Incredibly Revelatory Media Chat

by Idowu Akintola,

If eloquence or elocution was all that is needed to prove one’s bona fides or demonstrate competence, President Muhammadu Buhari would prove a woeful failure. In his maiden media chat last week, he struggled to communicate, and worse, even struggled to form his thoughts. He did not have problem with his tenses, nor if he did should that worry us. At least the country understood their president, and from his responses, the president in turn claimed and indeed appeared to understand his countrymen, especially how sometimes difficult they can be. It was his first media chat, and doubtless his coaches must have worked on him, schooling him on difficult and anticipated questions, and gently admonishing the ramrod straight retired army general to rein in his emotions, soften his taciturnity, and crack some jokes. His coaches will now need to do more, and if need be, ensure he can tell the difference between excise and exercise, for one has to do with customs and the other military drill.

Overall, notwithstanding his problematic elocution, President Buhari came across as honest, down to earth, dependable, and someone Nigerians can trust with their money — absolutely. But to trust him with their lives, Nigerians will have to school him on the constitution afresh and extract promises of his fidelity to the laws of the land. For now, he sees both the constitution and the law as hindrances and handles them with the expedience of his military antecedents. Former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan spoke clearer and more fluently, and had better, wider and more complex grasp of issues; howbeit the former was imperious with his guttural voice and elocution, and the latter, with his clipped speech and tremulous voice, suffered from persecution complex.

This is President Buhari’s first chat. Despite his age, education and inflexible approach to issues, he is expected to improve considerably and in many ways. But in some other critical ways, Nigerians must not expect any improvement, because there won’t and can’t be any. The president rightly drew a parallel between his first coming as a military head of state, when he railroaded suspected thieves to jail and put the burden of proof on them, and his latest coming as an elected president, when the burden of proof lies with his government. Yet, he sounded plaintive, and could barely hide his irritation with the procedural handicaps the rule of law imposed on him. Worse, when asked why he seemed impervious to the bail granted some of his quarries, perhaps particularly former National Security Adviser (NSA) Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.), the president bristled at the question, one of the two times he nearly lost his composure during the chat, and drew attention to the severity of the allegations and evidence against the retired colonel. At that point, and for him, the issue was no longer the law. It surprisingly bothered him little that he could be accused, very reasonably it seems, of pursuing vendetta against the former NSA.

It is hard to say why President Buhari’s approach to the rule of law has changed very little since his military days. He won the presidential election without apologising for the execution of three drug suspects in 1985, one of whom was clearly a victim of judicial murder. But he accepted responsibility and claimed that if elected, he would subject himself to the laws of the land; for as he put it, he had sworn to uphold the constitution. Yet, he is not discomfited by his peremptory conclusion that suspects would jump bail if granted. How did he come to that conclusion? Why could he not prove that conclusion before the courts that thrice granted the former NSA bail? And if the courts turned down his request, why would he think the courts were unctuous and ingratiating with criminals or complicit in perverting justice to society?

The problem, it is obvious, is not just the former NSA and whatever issues he had with the president dating back to the 1985 coup d’etat. The problem is that from President Buhari’s responses, he seems in fact fundamentally disposed to autocratic, messianic and sanctimonious leadership. He seizes upon the egregious felonies of the suspects undergoing trial or interrogation to whip up emotions among the outraged public. Whether as it concerns Col. Dasuki (retd.) or the killing of obstreperous Shiites in Zaria, or yet the matter of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader, Nnamdi Kanu, the president has an anachronistic approach to law and order. He gave no room to the delicate and magnificent nuances of law and order and the rule of law. It was enough for him that the offences the three people and groups were charged with were shocking and scandalous. It made no sense to him that much more than the danger to the republic constituted by the offences, he stood the even more coruscating risk of coming across as someone who viewed the law from the point of expediency. All that mattered to him, he implied, was the frightening scale of the offences, not the letter nor the spirit of the law.

Mr Kanu, he described contemptuously as “the one you are calling Kanu”. The Shiites, he suggested, were not even liked by their neighbours; and what kind of government, he asked rhetorically, would he be running as president who swore to uphold the constitution should he permit any group to run a government within a government? And Col. Dasuki (retd.), he said emotively, received humongous sums arbitrarily from the former president and seemed likely to jump bail. In short, President Buhari’s jurisprudence spans a very limited gamut: the moment he forms an unfavourable opinion of you, you can neither be right nor be entitled to the adjudicatory nicety and sufferance of the law. President Buhari may have been elected; but every pore in his body oozes military rule and a constricted, myopic body of archaic and redundant laws.

Nothing was more shocking than his response to the Shiite crisis. Admittedly the president came across as honest as anyone can be. So, it was obvious he didn’t like the Shiites, and he only hid conveniently behind the concept of federalism to await Kaduna State reaction to the Zaria killings in order to formulate his own. Notwithstanding, he was in fact dismissive of any concerns about the infringement of the rights of Shiites, simply because he had formed his calcified opinion of their troublesomeness. But even armed robbers have rights under the law, let alone unorthodox sects whose doctrines and manners appeared to grate badly on their neighbours. When asked what he would do about the problem, he did not understand it as an opportunity to propound a robust understanding of the rights of man, of the complexities of modern life vis-a-vis religious differences, and of whether the existing laws were capable of tackling some of the newer and more profound challenges of the modern era. To him, it was a straitjacket issue of law and order.

In addition, from all indications, he trusted the army’s account, even citing the obfuscatory explanation of the General Officer Commanding (GOC) I Division of the Nigerian Army, Kaduna as proof that the Shiites fomented trouble and carried arms. Many aspects of the story pointed in the direction of both the barbarous use of excessive force, poor judgement, and unlawful deployment of the army. But on the Shiite matter, the president’s democratic instinct, if he has any and if it will survive to the end of his tenure, was clearly and enthusiastically subordinated to his military instinct, which abounds in his sinews and marrows, and will be interred with his bones. He will admit of no dispassion in such matters. More, he has virtually made up his mind on who the villains are, like the impetuous Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, when all the country asks of him are some open-mindedness and a keen awareness of the inalienable rights the constitution vouchsafes even to the most truculent and unorthodox persons or groups.  It was both justificatory and expiatory for the president and Kaduna governor that Zarians and neighbours of the Shiites rejoiced at the terrible and excessive blows rained on the group.

President Buhari may mean well for the country, especially on the matter of fighting corruption and indiscipline. But his maiden media chat shows a man still sadly trapped in the past, a man moving along haphazardly into the future along a single track. He must be prevailed upon urgently to reform and mend his ways if democracy is to survive, let alone flourish. Had Chief Obasanjo laid the right foundation for democracy, neither Dr Jonathan nor Gen. Buhari would have had the opportunity, given their tenuous bona fides and inchoate ideas of democracy, to even present themselves for election. But Dr Jonathan came and built anarchically on Chief Obasanjo’s appalling foundation, and President Buhari has completely done away with the foundation and is erecting an edifice without a conceptually sound and coherent foundation.

This makes President Buhari’s presidency more difficult to be optimistic about. There will be plenty of noise and thunder, but there will be little about his government by way of long-lasting legacy. Twice his interviewers asked what his economic vision was and what vision he hoped the civil service could key into, especially given the seeming creation of Babatunde Fashola’s super ministry. The president offered none other than to say that once insecurity was tackled and corruption forced into abatement, the country would heave a sigh of relief. But it was necessary for him to concisely state his vision, and that vision needed to be all-encompassing, breathtakingly covering politics, economics and society. Some have said the interviewers were incompetent and unable to press the president for sound and succinct answers. Yes, one interviewer was unnecessary wordy, but on the whole they discharged their responsibilities admirably. In fact, the president’s responses were much less insightful than both the questions asked and the issues raised. The anchor did exceptionally well, and given the president’s constant resort to mundaneness, it became irresistible to conclude that in complexity and nuances, the questions far transcended the answers. It even seemed at a point that the interviewers were exasperated.

At the end of the chat, the president appeared exultant, even daring to lecture everyone on aspects of journalism the country must look forward to. He will doubtless go away with the feeling he carried himself well, did not lose his cool, expressed himself simply though not profoundly, and suffered no major embarrassment. It is not clear what his handlers will tell him, whether they will diplomatically tell him there is room for improvement, or whether they will encourage him to watch a replay of the chat in the privacy of his office, where his conscience will have the freedom to do a forthright self-appraisal. If he manages to reflect on the chat, he will discover he was not prepared for any question on the abducted Chibok girls, whose number he even forgot, and that he also gave the impression his government was doing practically nothing to rescue them.

He will also discover he often lost his train of thoughts, was inattentive to details in many areas, displayed little knowledge of anything, including the economy, subsidy and devaluation, and offered little hope of a great future in which Nigeria will transform into a modern society of sound laws, great structure, and great leaders and statesmen. Should he notch up his reflectiveness a bit, he will be appalled by his answer on the Kanu IPOB matter, his insensitivity to the Shiite tragedy, and the missed chance to assure Nigerians that he had truly become a democrat who understood the rule of law, the implacable principle of bail, and the doctrine of separation of powers.

But President Buhari will also console himself with the ironic comments of observers following his maiden chat showing he was not overrated by the public. He was meant as a battering ram against the follies and foibles of Dr Jonathan, and lightning arrestor to the former president’s permissiveness. If his team is capable, let them now sit down with the president to coach him on what should be done to transform the country and produce and bequeath a lasting legacy. They will of course not be able to turn him into a philosopher-king, but they can at least make him a little bit more reflective, sensitive, and obedient to the constitution. They can help him tone down his military mannerism, and make him a little more democratic. And they can also encourage him to really lay a solid foundation for Nigerian democracy, a thought obviously not among his priorities at the moment. The country will be able to judge from his next chat and his responses whether there is little room to hope or a wide gulf to despair.