Lai Mohammed denies having COVID-19, as presidency speaks on outbreak at Aso Villa

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The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, on Sunday denied being infected with COVID-19.

The minister spoke via a statement by his spokesperson in reaction to reports Saturday that he was among top government and presidency officials who recently contracted the virus, unsettling the nation’s seat of power.

Some of the presidential aides who tested positive for the virus confirmed their status to PREMIUM TIMES but declined to comment on the outbreak of the disease among other presidential aides.

Until PREMIUM TIMES exclusively reported the outbreak, it had been kelp under wraps by officials with the First Lady’s office only saying aides had been asked to go home, without giving any reason.

While some of the officials affected commented on their status in interviews with this newspaper, Mr Mohammed’s spokesperson, Segun Adeyemi, did not return repeated calls or reply to a message sent to him before our initial story was published.

The president’s senior special assistant on media and publicity, Garba Shehu, who presidency sources told PREMIUM TIMES tested positive, confirmed his status in a text response to this newspaper. He said he felt okay despite the positive test but could not comment on the status of other aides.

A day after our story was published, however, Mr Adeyemi, on Sunday, made his principal’s position known in a statement sent to PREMIUM TIMES, saying Mr Mohammed was neither positive for the virus nor down with the disease.

But the minister, who demanded a retraction of the report and an apology, is yet to comment on the impacts of the pandemic on the villa and how close aides of President Muhammadu Buhari are currently placed on isolation.

Before publishing its initial report, PREMIUM TIMES tried for more than 24 hours to reach the minister, his spokesperson and some presidency officials. They did not answer multiple telephone calls or reply to text messages sent to them.

In his Sunday statement, Mr Mohammed did not comment on the efforts made to confirm his health status and did not say what the government is doing to prevent further spread of the disease at the presidential villa.

He however said, “That report, which was first published by an online newspaper and then latched on to by some mainstream lapdog media, once again highlights the uphill task we face in our campaign to stamp out fake news and misinformation.

“A journalism mantra says ‘when in doubt, leave it out’. Also embedded in the code of ethics for journalists are the basic principles of truthfulness and accuracy, among others. The report in question did not meet those standards.”

The statement said the minister attended official functions between Wednesday and Friday at the villa and that the report that he was barred from the complex after testing positive to COVID-19 was incorrect and caused the minister some embarrassment, especially in a season of joy.

Mr Adeyemi said the minister was at the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting on Wednesday, an extraordinary FEC meeting on Thursday and also witnessed the swearing in of the Minister of State for Works and Housing on Friday.

“All these events took place at the Villa, where the correspondents of many media organisations are deployed.

“In fact, the Minister coordinated the post-FEC press briefing on Wednesday and Thursday.

“Could he have done this from the imaginary isolation centre where he was consigned by a mischievous reporter?” the statement read.

It added: “As a member of the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, the Minister has the added responsibility of leading by example.

“He would not have hesitated to publicly announce his COVID-19 status if indeed he has contracted the virus.

“After all, he is not only fully vaccinated, he has also taken the booster shot, a situation that offers him different layers of protection even if he contracts the virus.

“For those who contract the virus, they deserve our empathy and prayers, not stigmatization”.

Presidential aides human’

Meanwhile, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, on Monday commented on reports that some presidency officials were down with COVID-19. He, however, did not provide details regarding affected officials and the impact of the development on governance.

Speaking on Channels TV, Mr Adesina said: “Well, what I like to say is that presidential aides are just human. They can fall sick. If anything happens to human beings it can also happen to presidential aides.

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”The fact that we are presidential aides does not make us to be immune to certain things. If there is a virus that is ravaging society. Well, it can touch anybody.

”So Mallam Garba Shehu has confirmed that, yes, he tested positive but he said it’s mild. And I believe that by now, because it’s happened since Wednesday, by now, he should almost have beaten it if he had not beat it already. There is no cause for alarm.”

Commenting on his contact with Mr Shehu recently, the media aide said: “Well, I also believe God for the best. If it happens (I get infected), I’ll recover. So that’s it.”

Asked how many of the President’s aides in the State House have been infected, Mr Adesina said: “No. That will not be within my purview to discuss maybe if you get the Presidential doctor or anybody in the medical side, they will tell you.

”I wouldn’t know because, it is a private thing. If it happens to anybody, it is between that person and possibly the doctor. It’s not going to be general knowledge.

”So I may not be able to say.”

Mr Adesina also dismissed the fear being expressed in some quarters over the president’s health following his exposure to his aides believed to have been infected with the virus.

He said: “Well, I think Mr. President is quite fine. He is doing his normal routine, following his normal schedule. But if anybody close to him test positive, that person is required to stay away till he tests again, and he tests negative.”

”So, Mr President is following his normal schedule and routine.”

A regime of Secrecy

While no one has officially denied the outbreak of the pandemic at the State House, PREMIUM TIMES, however, is unable to understand why the Nigerian government has failed to publicly declare the status of the affected public officials so that whoever among the public that may have had contact with them within the period could either self-isolate or go for testing.

It is a culture of practice among public officials in Nigeria, and particularly at the centre, to conceal the health conditions of public office holders.

From the years of the late President Umar Yar’Adua to the incumbent Mr Buhari, the public has always been in the dark over the nature of ailments their leaders were being treated for.

READ ALSO: EXCLUSIVE: COVID-19 ravages Nigeria’s State House as Buhari’s aides contract virus

Many Nigerians have consistently criticised this practice but the government has also relied on laws supporting the confidentiality of a person’s health status.

How it is done in other democracies.

In December 2020, during the administration of the former President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, when many presidential aides contracted the coronavirus infection, the American government informed the public and disclosed the identities of the aides who tested positive.

Earlier in March of the same year when Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom (UK) contracted the virus, he instantly informed the public of his health status and there were regular updates until he was discharged and was declared fit to govern again.

Shortly after returning from a visit to four West African countries including Nigeria earlier in December, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa publicly announced that he tested positive for the virus.

Apart from delegating all official responsibilities to his deputy, David Mabuza, Mr Ramaphosa also used the opportunity to advise the people against letting down the guards even after being fully vaccinated.

However, in Nigeria, the government has a culture of
keeping the health status of its political leaders secret including where they are receiving treatment.

It was until the death of the late chief of staff to Mr Buhari, Abba Kyari, that Nigerians were formally told that he was treated for the coronavirus disease in Lagos, the country’s commercial capital.

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