The six years of Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency has been characterized by controversy and secrecy, especially on issues regarding his state of health. Since he came to power in 2015, London has become a second home to the 78-year-old Nigerian leader, as he frequently flies to the British capital even for the most basic healthcare need. Buhari, who has spent more than 180 days in the U.K. in the past six years, is currently in London on yet another “medical check-up”. He left Nigeria on March 30 and would be back in Nigeria in the second week of April, according to a statement by one of his spokespersons.
Meanwhile, Nigerians have been venting their anger over this unbecoming practise of their president. They are calling on him to return home and fix his country’s poor health system instead of enjoying the best medical care in another country where effective leadership and good governance are practised.
Health indicators in Nigeria are some of the worst in the world. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Africa’s most populated nation has one of the fastest-growing population globally. By 2050, the country is estimated to reach 440 million people, given its average of 5.5 live births per woman and annual growth rate of 3.2%. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s teeming population daily experience poor healthcare, while its leaders enjoy the best services from world-class facilities across the world.
This is not the country’s first experience with an ‘absentee president’ who regularly fly overseas for medical attention. In 2010, a former president, Musa Yar’Adua, died in Saudi Arabia after spending several months in the Asian country receiving medical care. Other Nigerian elites at various leadership positions are also fond of this habit. In 2015, a former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio, commissioned a $76 million world-class hospital in his state. However, to the surprise of many, four months later, Akpabio, who is currently minister of Niger Delta Affairs, snubbed his “world-class” facility and flew to London for medical attention after a car crash.
Sadly, Nigeria is not the only African country with leaders who prefer foreign to local healthcare. The “shameful” pattern cuts across the continent.
Presidents Ali Bongo of Gabon, Patrice Talon of Benin Republic, former presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, and Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola have also made headlines as regular visitors to medical facilities overseas.
In the past two decades, a number of African leaders have passed away while receiving medical care in foreign hospitals. For example, Zambia has had two cases of a sitting president dying abroad while on health tourism. In 2008, Levy Mwanawasa died in France while Michael Sata passed on in the U.K. in 2014. Others include Gabon’s Omar Bongo in Spain 2009, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi in Belgium 2012, and Guinea Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanhá in France 2012.
African leaders prefer foreign medical systems to their own because they lack faith in the system they oversee. For decades, many of them have neglected their countries’ healthcare, which is why the continent suffers some of the worst health crises in the world. Africa is ravaged by 23% of the global disease burden, despite having just 16% of the world population. This is not surprising, giving the acute health financing gap the continent has been experiencing. A report by Brookings Institution shows that Africa only accounted for a paltry 1% of the global health expenditures in 2015. And “in per capita terms, the rest of the world spends 10 times more on health care than Africa.”
This year-long negligence has increased the health tourism rate from Africa to other continents. Yearly, millions of Africans seek various medical procedures from Asia, Europe and the Americas. In 2016, Africans spent a whopping $6 billion seeking healthcare in those continents. For instance, Nigerians’ annual health tourism is around $1 billion, making them the highest spender on the continent. A report showed that they spend $200 million on health tourism every year in India alone.
Africa faces a great burden of infectious and chronic disease, as infectious diseases still account for up to 69% of deaths on the continent. For instance, Nigeria has the highest malaria burden and also the second-largest number of people living with HIV in the world. Child and maternal mortality and low life expectancy remain perennial challenges in the continent. For instance, 55% of global under-five deaths in 2019 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, as one in 13 children in the region died before their 5th birthday.
On top of all these, the continent suffers a great shortage of healthcare professionals across all medical practices. By 2035, it is estimated that the shortage of doctors in Africa will reach 4.3 million. One of the causes for this shortage is the massive emigration among African-trained health professionals. From doctors to nurses and emergency responder, African medics daily move in droves to Europe, the Americas, and Asia due to the unfavourable working condition at home. The U.K. is one of the countries with a high percentage of African doctors. Reports show that one in 10 doctors working in Britain are from Africa. Many of these physicians live and work in the country on indefinite leave to remain status, which shows they will most likely retire in the European nation instead of ever returning to work in their home country.
A drastic change of attitude must be displayed by African leaders for the continent’s healthcare to experience a positive turnaround. The human and financial costs of this agelong practice are too enormous to disregard. The billions of dollars spent on health tourism yearly will go a long way in revitalizing the appalling state of health facilities across Africa and improve people’s living conditions. Healthcare expenditure must also be significantly increased to close the funding gap. In addition, African leaders need to start using the health facilities in their countries to truly know what their citizens experience daily and understand where exactly the system lags behind. Also, there must be an improvement in remuneration for health workers and favourable working condition.
Olusegun Akinfenwa is a political correspondent for Immigration News, a news organization affiliated with Immigration Advice Service (IAS).IAS is a leading U.K. immigration law firm that helps people migrate and settle in the U.K.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.