Aisha Buhari, Nigeria’s First Lady, has condemned frequent travels abroad by top government officials including her husband, President Muhammadu Buhari, for medical treatment, saying that it was a waste of resources and against the development of the healthcare sector in the country.
Mrs Buhari, who made the comments on Saturday shortly after returning from a trip to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, after jetting out of the country under the guise of a medical emergency to shop for important items needed for the wedding of her daughter, Hanan, scheduled for September 4 inside the Presidential Villa, Abuja, also called on ordinary Nigerians to shun the practice immediately.
At least 500 Nigerians are said to travel to foreign nations monthly to attend to their medical needs, according to Ibraheem Adeoti Katibi, a professor and Dean College of Health Science, University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital, Kwara State.
Of this figure, prominent Nigerians especially those in government or close to the corridors of power make up the bulk of medical tourists from Nigeria each year – a trend, which sees at least $1bn leaving the country for other nations annually.
Recall that on August 19, 2020, SaharaReporters exclusively reported that Mamman Daura, a nephew and close confidant of President Buhari, was flown to the United Kingdom for urgent medical treatment over an undisclosed ailment.
Daura, 80, was said to have been flown in a private jet to the UK after exhibiting respiratory difficulties with symptoms similar to Coronavirus.
The trip breached the government’s restriction on international flights in the country following a lockdown to curb the spread of the pandemic.
In a statement on Saturday, Mrs Buhari said, “I thank all Nigerians for their prayers and well wishes while I was away for medical treatment in the United Arabs Emirates. I am well now and fully recovered and have since returned back home, Nigeria.
“I recall hosting the private healthcare providers earlier in the year and we had a very productive engagement where the issue of building the capacity of Nigeria health sector was the major focus, and funding was discovered to be the major challenge.
“I therefore call on the healthcare providers to take advantage of the Federal Government’s initiative through the Central Bank of Nigeria guidelines for the operation of N100bn credit support for the healthcare sector as was released recently in a circular dated March 25, 2020 to the commercial banks.
“This will no doubt help in building and expanding the capacity of the Nigerian health sector and ultimately reduce medical trips and tourism outside the country.”
Curiously, the First Lady’s comments captured all Nigerians including President Buhari, who since coming into power in 2015 has embarked on several trips abroad, many of them packaged to look like official travels when in fact they are for medical reasons.
In the first three years of his first tenure from May 2015 to May 2019, he was outside the country for a combined 404 days – one year and 39 days in 33 countries, according to a Saturday PUNCH computation.
In 2017, President Buhari spent a total of 152 days in London on medical vacation and equally made frequent trips to the UK on “private visits” believed to be for medical reasons.
This was after he had earlier spent a total of 17 days in a London hospital treating an undisclosed ailment in 2016.
On May 8, 2018, he again embarked on a six-day medical vacation to London.
Despite being one of the biggest promoters of medical tourism, President Buhari in January this year at an event, which took place at Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, said medical trips abroad must stop because they were not beneficial to the country.
He was represented at the occasion by Minister of Science and Technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu.
“Nigerians have suffered so much going abroad for medical treatment. This is not good for us and it must stop because we can’t afford it again,” Buhari said.
Apart from the Nigerian President and his wife that had gone abroad for medical treatment in recent years, their son, Yusuf, in December 2017 also joined the train when he was flown to Germany after suffering injuries from a bike accident in Abuja.
These trips were embarked upon despite a N10.98bn allocation to the State House Medical Centre from 2015 to 2018.
The medical facility was established to take care of the President, Vice President, their families as well as members of staff of the Presidential Villa.
Enraged by the situation, Mrs Buhari in 2017 slammed Chief Medical Director of the State House Medical Centre, Dr Husain Munir, for the poor state of the facility, which she said lacked basic items to treat a sick person.
Speaking at the time, she said, “For the last six months, Nigeria wasn’t stable because of my husband’s ill-health.
“If somebody like Mr President can spend several months outside Nigeria, then you wonder what will happen to a man in the street.
“Few weeks ago, I was sick as well. They advised me to take the first flight out to London; I refused to go. I said I must be treated in Nigeria because there is a budget for an assigned clinic to take care of us. If the budget is N100m, we need to know how the budget is spent.
“Along the line, I insisted they call Aso Clinic to find out if the X-ray machine is working. They said it was not working. They didn’t know I was the one that was supposed to be in that hospital at that very time.
“I had to go to a hospital that was established by foreigners 100 per cent. What does that mean?”
One of the President’s daughters, Zahra, who also reacted at the time, attacked Permanent Secretary of the State House, Mr Jalal Arabi, over the poor state of the hospital inside the Presidential Villa despite the huge annual allocation.
In October 2017, the House of Representatives said it would investigate the “deplorable condition” of the State House Clinic but till date the outcome of that inquiry remains unknown.
Meanwhile, some Nigerians on Twitter have knocked Mrs Buhari for speaking against medical tourism when her family was in fact one of the biggest promoters of the practice.
One Twitter user named Bulama Bukarti while reacting to the issue said, “Your husband spent huge money on the Villa clinic yet it couldn’t treat ‘neck pain’.
“You flew to the UAE during lockdown. As you land, you called for better hospitals. Don’t you know who the President is? Don’t you have access to him?”
Your husband âspentâ billions on the Villa clinic. Yet it couldnât treat âneck painâ. You flew to the UAE during lockdown on a presidential plane and spent our money.
As you land, you called for better hospitals. Donât you know who the president is? Donât you have access to him? https://t.co/YsB8Kks2vn
— Bulama Bukarti (@bulamabukarti) August 22, 2020
Mosh @mosh_aloaye while speaking said, “This is so sad. Now she left Nigeria amidst the international travel restrictions for medical tourism and came back to say Nigerians should fix our health sector. I feel very insulted.”
SaharaReporters, New York