One interesting aside at the 2021 Budget defence session was the call by the Senate on State House officials to restrain President Muhammadu Buhari from foreign medical trips. Danjuma La’ah, the senator representing Kaduna South Senatorial District, it was who told the budget defence team led by State House Permanent Secretary, Tijani Umar, that although his committee would approve the budget for the State House Clinic, President Buhari and other officials should not only stop travelling abroad for medical treatment, but also be mandated to use the elite facility, as in his view, this is the only way to ensure that the clinic becomes more functional and effective.
“He must attend our clinic here and we must make sure that we equip our hospital to the best of our ability so that any emergency will be first taken care of here before flying out if the need arises”, he reportedly told the State House team after their presentation of N19.7bn for 2021, of which N1.3bn was proposed for the State House Clinic.
Although some might consider the lawmaker’s panacea as somewhat impetuous, there is a broader context in which his intervention is not only well-meaning but also patriotic. It starts with the subject matter –the presidential facility established to take care of the first and second families as well as members of staff of the Presidential Villa; this is a facility on which billions of taxpayers’ money are annually appropriated, and yet from every account could not be counted upon in matters of routine healthcare needs, let alone of dire emergencies. Nigerians would here recall that First Lady Aisha Buhari once chided the management of that same State House Clinic for their inability to provide basic drugs and equipment despite billions of naira voted for the facility in every cycle of budgeting.
The second ground is the annual spend on medical tourism. This newspaper recalls health minister Dr Osagie Ehanire, at some point putting the annual spend by Nigerians on medical tourism at over $1bn. That was in 2016 – fours years ago. It is doubtful if the situation has changed.
Third, is the issue of national pride and security. Just as it remains a shame that a country that touts its status as the biggest economy on the continent cannot today boast of an elite facility to treat its leaders and thus save the millions of dollars needlessly expended on medical tourism, more worrisome is that the national security implications are far from fully grasped by our leaders.
True, the country boasts of an elite National Hospital in Abuja, yet, this could not stop the late president, Umar Musa Yar’Adua, from spending a whole of 109 days in a foreign medical facility; nor did it dissuade the current president, Muhammadu Buhari, from spending a cumulative 170 days in foreign shores in the course of treating an ailment.
We do agree with the broad thrust of the call by the senator. Even at that, the demands are such that require more than an overhaul of one single facility at the Presidential Villa. The point is – things can no longer be allowed to continue as they are. Nigeria does not lack the requisite manpower or expertise to cater for the healthcare needs of its leaders. Surely, there might yet be wisdom in compelling our leaders to use our local health care facilities if only that would help them appreciate the need to invest in world-class medical infrastructure. After all, if there is any lesson that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught, it is that access to foreign medical facilities are no longer guaranteed for all times.