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The presidential address that never was

By Dan Agbese
11 December 2020   |   2:57 am
I am sure you too must have been as pleasantly surprised as I was to learn late last week that President Muhammadu Buhari had accepted the request by the House of Representatives


I am sure you too must have been as pleasantly surprised as I was to learn late last week that President Muhammadu Buhari had accepted the request by the House of Representatives to address the worsening insecurity in the country on Thursday, December 10. It got sweeter.

Early this week, we were told that the president would go one step better: he would address the joint sitting of the national assembly on that day.

At long last, we would hear directly from the president through our representatives in parliament and possibly know from him why the Nigerian state finds itself in a defensive battle with criminal elements and worsening our security situation.

Expectations rose high that the address would address this important issue and possibly others and help to lower the high temperature of anxiety and fear in the land. But less than 24 hours to the expected big and important event, the pin found its way into the balloon of our high expectations. The air went out. Buhari had suddenly changed his mind. He would no longer address parliament and through them, the people.

The attorney-general and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami, had found that the House of Representatives has no power to summon the president before it. I suppose the president initially failed to consult his chief lawman when he received the invitation from the house. If he did, he would have saved himself the embarrassment of a presidential promise not kept accompanied by the painful dashing of the hopes of the people. It is embarrassing, to say the least.

The fault really was not with Malami. He merely dragged in the constitution to legitimise the decision of the ruling party, APC. Its leaders objected to the president’s decision and persuaded him not to go because the PDP members in the national assembly would embarrass him. It was a splendid act of political chicanery but a grievous political mistake. The cynical intrusion of primitive political interests on the president’s opportunity to engage the law-makers and through them, the people, on matters that keep all of us awake night and day has thus been trivialised and the right of the people to know sacrificed on the altar of politics of party interests.

It denied the president the right to assert his moral leadership and to be seen to be fully and capably in charge. The loss of this singular opportunity is a greater pity than you might care to know. It would haunt both the president and the party in the foreseeable. It is a fine example of how not to mislead a president and weaken his resolve to do right by the people consistent with his oath of office. He gave his word to the law-makers. He could not have done so without fully considering the implications, if any, of his decision. The pros must have outweighed the cons to inform his decision to address parliament. Even from a legally illiterate old codger like yours sincerely, Buhari would have committed no constitutional breach by addressing parliament and through them, the people whose vote put him in Aso Rock. The constitution makes it imperative for him to engage the people, not distance or isolate himself from them.

The president is not responsible for the party and should not take dictations from it in so far as their words do not accord with his leadership responsibilities as he understands them. The attorney-general is only a legal adviser and should not be seen to be telling the president what to do using doubtful instrumentalities of the supreme law of the land. Political leadership is as much about gut feelings and decisions as it is about decisions based on carefully-weighed empirical evidence.

Buhari is responsible for the country and its people. His right to talk to and engage the people derives from his constitutional obligations anchored on moral leadership. That right ought not to be abridged for purely narrow and self-serving political interests. The president should have stuck to his decision and should not have allowed himself to be pressured into abandoning what he chose to do for fear of embarrassment. I know of no political leaders who are afraid of embarrassment because none of them is immune to embarrassment either in private or in full public view.

There should be a limit to the sycophancy of our politicians who believe that their political interests trump the greater interests of the nation and the people. The APC leaders choose to pretend that is all is well with the Nigerian state. But they know only too well that they are permitting themselves the sickening indulgence of living in denial. Theirs is the ruling party because the people chose, willingly or through inducement, to cast their lot with it. They do not need me to tell them that the fate of this great nation is in their hands – individually and collectively. It is a responsibility they ought to take much more seriously than they appear to be doing. Living in denial is a denial of the living truth. This means they must accept the truth, deal with the truth, and assist the president to make a success of his office and leave a legacy they and their party can be proud of. Political leadership is much more than the construction of roads and the setting up of poorly-funded tertiary institutions. At its heart is the weightier burden of moral leadership without which political leadership rings hollow.

Let me indulge myself by quoting myself. In my column, Talk to the people, Mr President (Daily Trust on Sunday, April 29, 2018), I wrote: “Nigeria is passing through particularly difficult times. At times like these, the people want to hear from their president. They want to be reassured that they can trust the government to pull them through the difficult times. They want to know that the government has the capacity, competence, and determination to make our country safe… Press releases or statements by media aides do not cut it. The president must address the nation from time to time because only he has the authoritative voice of reassurance. And only he can be believed in marketing hope to the people.”

November 10 offered the president as good a chance as any for the people to hear from him. But the party and the attorney-general blew it for reasons that ill-advanced the cause of our democracy. They forgot that the people want to see that their president is a man of his words, not one tossed about in the wind of competing for political interests and swayed therein to change course.

The deputy minority leader of the House of Representatives, Toby Okechukwu, described Malami’s resort to constitutional sophistry as “strange.” He pointed out that the constitution empowers the senate and the House of Representatives to summon anyone, the president not excluded, to give evidence orally or in writing before it. “Therefore,” he underlined the fact, “…the attempt to pressure Mr President not to appear clearly shows that some highly placed political actors in the ruling party are placing politics over the protection of lives of Nigerians. The APC is evidently fiddling with propaganda and politics while Nigeria burns.” Nero and his fiddle? Yes.

I also support his advice to the president “to rise above the political fray to show leadership in order to rally the Nigerian people and their parliament to find lasting solutions to the growing insecurity in the country.” There is time for politics and there is time for an honest discharge of the moral burden of leadership. This, I verily believe, is the time for an honest discharge of the moral burden of leadership. Politics be damned.