Sabella Abidde: Nigerian leaders and mental illness

by Sabella Abidde

My position is not that “mad men” cannot be good and effective leaders. They can be if properly treated!

Whether one has data or not, some sweeping statements about Nigeria are true and can be verified. For instance, one could assert that Nigeria’s economic and political conditions have gradually worsened since 1985. Hence, economically, there are four classes of people: the bottom-feeders, the poor, the miserably poor, and the parasites. And politically, one could assert that there are four groups of people: The voiceless, the ignorant, the scared, and the pillagers. As a result, the vast majority of Nigerians live in deplorable and hopeless conditions.

How did we get to this poor and nasty state? How could this be in a country with these much human and natural resources? Many Nigerian intellectuals have opined that the major problem with Nigeria is leadership.  It is not as if they discounted other factors, i.e. weak private and public institutions; the residual effects of colonisation; a mostly uneducated and fatalistic populace; the entry of the military into the nation’s governing space; ethnicity and regionalism; flawed constitution, among others. But Nigeria’s major problem, most agree, is leadership. It has to be!

Since independence, Nigeria has had an assortment of leaders at the federal level. One or two have been really good for the country. But the majority have been terribly bad. Some didn’t even understand basic arithmetic; while others always seem to be in a daze or lost in a maze. There were those who were afraid of their own shadows. One or two were even afraid of the sunlight, and so preferred conducting official business in the dark. One was noted for his wasteful and incestuous behaviour; while another was fond of bombastic declarations. What value did these men add to governance or to the people’s life?

And so, when one thinks of where Nigeria was — and where it’s been in the last 27 years and a few years prior — one cannot but wonder if the vast majority of our heads of government, had mental illness (whether mild or debilitating). Otherwise, how else do you explain Nigeria’s sorry state? How do you explain the rut and rot of the economic and political space and landscape? How do you explain what Nigeria has become — especially since 1999? How do you explain the missed opportunities for national integration? How do you explain the height and the depth of corruption and corrosion in Aso Rock and in the various 36 federating states?

If the vast majority of the occupants of Dodan Barracks and Aso Rock did/do not have mental illnesses, how do you explain the insatiable desire to steal and to mismanage while the vast majorly of the people live in abject and deplorable conditions? How? What sane and rational leaders would allow their people to live miserably while a few live the life of luxury and opulence? It is incomprehensible. In addition to some of these heads of government, it is possible that some 80 per cent of state governors, ministers, commissioners and state and federal legislators had some form of mental deficits as well.  Imagine the total compensation legislators and others gave themselves. Total madness!

According to the World Health Organisation, “Mental disorders comprise a broad range of problems, with different symptoms. However, they are generally characterised by some combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others. Examples of mental illness are schizophrenia, depression, mental retardation and disorders due to drug abuse.” Others include bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.

These conditions disrupt a person’s thinking and feeling, mood and ability to relate with others in the real and everyday world. The good news is that these illnesses can be successfully treated or managed; but the bad news is that because of the stigma attached to mental illness in Nigeria as elsewhere in sub-Sahara Africa, many do not seek treatment

In one capacity or another, Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Yakubu Dan-Yumma Gowon, Murtala Ramat Muhammed, Olusegun Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, and Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar all served in the 1967/1970 Nigeria-Biafra War. After the war ended, what treatment did they receive for possible Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Some were involved in one or several coups, what treatment did they receive for the mental fatigue and sleepless nights and anxiety-ridden days associated with such endeavours? According to the National Institute of Mental Health,” PTSD is an anxiety disorder that some people get after seeing or living through a dangerous event.” Psychological trauma must never be ignored!

Is it possible several years of wars and coups and counter-coups, and the apprehension-laden life of a military career chipped away at the sanity and sensibility of some military officers? And for those who did not seek appropriate treatment, the effect on their minds must have been devastating. With these in mind, two questions become germane: (1) Did we ever have insane man/men running the affairs of our nation?; and (2) what effect did none and or poor treatment have on their respective administration? These are questions for the Association of Psychiatrists in Nigeria to answer. Graduate and postgraduate students may also want to explore these questions when working on their doctoral dissertations.

During the tyrannical reign of Abacha (1993–1998), Obasanjo was imprisoned for allegedly participating in a failed coup, and for his criticism of the Abacha regime. What was his state of mind when he assumed the Presidency in 1999? In other words, what were the effects of his long and hash imprisonment on his body and mind?  What do we know of the mental state of Shehu Shagari, Umaru Yar’Adua, and Goodluck Ebele Jonathan before and during their presidency?  According to Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “Social disadvantage make people more vulnerable to a range of mental health problems.” What can we say of Jonathan since he himself has famously alluded to his “poor and shoeless” upbringing?

My position is not that “mad men” cannot be good and effective leaders. They can be if properly treated! In fact, many mentally flawed individuals have gone on to become statesmen. Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, for instance, went on to become Prime Ministers of Britain. Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., all had mental issues. And in fact, many “insane” chief executive officers, poets, writers, artists, inventors and scientists have gone on to have successful and enviable life and career.



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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