"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Garba Shehu and Buhari’s £6-Million London Ear Treatment

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Garba Shehu and Buhari’s £6-Million London Ear Treatment

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

I have avoided publicly joining issue with Malam Garba Shehu, my former teacher at Bayero University Kano. For instance, on September 16, a well-known international broadcast organization requested that I grant them an interview on an issue that would have pitted me against him. “I have said to myself a long time ago that I would never do, write, or say anything publicly to embarrass my former teachers, including Malam Garba, unless their action is so absolutely detestable and so injurious to society that I can't afford to ignore it. I am not sure this action rises to that level,” I wrote.

The reporter understood. You see, Malam Garba wasn’t just my teacher; he was far and away my most influential journalism teacher for whom I still have the profoundest respect. Although it’s been two decades since he taught me in my final year, I still vividly remember so many invaluable gems of journalistic wisdom I learned from him, which I repeat to my own students here in America.

On his first day in class, for instance, he told us he was “allergic to bad grammar.” We all thought that was a creatively humorous word choice. I still remember his definition of news. He said, “news is the displacement of routine; all else is PR.” He taught us to never be intimidated by politicians, however highly placed they may be, when we interview them. “You are not interviewing them in your personal capacity; you are doing so as a representative of the public.”

 I have never been able to erase from my memory his admonition that “no piece of writing is so good it can’t be improved upon.” I don’t know how many times I’ve said that to my own students. It was also through him I first learned of former Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham’s famous definition of journalism as the “first rough draft of history.”

When you have a teacher who has had such an enduring intellectual and professional impact on you, it is hard, really hard, to disagree with him publicly. This article is one of the most painful articles I’ve written in my career. But I need to set the records straight for posterity.

First, I need to point out that the Vanguard report of June 6, which informed my commentary last week, did NOT state that £6 million was used as the medical bill for Buhari’s ear treatment. It said "Checks at the presidency claimed that, the cost of the trip which includes aviation fuel, accommodation, allowances for aides and medical treatment amounts to about £6 million."

What government needs to do is go beyond issuing a glib denial; it should bring authentic, verifiable documentary evidence that shows exactly how much was spent during the 14-day trip to London when Buhari’s ear was treated. How many aircraft in the presidential fleet were taken to London? How much did it cost to fuel them? What was the landing cost for keeping them in London for 14 days? How many aides and government officials went to London with the president? How much did their per diem (what we call “estacodes” in Nigeria) cost the national treasury? What was the cost of accommodating and feeding the coterie of aides and government officials that followed the president to London? We already know, through Malam Garba, that the president’s medical bill was about 50,000 pounds.

From my own informal observation, when you calculate the cost of the trip—fueling of the aircraft in the presidential fleet, per diem for aides and other government officials, etc. for two weeks.—there is no way on earth that it wouldn’t add up to a few million pounds. No way.

 Now, note that Vanguard claimed to have made "checks" at the presidency, and nobody from the presidency denied it—for more than three months after the fact! As I pointed out on Malam Garba’s Facebook page, I am the first to admit that Vanguard isn't always a reliable source of news (I have written at least two scathing articles on it), but it's also true that Vanguard is Nigeria's most visited online news source, outranked occasionally only by Punch, according to Alexa. You ignore it at your own risk. Plus, the fact that it occasionally publishes stories that turn out to be false doesn’t mean every single story it publishes is false.

Only unreflective Buhari apologists assume the falsity of the Vanguard report without any shred of contrary evidence other than a facile, reactive denial. People who work for the president read all of Nigeria's major newspapers on a daily basis, and they must have seen this story in the Vanguard when it was first published. I know this trade well enough to know that if a negative report goes unchallenged for more than 3 months, the report is probably true—or at least has a grain of truth to it. People affected by it are simply practicing the age-old PR principle of not reacting to a reputationally harmful and embarrassing story so as not to lend it wings, in the hope that people won't notice—until, of course, opinion molders pounce on it and make it an issue.

Some people said I should have verified Vanguard's claims from the presidency before citing it. Why is that my responsibility when the presidency that is directly implicated by the report hasn't denied it for more than three months? Which ethical journalistic canon requires anyone to do that? Why do people cite the employment scandals of this administration without first going to the presidency to verify their truth?

In any case, isn’t it the same presidency that reacts to every inane, obscure attacks on the president even from the gaunt fringes of the Internet? Didn't the presidency once issue a statement denying an unmentioned libelous allegation that Radio Biafra made against Buhari, causing the profile of the station and the cause it espouses to rise exponentially? If it reacts to every irritation against the president, why didn't it react to a report that makes the weighty claim that the president spent £6 million for his London ear treatment trip?

But, most importantly, some people assume that just because the presidency has denied the allegation, it must be false. That's unbelievably shallow and credulous. First, Malam Garba Shehu's statement merely told us the medical bill Buhari incurred for his ear treatment. It said nothing about the cost of the entire trip. Never mind that on June 8, 2016, Femi Adesina actually said “The President did not go to London for treatment.” Now we are told he spent “less than £50,000” for as his medical bill for ear treatment.

Finally, can anybody in good conscience defend the action of a president who allocated N4 billion to Aso Rock Clinic (which is more than the budget of all Nigerian teaching hospitals combined) but goes abroad to treat an ear infection less than a month after he banned government officials from traveling abroad for medical treatment? Let's not allow our emotions to get the better of our judgment!

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