PRESIDENT BUHARI AS A PUBLIC RELATIONS NIGHTMARE

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Fellow Nigerians, these are not the best of times for our dear President, Muhammadu Buhari. And it must be much worse for his media handlers. Let me state matter-of-factly, from the onset, that President Buhari gets into regular trouble, indeed, too frequently, because he has invested heavily in a media team but lacks a public relations team. In Nigeria, most leaders fail to realise that being a good journalist, Editor, Publisher, Broadcaster, and what have you, does not make you a good or excellent public relations guru. The other problem is I’m not sure the President is surrounded by those bold or brave enough to look him straight in the eye to tell him the honest truth. His earlier persona as a military ruler has also not helped matters in this respect. The fear of a military dictator is the beginning of wisdom, according to the view of an average Nigerian.

I must confess that I have been a latter-day convert and ardent fan of President Buhari. I signed up only after he decided to contest the 2015 elections for a record fourth time. I took the view that he was the best man for the job particularly because the Jonathan administration was fumbling and not prone to correction. I played my part in articulating the President’s attraction for me and those like me who felt that he was what Nigeria required at the time, a stop-gap in the mould of Mandela option. Without being immodest I can say that I successfully played my own part in the eventual victory of APC and the Buhari/Osinbajo ticket.

I first had a significant interaction with Buhari in 2011, when he asked Dr Lanre Tejuoso to bring me to his house in Abuja and we got on quite well. The camaraderie was palpable. And he disarmed me with his candour and passion. Prior to the 2015 election, I met Buhari in London at a flat in Mayfair, the day he spoke at Chatham House. He sprang to his feet as soon as I walked in and appeared happy to see me. We chatted briefly and took several pictures with Rotimi Amaechi, Hadi Sirika, Festus Keyamo, Hadiza Bala Usman and others. He was as effervescent and excited as everyone else at the prospect of becoming Nigeria’s new leader. His optimism for the country was infectious and I believed I had made a wise decision in deciding to follow and publicly support him.

I vividly recollect my meeting with President Buhari shortly after he assumed office in 2015. This was at his behest. I found him very relaxed and jocular. We again got on well. Contrary to the public misconception and rumours about his taciturnity, he was witty, chatty and freely spoke his mind. He certainly did not appear dictatorial or aloof. Many of those who saw our interaction on television, as well as the pictures in different media, could not believe how freely we had bonded. I was surprised when a few Ministers asked what I did to make him feel so comfortable with me. Even before I went in to see him, a few people had pleaded with me to help talk to him frankly. I started getting the feeling that they considered me a suicide bomber who should carry away the sins of the earth. But the Buhari I met was not as difficult as he was made out to be. Everyone says when you hold meetings with him, it is a monologue, you are forced to do the talking while he does the listening. And that you never know whether he has heard you or what is on his mind. That was not the Buhari I met. He was receptive and we exchanged ideas on the various issues of national and social interest that we talked about.

It is one of those inexplicable ironies that the same man who generated and galvanised so much love and passionate affection has lost and squandered most of that uncommon goodwill. No one since the June 12, 1993, election, which was clearly and undoubtedly won by Chief MKO Abiola, has had such monumental, widely acclaimed and fair victory as President Buhari did in 2015. The youths of Nigeria were so much in love with him that they studiously ignored all his shortcomings and embraced him warts and all. The same youths are so angry today that I’m almost certain it would take some magic and miracle to get them to reconnect with our President like they did in 2015. There was nothing anyone could have said negatively to Buhari that they would have believed at that time. As a matter of fact, the youths said if Buhari presented NEPA bills as his school certificate result, they would accept it as genuine and further, that they were ready to march for Buhari all the way to Aso Rock.

So what went wrong? It is difficult to point at just one thing. It has been an amalgamation of conflicting issues and signals. The first was the attitude exhibited early in the life of this government that there was no real urgency and Buhari could take forever to handpick his team. The government lost the much-needed steam at that moment. And when the team was announced, it was déjà vu, because there was no difference and no big deal about their composition. Next was the witting or unwitting decision to start a war of attrition within his own party. I warned against this very quickly, but was dismissed as raising false alarm. The APC became a house divided against itself. Till this day they couldn’t hold regular meetings, they couldn’t make most of the necessary political appointments, they couldn’t select their board of trustees, they couldn’t even hold a convention to celebrate their victory not to talk of one to elect a new national executive and so on.

The Party’s highfalutin campaign promises soon became its albatross. The grandiloquent manifesto had been packaged to entice everyone like babies to lollipop but when the day of reckoning and delivery came, the chocolate boxes were suddenly and strangely empty. The schools feeding programs could not be achieved. The social security and welfare packages of arranging stipends for the unemployed youths reached a cul-de-sac because government could not muster such resources. The President’s avowed fiscal policy target of parity between the Naira and the US Dollar – One Naira to one US Dollar proved to be a pipe dream that all discerning members of the public knew it would be. Indeed, it was much worse as the Naira slid to its lowest ever price against all currencies including African ones.

Buhari’s biggest attraction was the belief that he would easily wipe out, or at least significantly reduce, corruption in Nigeria. Those who believed the hype saw him as the only saint in Nigeria, but they forgot that sinners are probably the only ones capable of catapulting the saint to power. He tried his best in fighting the demons of Nigerian democracy, but they were much smarter than he ever bargained for. Pronto, the demons lined up in a long queue and migrated from PDP to APC where they are now comfortably ensconced and protected. Several corruption allegations and scandalous revelations involving members of the government or trusted aides and associates have either been ignored or swept under the carpet. Thus it has become difficult for the ruling party to stand on any moral ground and sermonise or pontificate about fighting corruption. For every finger pointed at others, four fingers pointed back at them. The sacred cows, otherwise known as the cabal, and other members of the Politburo have remained mysteriously and monstrously powerful and untouchable.

The most nauseating to many people has been the blame game. This has irritated so many people, including former Head of State and President, Olusegun Obasanjo, who exploded and told Buhari frontally to deliver on his promises instead of his regular lamentations. He effectively said everyone knew the former government did abominably badly and that is why it was sacked. The blame game seemed to have backfired as Nigerians are bored sick of hearing the same jejune tales over and over, instead of government telling us the good news of their own kingdom, and juxtaposing their own achievements against that of former President Goodluck Jonathan. The government should have known that hungry people hardly listen attentively to preaching and sooner than later would request for the way forward. Using the past as an excuse can only work up to a point. The people want action and not this litany of woes.

The other problem, and this is grave, is that the President hardly talks to Nigerians in Nigeria. And when he speaks, the words are so scanty and not much can be grabbed from them. Our President was critically ill and had to domicile himself abroad for several months cumulatively, yet no one knows what was wrong till this day. A public figure cannot afford to be too secretive in this manner. It only fuels curiosity and promotes ugly rumours. Significantly, the President who does not speak at home picks the wrong places and occasions to talk abroad and attracts controversies and public ridicule to himself and his country. The headlines have always been for the wrong reasons rather than the right mileage for the country and himself from the international media exposure and interest. On those trips, we’ve expanded the lexicon with such phrases as “the other room”; or as the latest gaffe goes “young people who want to sit and want to be paid free money and free health…”

I have been inundated by calls since President Buhari made his latest remarks in London in answer to a question at the end of his keynote address at the Commonwealth Business Forum. To say most of the comments have been quite bad is an understatement. To properly understand I listened to the video and transcribed it myself, although I also had access to my dear brother, the Special Adviser Media to the President, Femi Adesina’s transcription. Below is my humble effort:

“We have ah, a very young population. Our population is estimated conservatively to be ah, a hundred and eighty million. Ah, this is a conservative one. More than 60 per cent of the population is below the age of (sic) thirty. Ah, a lot of them haven’t been to school. They are claiming ah, ah, you know, that Nigeria has been an oil producing country, therefore ah, they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare, ah, education free.”

The furore and fury the latest controversy has generated on social media is almost unprecedented. It is like touching the tiger by the tail. A seemingly harmless statement credited to President Buhari has ignited a huge conflagration everywhere. I felt bad for Femi Adesina as he struggled to defend, explain and transliterate what the President said or meant to say to an unwilling and unyielding audience. It has become a very heavy cross he must carry every time his boss speaks these days and it cannot be easy. It is true the President did not use the word lazy or say that all Nigerian youths sit at home and do nothing. It is also not true that he used the word half-educated. However, what he said about the youths suggests something worse, although that is clearly not what was meant. “a lot of them did not go to school”, translates to a lot of them are uneducated which is even worse than half-educated. One may pardon the President because empirically this is true of the educationally disadvantaged States with which he is very familiar, but it is blatantly false about the south where education is much advanced. Similarly, to say somebody sits down and does nothing and wants to claim freebies is to say that person is irresponsible. In my view, this is much worse than laziness. Factor in the fact that free health, free education and affordable housing for all, were the campaign slogans of the APC and no one begged for it. So you can see a public relations disaster right before your very eyes.

President Buhari indeed has become a public relations nightmare. He is seriously in need of experts and coaches in public speaking and etiquette, especially now that he has decided to challenge fate by aspiring for a second term in office. If the plan is to throw in combatants, trolls and internet warriors to bully his opponents into submission, it would not fly. He needs all the gentility in the world to cajole, coax and convince Nigerians that he means well; that he knows what he is doing; that he is tackling the difficult challenges; that he is not a religious bigot or ethnic supremacist or jingoist; that he would reduce the menace of, if not wipe out, Boko Haram; that he would destroy the rampaging invaders called herdsmen wherever they are coming from; that he would revamp and improve the economy; that he would create opportunities for all Nigerians including jobs for our restive youths; and above all that he will keep all the brightest people closer to him …

I pray it is not too late…