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Buhari’s unguarded tongue

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President Muhammadu Buhari / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS

It is obvious that President Muhammadu Buhari does not always filter his words before they come out. If he filters them at all he does not fully appreciate the connotative and denotative meanings of the words he uses. All words have meanings, and can be subjected to literal or metaphorical interpretations. We have had several occasions when the President’s handlers have accused the public of misinterpreting or misunderstanding, or misconstruing what the President had said. Sometimes they claim that the president’s words were taken out of context or have been stretched to achieve a political purpose. I sympathise with the President’s minders who have to lick the vomit from time to time to make the President look as presidential as presidents are expected to look.

The recent Westwinster episode is the latest in the series of presidential gaffes. The President was at the Commonwealth Business Forum in the UK recently. The forum is described as “a truly unique and historic opportunity to promote and celebrate the very best of the Commonwealth to a global audience.” In an answer to a question he reportedly said that “more than 60% of the population is below 30, a lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria is an oil producing country, therefore, they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare, education free.” This whiplash has generated a storm of criticism in both mainstream and social media. Buhari’s spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina, has reacted to the reactions by stating that Buhari has biological children who are also youths so he could not have passed a vote of no confidence on “all youths” in Nigeria. His bone of contention is that Buhari only said “a lot of them” and not “all of them.” However, a lot of them out of a population of 198 million (according to our National Population Commission) comes to a lot in numerical terms and that would still be an incorrect remark. But there is actually no need for this nitpicking semantic gyration on the matter.

The naked truth is that Buhari should never have said at all what he said about Nigerian youths especially at a forum for showcasing our country’s best attributes for the ears of potential investors. No president does that except Buhari. He has a penchant for demeaning his country abroad apparently without knowing its full ramifications. His speech is a validation of the stereotypical image held by some foreigners, which is fueled by some jaundiced foreign media. It is true that Nigeria has had some drug barons, 419 operators and yahoo yahoo artists but these miscreants are a very, very negligible segment of the Nigeria population. Such miscreants are also available in all other countries of the world so it is not that Nigeria is the world’s epicenter of crime. It is not. Its youths are not the most unproductive or uneducated. They are not.

The president’s role wherever he is in the world is to promote Nigeria’s good image, not to balloon the negative stories that already exist about Nigeria. The foreigners already know through their embassies and citizens about the underwear bomber who is serving a jail sentence in the United States. They know about Abacha loot, the Haliburton scandal and the Nigerians in foreign courts and jails for various offences but in totality these constitute only a very minute portion of our huge population. But they become bigger than they actually are when Buhari gives a presidential validation to them.

In May 2016, Britain’s Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, in a Conversation with Queen Elizabeth had described Nigeria as a fantastically corrupt country. Nigerians in the UK and Nigeria tackled him vigorously and reminded him that Britain is a criminal sanctuary for and a happy recipient of stolen assets. While Nigerians were deeply upset by Cameron’s irresponsible and exaggerated remark, our President did not seem visibly perturbed. Buhari gave an interview to Sky News at the end of the anti-corruption summit which he attended. The interview was conducted by the Diplomatic Editor, Mr. Dominic Wagborn on the issue of whether or not Nigeria was “fantastically corrupt” as alleged by Cameron. The interview went thus:

Sky News: Will you like an apology from the Prime Minister?
Buhari: No, no, not all.
Sky News: Are you embarrassed by what he said?
Buhari: No, I am not.
Sky News: Is Nigeria fantastically corrupt?
Buhari: Yes.

This interview represented a very false description of Nigeria as far as corruption is concerned. There is corruption in Nigeria as there is in most other countries. The only difference is that while most of these other countries vigorously tackle their corruption problems our governments do not pay serious attention to the extirpation of the scourge on a non-partisan basis. So it festers.

When President Donald Trump named Nigeria as one of the “shit-hole” countries in Africa we were up in arms against the American leader. Our indignation was not necessarily because there are no “shit-hole” policies or practices within our government. It was because we thought a foreign leader whose country is not perfect had no business talking down at us. It was also because we know that there are lots of positive stories of Nigerians performing feats in medicine, education, entrepreneurship and information technology right there before Mr. Trump’s eyes. He even brought one of them, Mr. Bayo Ogunlesi, into his government.

Buhari is Nigeria’s President today. He did not meet a perfect country when he took over but his job is to make it less imperfect. His responsibility is to solve problems that he met on the ground and the ones that have sprouted since his occupation of the office. He can explain the difficulties he meets on the job and we can empathise with him but he does not need to find scape goats on the things that go wrong. He received a lot of flak a few weeks ago when he tried to explain away the incompetent handling by his government of the violence unleashed by Fulani herdsmen on the country. He said that after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi some Libyans migrated with their arms to Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. In the first place, most Libyans are better off than most West Africans with or without Gaddafi. They enjoy free education, free health and all kinds of allowances including marriage allowance. These are what attracted many Nigerians into that desert country. There isn’t much to attract Libyans to Nigeria. But the more important thing is that it should not matter to our president where the arms come from or who is bearing the arms. Illegal arms carried by Libyans or Nigerians remain illegal and should be treated as such. Libyans or Nigerians who kill Nigerians unlawfully are committing crimes and deserve to be punished. Those ought to be Buhari’s guiding principles instead of worrying about the birth place of the illegal arms or of the arms bearers.

The fact that the President makes too many controversial statements means that there is something definitely wrong somewhere. It is either his public utterances are not properly managed or he does not listen to advice. None of the reasons is good for our country. It is the convention that whenever the President is likely to have an interview, or meet a crowd or make a speech, he ought to have a serious briefing session with his handlers. The handlers must compile possible questions for him and play the devil’s advocate so that his answers can be finetuned for best reception by the audience. It is possible that his handlers are shut out by the hawks within the kitchen cabinet and are not allowed to have the kind of access necessary for them to ensure that Buhari puts his best foot forward in the public arena, especially in speaking matters. Each time the President makes a boo boo and the handlers try to panel-beat his speech for him after delivery I feel sorry for them. And when they comb the streets and bushes looking for the motives of the critics I feel even more sorry for them. The reason I feel sorry for them is because they are doing a very difficult job and they know that most of those who criticize the President are not looking for his job. They are simply bothered that with his unguarded tongue he is making their country look uglier than it actually is.


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