President Buhari’s Foreign Medical Trip: Symptom of a National Malady

President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday 30th March 2021 flew to the United Kingdom, for what Presidential officials have described as a ‘routine medical check-up’. This would be the sixth time the President would travel to London for medical reasons since he became Nigeria’s President on May 29th 2015. He had made similar trips on February 5th, 2016, June 6th 2016, January 19th, 2017, May 7th, 2017 and May 8th 2018.

If President Buhari were a private citizen, he would be entitled to seek medical care from any part of the world and retain medical professionals of his choice. However it is our considered view that as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, it is both unethical and embarrassing that the President would so publicly signal a vote of no confidence in the healthcare system of the country he presides over. We need no reminders that millions of Nigerians are left to the weak and inefficient healthcare system that their President so visibly disdains since they cannot have foreign medical trips paid for from the public treasury.

The timing of this latest medical tourism is tragically poignant, coming the same week the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) commenced an indefinite strike over the failure of the Federal Government to implement the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) it signed with the association and meet other demands which includes payment of entitlements as basic as hazard allowance for routine professional hazards and the extraordinary demands of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is true that the parlous state of Nigeria’s healthcare system did not begin with the Buhari administration. The nadir of poor infrastructure, decrepit facilities and equipment to deliver quality healthcare and other associated problems in the health sector is clearly a result of cumulative failure of successive administrations. However Nigerians have reasonable expectations of the Buhari administration to revamp the health sector in line with his campaign promises to end the need for Nigerians to undertake medical tourism in foreign lands.

For instance in a speech delivered on his behalf by the then Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, at the opening ceremony of the 56th Annual General Conference and delegates meeting of the Nigerian Medical Association held in Sokoto in April 28 2016, Buhari had declared: ”While this administration will not deny anyone of his or her fundamental human rights, we will certainly not encourage expending Nigerian hard-earned resources on any government official seeking medical care abroad when such can be handled at home”

In the six years that he has been in office, President Buhari has abysmally failed to make hospitals in Nigeria functional to the extent that it can be entrusted to handle his health and that of other top government officials.

It is even more disappointing that the Aso Rock Clinic, the object of inexplicably huge budgetary allocations, is demonstrably incapable of meeting the demands of the most senior resident of Aso Rock Villa. 

Between 2015 and 2019, a THISDAY newspaper investigation revealed that the Federal Government budgeted N2.55 trillion for the health sector instead of N5.4 trillion which would have represented the nine per cent of the total budget for the number of years totalling N59.4trillion as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In 2020, the Buhari administration allocated 4.14% representing N427.03 billion of the total budget of N10.33 trillion to the health sector. In the 2021 budget the administration allocated 4.526% representing N592.166 billion out of the total budget of N13.082 trillion for the year. The implication of the 2021 budget breakdown for every Nigerian going by the population of 200 million Nigerians is that N2,960 is allocated to cater for their medical care in a year. The budget for the health sector is a far cry from the 15% allocation of yearly budget to the health sector as stipulated in the Abuja Declaration of African leaders in 2001.

Worse still, the lack of adequate investment in the health sector coupled with pervasive corruption which has starved several public health facilities of the needed funds to develop infrastructure and procure quality equipment to enhance healthcare delivery has left many medical practitioners frustrated and disillusioned leading to mass exodus to foreign countries. As at July 2020, the UK General Medical Council website indicated that 7,875 Nigerian doctors are working in the UK. 

Response to the Covid-19 global pandemic further revealed how dismal the public healthcare system in Nigeria is, however it has offered a unique opportunity for governments around the world to develop a robust, efficient and responsive healthcare system and Nigeria should not be an exception. We therefore urge President Buhari as he gets the swift medical attention he cannot obtain in Nigeria in the UK, to reflect on the legacies he intends to bequeath to Nigerians in the health sector.

He should as a matter of priority put efforts in motion leading the charge and galvanising state governments across the country to ensure the upgrading of public healthcare facilities in the country in line with global best practices. His administration should summon the required will and mobilise the needed funds to address the structural problems in Nigeria's healthcare ecosystem. These include the conducive working environment, improved infrastructure, tools, eliminating the ongoing brain drain, improving the welfare of medical and healthcare workers in the country as well as strengthening the organic link between primary, secondary and tertiary levels of healthcare.

President Buhari’s preoccupation, as he enters the sixth year out of his eight-year tenure, should be how to develop Nigeria’s healthcare system such that no President after him would need to travel out of the country for a routine medical check-up. Nigerians want a leader who would inspire confidence in the country’s health facilities. President Buhari should strive to be such a leader if he cares about the verdict of history.

Abiola Owoaje
NAS Capoon

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