Politics

Why Buhari’s Speeches Will Always Be Controversial

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It is widely believed that President Muhammadu Buhari is not the writer of his speeches, and perhaps rarely contributes to the writing or editing. But notwithstanding the many experts who work on them, and regardless of whether the speeches reflect the president’s ideas or not, they will always be controversial. His January 1, 2021 speech is not different. It was admittedly a little better than his Independence Day address, which in turn was better, even if lexically more chaotic, than his Democracy Day address, but it somehow sunk to the same unenviable depth of policy and ideological emptiness. There is no proof that if the presidency should recruit a brilliant speechwriter of uncommon gifts his speeches in the remaining years of his presidency would naturally acquire the force and beauty many analysts have come to associate with presidents.

How can a gifted speechwriter give order to a presidency that lacks order and conviction? How can he chart a policy path in warrens crawling with contradictory and half-baked ideas and policies? And how can he imbue the president himself, on whose behalf the speeches are made, with the lofty and stirring beliefs and visions the people consistently yearn for? And in a presidency where competing and ambitious officials are jockeying for dominance or at least preeminence, how can a low-ranking speechwriter stamp authority and direction on every speech, especially when he has no way or power in determining what tangents the president would fly off during his few extraordinary extempore deliveries? The task is daunting. If the president could not bring order and gravitas to bear on his speeches and presidency, it would indeed be presumptuous of a speechwriter to attempt that soaring ambition. So, till the end of his presidency, there will be chaos in the president’s speeches. The president has probably reconciled himself to this fact or he is too unaware of the dynamics of the whole problem.

Fortunately, for all its drawbacks and weaknesses, President Buhari’s speeches have never tried to be pretentious. His countrymen are not inspired by his elocution; but much more, they are not also misled or captivated by any newfangled ideas. They are used to hearing stark and sometimes contradictory statements, and have, like the president, become accustomed to being fed the same monotonous and sometimes apocalyptic threats and drivel by a leader who is at bottom a provincial politician whose worldview has become narrow and hegemonic. Both the president and his countrymen are helpless, and will have little choice than to endure the few years left in his second term, almost like being compelled to orally take two chloroquine tablets thrice daily. Overall, on a note of caution, choose to read the president’s speeches rather than watch his broadcasts. You would suffer fewer distractions and distress occasioned by his unusually accented pronunciations.

As is usual with the president’s speeches, his January 1 address begins with unsubstantiated generalisations. The country has survived more than 60 years together to the bafflement of pundits, he says gleefully, and will continue to “actively grow that indivisible Nigerian spirit that has enabled us, year after year, decade after decade, to weather all stormy waters and emerge stronger and better where others have fallen and disintegrated”. Then he adds the undisguised optimism that, “This nation, this Nigeria will survive and thrive.” It would have been helpful if he had given his listeners the foundation upon which he was erecting that hope of a glorious future, especially when there is no indication of hope anywhere. He speaks of his government possessing a listening ear to the grievances of youths, but adds the clincher that while the administration listens, it will only be to the cries of stakeholders committed to the unity of the country. For him and his administration, unity trumps everything, and is indeed the fulcrum upon which the policies and direction of his government must balance.

He speaks stirringly of Nigerian youths, acknowledging in about seven paragraphs that their feats are mentioned worldwide and his administration will do everything to encourage them. He says nothing about why it took protests to recognise their talents and contributions, nor does he say anything about what better ways exist for the youths to channel their energies and grievances. It is clear their protest shook his administration, and he feels the urgency to address them in saccharine prose to retain their loyalty and harness their commitment to Nigerian unity. He does not also say why for decades no Nigerian government has consciously set out to harness the potentials of the youth, nor explain why they have been ignored in healthcare, education and other social programmes and engagements. He says nothing about why Nigerian youths must seek opportunities in foreign shores in order to achieve anything significant. The seven paragraphs devoted to the youths indicate nothing about any deep and abiding conviction of the president and his administration. Little will change after the address since the administration does not have a policy and intellectual core to distil and execute great and ennobling programmes.

Two more paragraphs are devoted to the reopening of the country’s borders, ending a 16-month closure that was costly, needless and pigheaded. Neither in this speech nor any statement by any government official, including the Customs Service and the Finance ministry, was anything said about what it cost the country to close its land borders for so long. They spoke and wrote propaganda about what the country saved, how the closure energised rice production, and how arms smuggling was reduced to the barest minimum. No one of course believed them, nor was anyone oblivious of the indirect impact of the closure on the cost of food and other businesses. More importantly, if disingenuously, neither the president nor his aides spoke about what the country lost by shutting land borders, nor why suddenly, against the run of play, they were reopening the borders in what is clearly an admission of failure.

Indeed, there is nothing in the president’s address to show that any lesson had been learnt. Here is how the president put it: “With the recent opening of our borders, we expect that the pent-up demand of legitimate cross-border and international trade will boost the fortunes of the many small businesses and agricultural enterprises that depend on Nigeria’s trade and commerce. The message to our West African neighbours is that Nigeria is once again fully open for those willing to conduct business in a fair and equitable way.” Did the country need more than one year border closure to reach this banal and futile position? As a matter of fact, what has changed? Are rice and arms no longer smuggled? Is the answer border closure or stricter regulation and policing of the borders? Now, the borders have been reopened, but there is nothing visible on ground, apart from the admission of failure of policy, to show that policing of the borders have been strengthened and the relevant agencies retooled, retrained and reinvigorated. Absolutely nothing. The borders were shut, and the government went to sleep after that foolish and unwarranted surgery.

President Buhari devotes additional five or so paragraphs to the subjects of corruption and banditry, and attempts only in one of those paragraphs to admit the nexus between insecurity and poverty. However, he downplays the impact of widespread violence, admitting reluctantly that inter-communal harmony is indeed threatened. It is, however, not only inter-communal harmony that is threatened, the very existence of the country itself is also threatened. The president has become dangerously complacent and platitudinous on security matters, swearing for the umpteenth and irresolute time to rejig national security. In the opening paragraphs of his address, he speaks of the country’s unity as a given existential variable; this has sadly led him to the flawed conclusion that no matter what happens, that unity can only be threatened, but that Nigeria’s resilience would help the country to triumph. He is not the first leader to embrace complacency in public policy and goals, not to say draw, if not rest his government on, wrong conclusions. Emperor Nero of the Roman Empire and many others did. President Buhari will not be the last of the tribe.

In the closing paragraphs of his address, he invites everyone to go along with him in helping the country march forward. It does not seem that he has inspired them to accompany him, but he sends out that invitation anyway. The indication today, which he did not speak to, is that few people are with him in that journey, and most of them have even started to question the destination of that journey. They hear him speak constantly and glibly about unity and stability, but they have rarely seen him take any deliberate step in that direction, nor hear him declaim on the subject with the depth and foresight of a great leader. In fact, today, they see only an absentminded leader who is sometimes capable of fitful shows of extreme insularity, who finds it difficult to envision the future or appreciate the consequences of his own misguided policies, and who has reduced governance to the use of force only when his private interests appear threatened.

Given the mood of the country, and the widespread threats facing its existence, it was expected that the president would talk substantially of justice as a prerequisite for peace, stability and inclusion. But he said nothing about justice. Indeed, as his many speeches show, and as his policies and actions over the years also indicate, he has treated justice as an alien, someone or something he is completely uncomfortable with, a topic that gives him the jitters. In the entire address, he mentioned the judiciary only once, and it was to encourage them to go along with him in his now enervated anti-corruption war.

It is pointless discussing the topic of justice with him, seeing that his administration has immersed itself in a plethora of unjust applications of the laws of the land while he himself has stood out conspicuously as the most resolute rampart against justice.

The reform so badly needed in the judiciary seems to have been foreclosed, while that third arm of government will continue to be treated as a tool to entrench power not to dispense justice, to harass and intimidate not to lighten burdens and promote liberty, and to advance the privilege of a few not to promote the interest of the many.

The Nation

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