President Buhari's aide says the privacy of her principal should be respected as he recuperates from illness.
Onochie caused quite a stir a week ago after she was quoted as saying her principal is a private citizen who should not be pressured into disclosing the state of his health.
Buhari has been on a medical vacation since May 7, 2017; with the nation kept in the dark as to what ails him.
It's been 103 days since the Nigerian leader left for London on an open-ended medical vacation.
On August 12, 2017, Buhari's media team embarked on a trip to London--armed with a get-well card--to see the ailing President.
Onochie was among the party that included Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed; Senior Special Assistant on Diaspora Matters Abike Dabiri-Erewa; Senior Special Assistant Media & Publicity Mallam Garba Shehu and Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina.
In this exclusive interview with Pulse, Mrs. Onochie doubles down on why she said President Buhari is a private citizen...
You've been attacked for saying President Buhari is a private citizen....
I am just trying to understand how things work in Nigeria. How we don’t understand things the way the world understands them.
All these attacks, I haven’t seen any of them. We are so averse to change. Nigerians are used to where a president travels and takes the power along with him. We are used to a situation where the president travels and doesn’t inform the national assembly, he doesn’t inform the Nigerian people, he doesn’t transmit power to the Vice President to become the Acting President.
It’s something new. We are mixing curtain and silk. We are mixing Yar’adua and Buhari. They are not the same. The scenarios are quite different. Unfortunately, many people quite do not understand the situation on ground.
I was really happy when I saw the statement issued by the senate because they have looked at the laws, they have looked at our constitution and they have seen that the president is quite in order. And it’s not as if the president is sitting in London, sipping tea and not wanting to come back. He left on health grounds. The least Nigerians can do is be sympathetic if we don’t pray for him. Africans are known to be sentimental and sympathetic.
Most Nigerians have been praying for him. Most Nigerians are quite happy. They are pleased with the recent news that he’s recovered, that he’s recuperating and will come back soon. Nigerians can’t wait to have Buhari back.
Did you say Buhari is a private citizen whose health challenge is no one's business?
People don't listen. I didn’t say Buhari is a private citizen. That’s not what I said. Go and watch the video again. It’s English Language and that’s often a problem for many of us. Take for instance in Nigeria, if you ask someone where do you live and the person says I live in Wuse 2 and then I say to the person, I’m local. The person goes on to say why are you local? I like sociable people.
Because in Nigeria, the word ‘local’ means timid. But in English Language, local means somebody who lives in the same neighbourhood. I’m a local means I live in the same neighbourhood.
I taught English in England, so my usage of English sometimes confuses people.
What I was trying to say is that, there are people that are private people. Even though they are in the public light, they keep their private life private. And I am one of them. I don’t think many people know how many children I have. I don’t think many people know the names of my children. Because that’s a part of my private life.
That's what I was trying to say about President Buhari. He’s that kind of person who loves to keep his private life private. And if he wants to disclose his state of health to Nigerians, it will be his prerogative; his decision and he’ll make it.
There was another one where they said I said Nigerians want Buhari to run in 2019. I can’t remember when I said that or where I said that. I am used to being misquoted. I had a meeting one day. When I emerged from the meeting, my phone was turned off and when I put on my phone, the second notification I saw on my phone was “Lauretta Onochie blasts the Nigerian senate for suspending Ndume." That was the day Ndume was suspended as majority leader. I had no knowledge that he had been suspended. That was how I knew.
Straight away I went online, ran home, listened to the news…Getting misquoted is something I’m used to. There are people who target me to misquote. But I’m getting used to it. In the beginning, it really used to upset me. I'm someone who finds it hard to misquote people. If I don’t understand what you said, I’ll say to you I don’t understand and you’ll repeat it.
I won’t go and say Lagbaja said when Lagbaja did not say. At first, it really used to upset me, but I’m getting used to it. And I know the people who are responsible for all of that. I am not going to stop speaking the truth because some people do not understand English Language.
So, can you give us a date when Buhari is coming back?
None of us knows when Buhari is going to come back. No, no ,no. Knowledge is power. We have a constitution which is the rule book for this nation. We have laws. Buhari is a very lawful individual. He’ll never act outside of the law.
That was why when he was leaving this country to go on medical vacation, he informed the National Assembly. In a press release, he also informed the people of Nigeria and then he handed over to the Vice President.
And when he’s coming back—the two times he’s embarked on similar journeys—it was announced. He also informed Nigerians that ‘I’ll be coming back tomorrow’. That is the type of man he is. He is not going to sneak in.
Do you think Nigerians who draw parallels between this and the Yar'adua scenario have a point?
I do sympathise with such Nigerians who are comparing the Yar’adua predicament with Buhari’s. Now we have somebody who will not lie to Nigerians. Buhari will never, ever lie to Nigerians. He will not. And that is why many of us are very careful with words. Because when he comes back, he can decide to tell Nigerians everything. That is the kind of person he is.
He can also decide that it’s his private life. In the UK, there’s no way there’ll release his medical records to his wife or to any of his children without him saying so. They will not. No doctor will do that because it’s personal.
I have a friend in the UK who called me the other day and told me some health issues he was having. And I said, Oh, is there anything I can do to help and he said my sympathizing with him was just enough because he didn’t tell his wife and children.
And I said, you need to tell your wife and he said…no…no…no, I don’t want them to know. And because of that, even though I have spoken to his wife a few times, I haven’t mentioned it to her because that’s how he wants it. We must learn to respect people’s privacy. We don’t do that in this nation a lot.
Have you seen how we queue in the bank? Everyone is leaning on each other. That is disrespectful. No personal space. You don’t know if I had a shower. You’ve had one and you are just leaning on me. We have to respect people’s personal space.
But as President, don't you think Buhari should disclose the state of his health?
If we say because Buhari is President of Nigeria and he has no privacy, that means that every month or every week—depending on how we want to do it—we can run shifts where each State can send like 10 people each and we move them into President Buhari’s bedroom so that they can watch how he relates with his wife.
If we say Buhari has no privacy, let us move into his house and follow him around 24hrs. Let’s know how he sleeps, how he snores, the type of food he eats, what he drinks, when he goes to bed with his wife, how he does it with his wife…let’s know everything!
No, we must draw lines! People come to my social media pages and say, 'Lauretta, I don’t expect you to write this, delete it! On my own page! That is disrespectful.
You cannot come to my own home and you don’t like the colour of my chair, what you’ll do is say I don’t want to come in, or I’m going to stand outside. You won’t tell me to throw away my chairs because you don’t like the colour.
And then the usage of the word ‘want’. “I want you to…” That is a command. It means being disrespectful to people. I am sounding like diaspora now, but that’s really what I am. And these are the changes we speak about. We can’t be speaking English without knowing the meanings of the words we use.
Somebody comes to your home and you have a very delicious meal. The person may have eaten before coming. You don’t ask the person if he or she will eat. You just go ahead and dish the food for the person and the person says I have eaten and you go, no..no..no…I want you to eat it.
We can say it’s our culture but these are cultures we must do away with because the world has moved beyond that. There are some cultures we must fight to keep because they are progressive. But the ones that disrespect others, we must do away with them.
Former American President Ronald Reagan had cancer of the colon. He suffered it and nobody knew about it. He didn’t tell anybody. Maybe a few members of his family, but he didn’t make it public. And Americans didn’t bang their heads on the wall and say you are in hospital, you must tell us what you are suffering from and bla bla bla because they recognize and understand that that is his private life.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May has no children. Barrenness is considered an illness and that’s why Doctors treat it. The British people are not holding her by the neck and saying to her: “Tell us why you couldn’t have children and what is the status of the sperm count of your husband?" They aren’t doing that because that will be stepping into her private life. We must learn to separate a man from his private life. President Buhari has right to privacy and that must be respected.
A while ago, some of these people who are protesting were calling on the president to address Nigerians. Why would he address Nigerians? As who? We have an Acting President he has handed over power to.
We read in the news—we don’t know if true or not--that some senior staff of the government took some files to him in the UK and he sent them back with the files to the Acting President. Because there’s no way he’ll treat any file and it will be legal. Many of us do not understand the meaning of transmitting power. It means that you have no power at all and that’s why he could speak to his people during Sallah.
We will get used to it, anyway.