Looking Beyond Headlines


President Muhammadu Buhari will better appreciate the state of the nation by looking beyond the headlines, writes Magnus Onyibe

As President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC mark one year in office, the media have been full of screaming headlines in praise or denunciation of the leadership style and its positive or negative impact on the lives of Nigerians. To achieve a more holistic assessment of the new Aso Rock occupant and the new ruling party, we have to look beyond the headlines by focusing more on the trend of events since power changed hands in the presidential seat of power on May 29, 2015.

To borrow the phrase made popular by Mario Cuomo, the former charismatic governor of the state of New York, USA, President Buhari and APC campaigned in poetry and are now governing in prose. Let me explain. Literarily speaking, presidential adviser, Femi Adesina’s piece in the vanguard newspaper of Saturday, May 28, 2016 titled “Beyond the Iron and Steel” where he regaled readers with the humane side of his boss, is one of the many headlines extolling the political and social virtues of the ‘new Sherrif’ in Aso Rock villa.

In all honesty, Adesina’s headline article was rendered in very fine prose, which underlines the title of this article and justifies Mario Cuomo’s popular political mantra ‘campaign in poetry and govern in prose’. The kernel of Mr. Cuomo’s famous quote is that when politicians are on the campaign trail, they are long on promises, but when they take office, they resort to speaking in prose, when they can’t deliver on their promise, as we are currently witnessing.

The truth is that no matter the superlative and fabulous adjectives presidential husbandmen deploy in airbrushing President Buhari, he remains a stern man, who is on a mission to change Nigeria, but too much in a hurry to catch economic thieves, than to fix the broken economy. So, my worry is that he has been a tad inflexible in policy formulation and a bit strenuous in his approach to bringing about the change which he promised.

Although these shortcomings could be excused as vision-related challenges and are therefore amenable to modification in future, after all, he is only one year in office of four years tenure. But President Buhari and his government would only be compelled to conform to democratic tenets, when men and women of goodwill call a spade a spade by continuously reminding him of his failure to meet the expectations of the masses that constitute his core support base.

That’s my raison d’ete for this intervention as a public intellectual as opposed to personal animosity against the president and his team, as some are alleging in some quarters. The truth is that, a dispassionate assessment of Buhari’s first year in office would reveal that there has been tremendous adversity in Nigeria and as the saying goes, not even all the spices in India, can wash that away or cover the odium.

Vox populi, vox dei is Latin phrase for the voice of the people is the voice of God. If you conduct a random vox pop on the streets of Kano, Lagos or Port Harcourt today, you would easily discern that the approval rating of President Buhari by Nigerians is at its lowest ebb. As Mr. Adesina pointed out in his piece, Mr. President just laughs at and dismisses public advice, which he deems ridiculous and as some of President Buhari’s critics allege, he scoffs at admonition, which he considers enemy barb and sets government’s numerous ‘law’ enforcement agencies after the culprits and that should be of concern to Nigerians.

If in indeed he does the later, it is a blithe on governance that a despotic government should not be proud to have as legacy. For the sake of posterity, we must all seek to remedy any vice observed in government high command by offering constructive advice or intervening particularly in human rights, than in socio-political and economic matters, so as to attain a more progressive and not repressive society.

That’s the avowed duty of the media as the fourth realm of the estate which should not be abdicated.
Publishing screaming headlines of accolades and encomiums on the president is in my view, putting President Buhari in a bubble, and my understanding of his personality from a distance is that the president prefers being told the truth including all the warts that may be contained.

In that regard, four critical areas in which President Buhari has performed below par in the past one year of being in the saddle are scrutinized below with probable solutions proffered.

Currently, the experience with the continuous detention of Sambo Dasuki, former National security adviser to former President Goodluck Jonathan, for misappropriating defence funds and Nnamdi Kanu, director of unlicensed Radio Biafra, for agitating for the sovereign state of Biafra as well as El-Zazakky, leader of an extremist Muslim Shiite group, for constituting threat to public security, against several court orders granting them bail, erodes President Buhari’s democracy credentials and reinforces his negative reputation as an autocrat, which he earned during his 20 months rule between 1984 and 1985.

For the sake of posterity and to safe guard the sanctity of our constitution and democracy, we must all frown at selective application or neglect of the rule of law at the president’s behest and in consonance with his whims and caprices. How could government have morally justified going against the Nigeria Labour Union (NLC) if she had discountenanced court order not to embark on strike action, when same government is known to have ignored court order to release Kanu, Dasuki and El-Zarzarky on bail.

It is settled law that it is only the National Assembly in conjunction with the presidency that can suspend the constitution by declaring a state of emergency in a state that is suffering from uncontrollable violence leading to breakdown of law and order. Ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo once took that extreme but not without the approval of National Assembly – Ekiti, Plateau and Anambra States.

A situation where the president on his own suspends the constitution with respect to the rights of individuals that he deems guilty rather than relying on court judgment is an anathema and a throwback to the days of military despotism, which should not be condoned by Christians, Muslims, civil society organisations or international comity of nations.

Given the judicial atrocities being committed by existing special judicial bodies like the EFCC, ICPC and CCB, I loathe to think of what a monster the proposed special courts dedicated to adjudicating on corruption matters for speedy dispensation of the burgeoning number of cases would be.

The truth is that the number of cases awaiting trial is rising simply because the anti-graft agencies don’t conduct proper investigations before they arrest suspects and haul them into the public arena for mob justice that would earn them cheap accolades. That’s why the jail houses are full. Statistics recently reeled out by Femi Falana, human rights advocate, indicates that of 160 arrests by EFCC, less than a handful have been convicted.

Appallingly, while 62,000 people are cramped in our jail houses, only 12,000 are convicts and a whooping balance of 40,000 are awaiting trial. I doubt if the president is aware of such injustice to fellow humans because having been a victim of abridged freedom, he was once placed under house arrest, I doubt that President Buhari would condone such inhumanity. For the reasons above, I would recommend that the National Assembly does not approve the establishment of the special courts as desired by the executive arm of government so that anti-crime agencies would look very well before they leap.

What the anti-graft agencies are currently doing is akin to President Buhari’s joke about the German Sentry, which Femi Adesina narrated in his article as being one of the president’s favorite rib crackers. For those, who have not read the article, it is a joke about the German Sentry guard who releases a volley of shots at an intruder in the dark, before asking “who goes there” as opposed to the proper rule of first asking, before shooting if response is unsatisfactory.

The peace team headed by former head of state, Abdulsalam Abubakar, Sultan of Sokoto, Saad Abubakar, and Bishop Mathew Kukah amongst others representing various faiths and ethnic groups, should not relent in their advocacy for peace and respect for the rule of law by engaging further with President Buhari on the abysmal human records under his watch. This government has also not fared well in the sphere of economic development.

In fact, there is an embarrassing void in policy formulation in governance under President Buhari’s watch. The existing atmosphere of uncertainty, which hampers innovation and production, also stymies growth and development which is the condition Nigerians are now grappling with.

A situation whereby the president rejected the advice of experts – ministers, economists, development strategists and sociologists – in his transition committee, who recommended removal of fuel subsidy but was only convinced nearly one year after to remove the obnoxious subsidy based on survey by the directorate of state security service, DSS is frightening.

Removing fuel subsidy was an economic case, not a security matter. If the president’s mandate to DSS was to gauge the mood of Nigerians to determine if fuel subsidy removal would lead to riots, that was okay but if otherwise, then Nigerians are in deeper trouble than they ever imagined.

The situation reminds me of the police maxim: “If you don’t trust the police, call a thug”. Apparently, the president did not trust the judgment of the economists and ministers that he appointed into his transition team and later cabinet, so he invited DSS operatives to help him determine if fuel subsidy was good for Nigeria or otherwise. Such attitude and approach to governance have dangerous implications which need no further elucidation.

A powerful panel of accomplished economists, similar to the eminent political, religious and traditional leaders’ team, headed by Abdulsalam Abubakar that went on a peace mission to Aso Rock should be formed with a view to weighing in on President Buhari with respect to economic policies’ formulation.

The three former central bank of Nigeria governors, who recently recommended naira devaluation, foremost economists like Akintola Williams, Micheal Ani, Pascal Dozie amongst other seasoned and eminent business leaders across the spectrum, should take the initiative.

By the same token, international relations had been a bit tardy.
Depicting Nigeria and Nigerians as very fraudulent to the potential investors in the numerous international for a, where our dear president has been wooing entrepreneurs for investments in Nigeria, is to say the least, tacky. The president should borrow a leaf from Australia.

Following a recent racism related schism in Australia, the prime minister is reported to have said “Racism in Australia is work in progress”. While not admitting or denying the social vice, which is obvious and applies to other climes, perhaps to lesser degrees, he dexterously handled the matter and deflected the negative labeling of his country and compatriots by spinning it in positive light. That is vintage diplomacy.

Our president can’t be holier than the Pope or the mullah by insisting on saying it as it is all the time. Being quoted in a book written in the course of the recent anti-corruption conference in London and admitting on CNN programme hosted by Christiane Amanpour, that Nigerians are fantastically corrupt are diplomacy heresy of some sort.
Happily, the president later repaired and reversed most of the damage during the anti-corruption summit in London, perhaps thanks to the Sudanese telecoms billionaire, Mo Ibrahim of Mo lbrahim foundation, who was by his side, when President Buhari later told the media that he would not demand an apology from British Prime Minister, David Cameron for the offensive reference to Nigeria as a fantastically corrupt country, but instead demanded repatriation of our stolen wealth, including artifacts.

Already, some of the wealth is on their way back home from the USA that has just promised return of $300m and France that recently returned a Nok culture artifact. Although the sing-song of Nigerians being massively corrupt and this negatively labeling both good and bad Nigerians has now abated, to strengthen the president’s prowess in diplomacy, a powerful interventionist group to be led by former Commonwealth Secretary General, Emeka Anyaoku, with Maitama Sule, Bolaji Akinyemi and Olisemeka on the team, would be in order.

The fourth area of challenge is the handling or mishandling of matters concerning the oil rich but highly volatile Niger Delta zone.
As somebody described President Buhari’s new policy of unleashing the military on the recalcitrant militants posing threat to critical national assets, it is like using a crusher to smash a wasp perched on human scrotum. The collateral damage is better imagined.

Not a few Nigerians are suggesting that President Buhari borrows a leaf from the late President Musa Yar’Adua’s rule book on managing the Niger Delta affairs that sustained peace since 2007 through the amnesty initiative he granted until the recent resurgence of vandalism. It is better than borrowing from the late general Sanni Abacha and former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s doctrine of using deadly force that led to the massive destruction of oil/gas infrastructure with grave consequences on Nigeria’s foreign exchange revenue.

Niger Delta leaders such as Pa E K Clark, who has already weighed in via a recent press conference denouncing the renewed act of vandalism, should team up with other eminent leaders of thought and traditional rulers of oil/gas host communities, with a view to approaching the president to encourage him to address genuine grievances while they prevail on the militants to sheath their swords.

As a retired army general, President Buhari like General Abacha and Obasanjo before him, intuitively responds to the stimuli of military force which is their professional calling, but in political settings, horse-trading is the tool for conflict resolution not deadly force which is reserved for external enemies. Inherently, democracy which is unlike military autocracy, whereby disagreements are viewed as mutiny, thrives in agitation, but conflicts of interests are also wired to be resolved through negotiations.

Remarkably, President Buhari informed his audience at Chatham House London, February last year that he was switching from being a military autocrat to a re-born democrat. Naturally, it is not a mean or easy task to undergo such transformation from a dictator to a democrat without hitches, so the change could be fraught with withdrawal syndrome, like spasms which are symptoms exhibited by addicts such as smokers and drug abusers while transforming from a negative attitude to a fairer one.

Symbolically, President Buhari’s identified areas of shortcomings or issues on which he is punching lower than expected in democracy and leadership ethos, are the four sore points earlier highlighted with suggested remedial measures.

In the final analysis, apart from the virtue of integrity, it has been revealed that President Buhari is also a kind man, which in my view is one of the most undervalued virtues in leadership.
In the light of the foregoing, President Buhari’s milk of human kindness should be tapped into especially with respect to mercy for Nnamdi Kanu and Sambo Dasuki, El Zarzakky, Femi Fani-Kayode etc, whose freedom have been abridged as they remain in incarceration despite court ruling in favour of their release on bail.
The president should also base his policies more on economic and social opinions of seasoned experts than relying on mere instincts, intuitions or secret service reports because some tasks are better delivered by those who are honed in the trade.

-Onyibe, a development strategist and former commissioner in Delta State is an alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford Massachusetts, USA.

A situation where the president on his own suspends the constitution with respect to the rights of individuals that he deems guilty rather than relying on court judgment is an anathema and a throwback to the days of military despotism, which should not be condoned by Christians, Muslims, civil society organisations or international comity of nations