressful position of the Nigerian president is still valid critique, should not be shouted down just so we can preserve cultural mores. We are talking about a presidential candidate with apparent signs of frailty and senescence, who predicated his ambitions on no higher cause than his entitlement. Some might quarrel with the Pyrates’ style of expressing this issue but one cannot deny the substance of their observation. If we are not supposed to talk about his health now, what if he wins? Is it when he starts to travel outside the country to treat “ear infection” before we can justifiably agonise about our inability to learn from our own recent history? Since 1993, Nigeria has had at least six leaders. Three of them ailed—two died in office and one spent extended time in a hospital abroad. The uncertainty and the shenanigan in Aso Rock that accompanied the last days of one of them, President Umaru Yar’Adua, is enough reason never to overlook any presidential candidate’s health status.
Ideally, people’s state of health is their private business, but we cannot entirely avoid some thorniness during an election. Several objectionable issues will still arise and merely taking offence will not clarify much. The other day, some people took umbrage when Tinubu, while campaigning in Osun State in July, noted to their supporters that their opponents would “labour to death.” They complained it was a tactless expression of classism, although all I heard was the usual election season’s humorous turn of language to animate the people gathered on campaign grounds. If we choose to find offence in everything, we can also mischievously drag Tinubu’s comment further to observe that in a country with a high rate of maternal mortality, “labouring to death” is insensitive to women. We could do that or we could simply take it in our stride that election seasons are a time people duel through language. Distasteful or not, free speech is still—thankfully—free speech. Freedom is not freedom if someone does not push its limits.
We must not be naïve to merely frame the issues around the health conditions of politicians aspiring to critical public positions as a matter of cultural values while overlooking the crucial matter of public accountability. Our society tends to erect taboos around certain topics and thus forestalls critical questions. We should confront issues; we should ask the electoral candidates whether the conditions of their respective physical bodies can withstand the immense weight of the responsibility that their desired public office entails. What is at stake is not just the dignity of the said candidate alone. It is ultimately about the flourishing of the nation because when a leader is healthy, the nation is well too.
The presidency is one of the most difficult jobs in the world; demanding that whoever will man it must be in a reasonable physical shape is not unethical. For a country—and even continent—where our pathetic coterie of leaders frequently jets abroad for medical tourism, you cannot blame those who spoke up, especially when the candidate’s health challenges are already starkly apparent. The only line, I believe, should never be crossed is picking on children. There is no good outcome that can come from heckling minors. However, any adult who seeks elective office should prepare to be scrutinised without let.
In a clime like ours, where all politics is cynically oriented towards merely seizing power and maintaining political patronage, we cannot afford to ignore a presidential candidate’s health. Even if people refuse to confront it, we can bet that the political class is already working out the math for their own purposes and their calculations will surely haunt the president’s tenure. Both long- and short-term planning will be affected by how the power mongers, who surround such a president, estimate his longevity in office. Such a leader too will be paranoid and resort to deploying scarce resources to appease the restless forces who can turn his health issue into political capital. History is replete with such intrigues. Unfortunately, by the time all political power is directed towards protecting the president from the opportunistic vultures creeping around the corridors of power and waiting for that decisive moment when power will change hands in their favour, nothing will be left for the people.
Defenders of Tinubu on his health typically insist that the condition of his body does not matter since all that is necessary is his mind. They throw up this spurious argument as if his body stands apart from his mind. With the way they go on and on about how the functionality of his mind supersedes the state of his body, one would think it is possible to extricate his mind from his body and place it on a chair in Aso Rock. It is a dishonest argument. They know how the issue of the leader’s health has recurred in Nigeria and their wishy-washy comebacks are outrightly disingenuous. While I would concede that people with imperfect health conditions have a right to aspire to public offices, I also think there is enough lesson from our history to make us eschew sentiment and be circumspect.
I do not subscribe to tasteless jokes about disability, debility and death. Unless used on occasions where such humour serves as some form of therapy, it is pointless picking on people because of their health conditions. None of us, no matter how much our genetic composition has favoured us, will escape mortality. Any one of us can have our bodies broken by circumstances at any point. Sickness and death are no punishment for any sin; they are natural outcomes of being born and forced to live in this bag of flesh and bones we call our bodies. At some point, everyone alive at this present moment will eventually yield to the dictates of nature. Still, nobody should use moral blackmail to take the issues of a candidate’s health off the table.
Ideally, if someone can function effectively in an office, their physical challenges are not disqualifying. In societies where government functions are properly distributed and institutions are stable enough, the president’s health condition and attendant politics can be properly managed. Debility or old age alone does not disqualify people from public office unless it impairs their ability to discharge their duties. For instance, the current US president, Joe Biden, is well-advanced in years but manages to maintain an impressive record of achievements. Unlike the USA though, our society is not that well-organised. Here, the sun rises and falls on the whims of the president. Each time a leader has been sick, the politics of preserving their rule throws the country into disarray (especially when they have also had to embark on medical tourism). Besides, the challenges ahead of Nigeria in 2023 are so tasking that the last person that should occupy the presidency is someone who cannot withstand the immense pressure of that office.
The unease with making Tinubu’s health issues into a song is understandable but such modes of expression are also an established means of waging critiques against power and authority. If, instead of a song, the Pyrates had penned their observation like many of their commentaries on national issues, which they regularly post on their website as press releases, I doubt anyone would have had problems with it. The fact that making their criticism into a song got more attention than their other printed matter shows what must be done in Nigeria to get attention.
By Abimbola Adelakun