I was reasonably impressed with the overall tenor of President Buhari’s 2018 New Year’s message. Compared with some of his previous speeches, the broadcast was non-combative and represented an attempt to talk to Nigerians – instead of talking down to them as some of his overzealous and sycophantic aides are wont to do. Largely because the language of the broadcast was devoid of combativeness (despite the fact that the art of verbal communication is clearly not one of the President’s strengths) it was, in my opinion, a more effective way of showing the human side of the President than the documentary that purportedly tried to do that. And talking of showcasing the human side of the President, I wish the concluding part of the 2011-word speech had formed part of the introduction. In that concluding part the President said:
“Finally let me again express my heartfelt thanks to all Nigerians who prayed for me during my illness last year. I feel deeply humbled by your prayers and good wishes and I am more determined than ever to serve you to the best of my ability. Good morning. And I wish everyone a Happy New Year.”
If the overall tone of the speech was meant to signal a new communication mode or new pact with Nigerians, such was lost or not properly communicated to the overzealous, ‘notice-me’ aides who descended on critics of the President’s speech with special virulence. The truth is that it comes with the territory of being a President, that actions of the government, however utilitarian and well -meaning will be strongly criticized and ridiculed by some. The government normally sets the tone to be used by its critics by the way it responds to criticisms, including from those meant to taunt and humiliate the President.
While I am impressed with the tenor of the speech and new mode of communicating with Nigerians, there are aspects of it that deserve further interrogation:
Fuel scarcity: In what was meant to be a show of empathy with the suffering of ordinary Nigerians because of fuel scarcity over the Christmas and New Year, the President said: “I am saddened to acknowledge that for many, this Christmas and New Year holidays have been anything but merry and happy. Instead of showing love, companionship and charity, some of our compatriots chose this period to inflict severe hardship on us all by creating unnecessary fuel scarcity across the country.”
Whatever mileage the President hoped to gain by showing that he could identify with the suffering of Nigerians was undermined by the buck-passing part of it. From the time the Buhari government came to power, blame-game has been its stock in trade. The Jonathan story line seems to have lost its allure so new enemies and blackmailers are being created – as if borrowing from George Orwell’s book, ‘1984’. With the Ministry of Information and the National orientation Agency running a campaign on “Change Begins with Me”, perhaps the government should consider keying into that message before asking Nigerians to embrace it.
Infrastructure: The President promised to make significant in-roads in advancing road, rail and power projects across the country with ambitious targets – which will cost humongous sums of money. Though some have raised the question of motive for such huge investments on the eve of an election year, I do not really care about the motive, provided the investments are actually carried through. The proposed huge expenditures will not only reflate the economy but create millions of jobs – if actually implemented. However the government should also listen to the complaints of states like Sokoto and Kebbi which feel excluded from the proposed infrastructure bonanza across the country.
Pandering to the South-West: In his broadcast the president said: “As the electioneering season approaches politicians must avoid exploiting ethnicity and religion by linking ethnicity with religion and religion with politics. Such must be avoided at all costs if we are to live in harmony. In this respect the rest of Nigeria could learn from the South Western States who have successfully internalized religion, ethnicity and politics.”
I am not really sure what the President meant by this passage. If he meant to imply that the South-west does not play the ethnic and religious cards in national politics, then that is not quite correct because every part of the country plays the ethnic/religious card in equal measure. If the President meant that within the South-west ethnicity and religion do not matter, he will only be partly correct. The truth is that because of its relative ethnic homogeneity and their assumed common ancestry from Oduduwa, ethnicity trumps religion as an identity marker in the region – in their relations with outsiders. The same is true in the South east where a common Igbo identity trumps denominational differences as an identity marker in the region’s relations with others. However, internally, religion is also an identity marker in both regions in a subtler way. This is in contrast to the North where religious identity trumps ethnic identity (especially in the Northeast and North-west) as an identity marker in the zone’s relations with others. My suspicion is that this part of the broadcast was meant to pander to the battle ground South-west ahead of the 2019 presidential election, in which the President will most likely be a candidate. Despite what the different ethnic factions of Nigeria’s Internet Warriors will want us believe, what Hannah Arendt, the American-German philosopher called ‘banality of evil’ reflects the federal character in the country.
Restructuring: The President has remained consistent in his opposition to the clamour for ‘restructuring’ – though this time, instead of telling the agitators to go through the National Assembly (like school children) he tried to be more nuanced by developing what he would consider a counter-argument. His argument is that Nigerians are impatient and that the problem of the country is not with the structure but with processes. Apart from contradicting the position of his party which is collecting memoranda on the issue, his own position is also contradictory. What for instance is the difference between ‘structure and process’? Are the two mutually exclusive? Is the President’s ‘structure and process’ argument not just another version of the old ‘structure-agency’ debate? The truth is that structures (systemic or environmental variables) affect processes (those who work with the structures and the rules that maintain the structures). Similarly processes also affect the operation of the structures ( you cannot for example expect a government worker who has not been paid for months to decline bribes offered to him to do his work). The truth is that Buhari has not been handling the restructuring agitations well. Though I argued elsewhere that restructuring is just an empty buzzword by the southern faction of the political class in their competition with their Northern counterparts over the rules governing access to power and privileges, the way the President continues to mishandle it ensures it will be a unifying factor among the political class in the South. Remarkably the President is wooing and pandering to the South-west people who are the champions of restructuring – and its earlier incarnates ‘sovereign national conference’ and ‘national conference’.
Professor Sagay’s Outbursts
Professor Itse Sagay the chairman of Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption reportedly described those criticizing the appointment of dead people into the boards of government’s parastatals as “senseless” and “stupid.” In fact, the one-time eminent Professor’s choice of words for those who disagree with him or President Buhari has become embarrassing and a source of concern. His rhetoric runs counter to the new mode of communicating with Nigerians signalled in the President’s New Year message.
While we all worry about the declining standard of education in the country, the 77-year old retired Professor is also raising questions about the quality of long retired academics in government. Can a relatively minor political appointment make a highly respected former law professor to become what the late Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui would call an “ex intellectual” (that is to lose his fascination with abstract ideas and finesse in the way in which public intellectuals are expected to engage in public discourses)? Certainly ‘roforofo’, has never been a favoured mode of engagement in the Ivory Tower.
True, some creative artists are allowed a degree of rudeness as an art form in their public engagements or as part of a writer’s ‘artistic temperament’. Professor Sagay clearly does not belong to that category.