ARISE Television anchor and ThisDay newspaper columnist, Reuben Abati, should have let a sleeping dog lie when, in his column last week, he needlessly sought to defend the interview President Muhammadu Buhari gave the news channel two Thursdays ago. The interview produced relevant questions, contrary to what some analysts think, but there were no follow-ups, perhaps as a precondition; and it was also more notable for answers that betray the president’s suspect depth, ethnic bias, promotion of old prejudices, and insensitivity to Nigeria’s existential crisis. In his piece last Tuesday, Dr Abati implausibly defended the interviewers’ questioning style, but was probably too awed by the success of getting a reticent and reclusive president to speak than pay scrupulous attention to how the questions were answered. Whether Dr Abati likes it or not, though the questions were relevant and even bright, their refusal to ask follow-up questions betray either a prior agreement not to ruffle the president’s feathers or the interviewers decided from the beginning to empathise with him on account of his well-known trait to go off on a tangent.
Notwithstanding the questionable professionalism of how the interview was conducted, what hit every Nigerian in the face when the president was modestly grilled was his demonstrable lack of capacity as president of a multiethnic and multi-faith society. Dr Abati tried to dispel the popular notion that the president was afflicted by some kind of psychological problem, perhaps dementia, or other debilitating illnesses that continuously sap his mental strength. The president was in control throughout the interview, understood the questions asked him, and gave forthright answers to the best of his ability, Dr Abati pontificated. No one doubts the president was in control, or that he gave the best answers he could, or that he had lost his sense of humour, as dry as it has been for years. What those who watched the interview say is that the president lacked ratiocinative vigour, repeatedly went off on a tangent, could not and has not overcome the biases and parochialism of his youth, and was filled with unadulterated, even cynical, rage and hatred. Dr Abati had no answer to these observations, except to strangely imbue the president’s answers with tact and poignancy.
But what is more alarming about the interview, the president’s six years anniversary, and his leadership style and achievements is the careless manner analysts suggest that his comparative record in office should propel Nigerians to give him the benefit of the doubt. Whatever achievements he has recorded are, however, counterbalanced by the deliberate manner he has undermined his own government and divided the country to such a level that it would be a miracle to heal the wound after his term ends. After all, ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan also achieved many things at a considerably lower level of debt stock. President Buhari’s record has been undergirded mainly by debts, allowing him to claim triumphs and reliefs today at the expense of driving future generations into debt peonage.
Much worse, by enthroning the worst forms of cruelty in the suppression of dissent as the Shiites experienced in Zaria, Kaduna State, in December 2015, and as the Southeast is experiencing today on account of the folly of alienated and dreamy youths in the region, the seed of future bitter divisions are being sown. Then add the administration’s obstinate and unconstitutional attempt to ‘reclaim’ grazing routes that were never lawful in most parts of the country in the first instance, sponsor a shortsighted attempt to amend the Nigerian Press Council Act, foster an administrative environment to empower the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to control and censure online media organizations with draconian regulations, and emplace a ban on Twitter, and Nigerians are left with the distinct feeling of being ruled by an administration ossified in the past, uninterested in the future, and unwilling to learn anything either from its own past or the tragic history of fascist regimes.
Despite the many flowery and tendentious essays of presidential spokesmen, there are not many Nigerians who think the legacy of the Buhari administration will be assured or protected. Instead of hurtling forward into the 21st century and beyond, the country is sliding backward into the 18th century. Garba Shehu peddles a lot of mendacity in his essays and interviews, juxtaposing his indefensible assertions with Femi Adesina’s heresies, and widening the interstices for Information minister Lai Mohammed to cavort with disconnected and injurious and autocratic media regulations – all this in an atmosphere where the country’s laws are perverted and hideously carved by Attorney General Abubakar Malami to enslave the country and justify repression.
Nigerians repose confidence in the ongoing constitutional review to meet their modest demand. But in the face of bitter resentment against the administration’s hegemonic tendencies, whether executed through herdsmen or biased security agencies, what the country needs is a new constitution that will rearrange how the country is cobbled together and governed. For Nigeria to survive, enjoy peace and achieve progress, centrally allocating resources must be taken off the table, and new ways of leadership recruitment must be instituted. From the histories of China since 1978, France since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, Britain which has produced a slew of great prime ministers and has run a stable parliamentary democracy, Singapore under Lee kuan Yew, and Malaysia under Mahathir Mohamad, attention must be paid to how the country should produce its leaders. Nigeria has no durable or intelligent system of producing leaders. Misfits have become the order of the day.
Had Nigeria been a parliamentary government, no party would thrust a hypothetical Prime Minister Buhari forward. He will not be able to withstand the intellectual rigour, farsightedness, wit and ripostes that pervade parliamentary debate and are indispensable to a successful political career, nor tolerate the inclusiveness and intrusiveness which political parties presuppose in the battle for party leadership and national offices. It would be impossible for any ethnic champion to aspire to leadership, let alone win office either at the party or national level. Decades of untenable, exploitative and centralized revenue allocation system have dulled the senses of Nigeria’s national elite in producing great leaders, formulating efficient policies – not fanciful policies recklessly driven by cheap oil money – and building enduring political and economic structures.
Dr Abati sat in the interview; it is mystifying that he misjudged both the quality of the interviewers’ interventions and the discomfiting tone and import of the president’s responses. The president also probably revels in the shock he gave Nigerians who had wrongly speculated about his physical condition; but he should be more worried that everyone now clearly sees him for what he really is, what he represents, and the futility of trying to affect his mood and policies. His audience was pleasantly surprised to note that, contrary to popular belief, he could call his soul his own and even embody his policies. But they must chafe at what he owns, how altogether unsuitable for national growth and stability they are. If those who interviewed him missed those nuances, how could his ordinary supporter be trusted to put the interview in perspective, especially seeing how Ali Ndume, the senator representing Borno South, could not resist gushing over the president’s six-hour trek around Maiduguri last week?