At one time in the past week, some Nigerians were led to believe that President Muhammadu Buhari was almost set to return home. At around the same time, the same Nigerians were not so sure.
The signs contradicted themselves. One reflected the end of a drama. The other skewed the plot. Nothing demonstrated this semiotic dissonance more than two news items. The one was a headline that told us that the presidential staff was on alert for his return. The other served us pictures of Senate president and House speaker ensconced in a sitting room with the president in London.
The background to this was the profusion of all sorts of pictures and stories on the state of the president’s health. Some said he was sick unto death. Some said he was actually happy, about to hop on the plane. Technology and imagination fed the plate. True pictures collided with concocted images. So much was the distortion that distortions seemed real and the real seemed distorted.
A picture PMB took in London was read as the one he took in Aso Villa. Some of the pictures were believed to derive from three years ago, or six months ago, or even two months before he touched down in the Queen’s enclave. Online fizzes with pictorial potpourri. PMB on a wheelchair. PMB jugging. PMB in fistic fury like Bash Alli. PMB wired like a patient at death’s door.
What we are seeing is the imagination at war with reality. Is the president sick, very sick, convalescing? The situation has reached a stage where truth may never really win. This is because, from the beginning, Nigerians were rigged out of the bare facts.
No one was told what the real illness is, what the doctors said, what tests were conducted, and what the diagnosis and prognosis are. Some said that should have been done early and as the facts emerged. That way we can shut out the lugubrious mischief of what Soyinka called the “millipedes” of the Internet.
The other view said, no, this is Africa. We are not the United States or Britain, where transparency also entails telling everyone even if you are dying of gonorrhoea. Just like Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota who recently confessed openly that he had prostate cancer. That sort of openness, they say, is not for this part.
This is responsible for the dissonance. We are embracing democracy of the 21st century but clutching at Kosoko or Uthman Dan Fodio. For us, democracy is the pie crust on a 19th century salad. That is why some are already seeing the Buhari story as a sort of Yar’Adua reborn. This is patently mischievous. There are no facts to bear that. Yet the absence of solid information has done little to stanch the imagination.
We are not at the point where people will have to show public outpouring of sympathy for their president, other than the ones shown by APC bigwigs and other big names of society. It has made London a sort of medical tourism. You cannot really know how to sympathise when you don’t know how serious the matter is. Unlike the case of Ronald Reagan whose full situation after the assassination attempt was disclosed. He even spiced it with humour when he told his wife, Nancy that “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Or the case of Viktor Yushchenko of the Orange Revolution of Ukraine who was poisoned and filled the streets with sympathisers day after day. Or the story of Tancredo Neves of Brazil that led fellow citizens to keep vigil, in prayers and songs and enchantments. Or when Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito was not ashamed to be quoted when he dramatically told his doctor to cut off his sick leg. His people grieved.
These people were not forced to rely on the imagination. We are. That is why many are still asking questions. Those who pushed out information that presidency staff were on alert show great ignorance about modern medicine. The doctors will not tell any patient vague timelines about his health. If he will be in London for six hours or six months or six centuries, the doctor will let his patient know. So, as we speak, the test results have already apprised the doctors about how long he will be in London and when he will have to return. So, we should not be fed with fiction about the president coming back suddenly. Modern medicine does not work that way, and no one should hoodwink us.
Imagination has now overtaken facts. Even if at this stage, the presidency tells us facts, many Nigerians will react with the incredulity of Thomas Didymus. If they say he is fit as a sky eagle, they will doubt. Even if they present the physician’s report saying, in great detail, his diagnosis, cure and his new impeccable physique, we cannot rule out apocryphal versions online.
As the human spirit goes, the false report will go viral and the true one dismissed as not virile. If a true video is taken of him, some will deny every facet of his face and vowel of his voice. If he is jumping in the picture, some will say it was all another man’s features. This is an era of alternative facts, where truth is no longer beauty. The same Poet John Keats who said “truth is beauty, beauty truth,” had a prophet’s eye for this age when he wrote that “what imagination seizes as beauty is truth.”
It is modernity catching up with our neo-feudal temperament. Some of us are asking the president to disclose every inch of his health. If they are in the same state, they may resist any disclosure with every fibre of their traditional being. Yet, we know that IBB in a pre-internet, military era disclosed his foot illness. Radiculopathy became a sort of chant when he was military president. And it took nothing from him. In a military era, health was unveiled without doubts. In our age, the democrat bows to feudal redoubts.
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt lamented in her book, The Human Condition, how the modern state cannot realise the ideal of the Greek city state, where everything and everyone was held up to the light. The WikiLeaks hysteria is a global example. The sooner we clasp the modern ideal and not shy away from saying whether we have a headache or cologne cancer, the truer our claim to modern times. And it must start from the very top.