The question of how age may have slowed down the physical and mental abilities of Bola Tinubu, the All Progressive Congress (APC) presidential candidate, rendering his claim to the presidency an untenable proposition, has continued to generate debates among Nigerians. While he has responded that he is both mentally and physically fit to take up the task of steering the ship of the Nigerian state as president, he has also not been slow to remind his critics that the presidency is neither about brawn nor is it a contest to choose the strongest man in the world.
He has assured Nigerians that his ambition to be president is not an invitation to WrestleMania even as he has jumped on the treadmill and pedaled away on the spin bike in a show of strength. If it was possible for him, I am sure, Chief Tinubu would not be averse to a session of scuba diving or bungy jumping in demonstration of power. As with Tinubu, so it is with Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the other candidate whose age has become a factor in his race towards Aso Rock Villa.
Anyhow the matter is viewed, it is clear that Bola Tinubu has in his own way been taking on and responding to opponents of his presidential ambition for reasons of the perceived decline in his abilities. But one aspect of this worrying situation that he has not tried or been able to address convincingly is on his verbal miscues.
Twice in the last two weeks he has been caught off guard, struggling to find his words. The first time this happened was during the flag-off of his campaign in Jos, Plateau State. There the presidential candidate had asked God to “bless PD, APC”. It was clear he was about to pass the benediction he meant for the APC on the PDP before he backtracked. While many Nigerians may have seen these and wondered what they meant, supporters of rival candidates and parties have jumped on these mistakes as evidence of Tinubu’s unsuitability for the presidency. They are linking them to the state of his health.
Beyond partisan considerations, it may not be out of place to ask what Bola Tinubu’s rhetorical blunders portend for the future and the seriousness that should be attached to them as he progresses with his presidential bid.
Given Nigerians’ experience with Umar Yar’Adua who died in office and President Muhammadu Buhari’s series of medical vacations in the United Kingdom that took many months of inactivity off his eight years in office, Nigerians have tended to link Tinubu’s verbal falls to the assumed deterioration in his health, the actual state of which, like most Nigerian politicians, he has kept closely to himself.
There had been concerns about Yar’Adua’s state of health long before he became president. He was allegedly taken ill and whisked away from the hustings at least once in the course of the campaigns that brought him into office. His protracted illness and eventual death later all but threw Nigeria into a constitutional crisis that was orchestrated by a clique of power mongers housed inside the presidency. They would rather keep a vegetative or rule in the name of, as at then perhaps deceased, President Yar’Adua, than have his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, succeed him.
While this may have informed Nigerians’ reactions to Tinubu’s verbal gaffes, is it not possible that these concerns, as is the assumed ill-health of Tinubu, are both political and exaggerated? This, especially since nobody knows for sure what, if anything, ails the man.
Except there is evidence that Bola Tinubu is declining cognitively everything his supporters and opponents have to say remains speculative and a matter of opinion, no matter the degree of energy that is infused into such pronouncements. But Tinubu himself could stem the tide of opinions in this regard by taking better charge of his utterances. Not in the manner of his latest performance in Lagos where, last week, he was asking his adoring supporters if they loved him before going ahead to urge them to get their “APV…APC” to vote when he meant PVC. Bola Tinubu has never come across as an eloquent speaker. While this is not a statement on his intellectual abilities, it does put him in the same class as the vast majority of Nigerian politicians and public office holders. But if verbal gaffes are necessarily evidence of cognitive decline, as some are stating rather magisterially about Tinubu, it is a matter of wonder how a man like America’s President, Joe Biden, whose entire political career is marred by such gaffes, made it to the White House. Only this year, he has raked up a number of memorable gaffes to his name.
As recently as two months ago, Biden walked into a news conference asking to see Jackie Walorski. This was a Representative from Indiana that had died in a car accident two months earlier. Biden had sent a condolence message then. Many months after he became president, he continued, in error, to call himself a senator. Twice, between the 1980s and early 2000s, his bids for the White House were truncated by his verbal gaffes that bordered on outright lies in some cases. Earlier this month he thanked Colombia rather than Cambodia for hosting the ASEAN summit. The Washington Post of October 3, 2022, among other American news outlets, has curated some of these verbal somersaults.
There is so much, too many lives, at stake for the highest office in Nigeria to be handed over to an ailing individual. Not with the present and projected state of the nation in the next few months and beyond. The presidency is neither a retirement home nor is it a sanatorium. To that extent Nigerians have a right to demand that any aspirant to that office should be in the best state of health. But such matters also need not be the subject of potentially malicious speculations.
Since the constitution demands that a president could be declared unfit and therefore unable to discharge their duty in certain circumstances, it should go without saying that they could and should be subjected to comprehensive medicals both before and periodically after their assumption of office.
It is a requirement that should be placed on all public office holders, from the local government upwards and across the different arms of government, not only the executive. The Chief Justice of the Federation, the Accountant-General, as is the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Inspector General of Police and so on, should be candidates for such examination just as is the case with every newly-employed civil servant.
Let’s not forget that there are far more Nigerans ailing than there are politicians.