President Emmanuel Macron of France was in Nigeria recently. One of the things his trip achieved was bringing out his host, President Muhammadu Buhari, to speak to Nigerians at a press conference.
It is ironical that Nigerians needed the French leader to prise their President out of his hiding place, but the reality is also that our current batch of leaders think any accountability to the people is beneath them. The Muhammadu Buhari Administration is particularly guilty in this respect and history will record him as one of the most reclusive and arrogant leaders that ever afflicted the country.
Ideally, in democracies, the President is expected to regularly speak to the media, grant them interviews, address press briefings and even hold town hall meetings. The leader is supposed to be accessible and relate to the people on issues of public policies as it affects them. No responsible leader hides in the presidential palace indefinitely, leaving his clueless proxies to speak his mind.
Up till the recent past, our leaders still managed to hold regular presidential media chats where they directly addressed issues as they arose in the polity. From Olusegun Obasanjo who punctuated those dialogues with his trademark habit of throat clearing to Umaru Yar’Adua, even Goodluck Jonathan who said the most outrageous things, they still deigned us worthy of occasional interactions.
The media chats were not the best examples of leadership accountability by the way. Their village square format often gave the President the chance to make some upsetting remarks without being appropriately grilled over them by the questioners, but it gave us an opportunity to hear their thoughts on important issues, at least. Presidents took impromptu questions and communicated without his gatekeepers polishing his ideas.
Buhari appeared on the media chat just once, performed poorly and he has never been able to summon the courage to sit down with local journalists since then. His appearance on that programme was a disaster in every respect and the blowback he received must have been so much for his ego that he has fled from that circuit ever since. Now that the general elections are looming, he will probably re-open that channel once again and once they are over, he will pull back on his veil. For a man who was once a soldier and loves to claim that Nigeria remains an indivisible entity because he fought a war to keep the country together, he can be somewhat cowardly when it comes to meeting Nigerians.
The few times Buhari has addressed Nigerians, it has been a one-way communication: he speaks to us remotely through the silver screen where there is no room for feedback. He relates to Nigerians the same way military leaders talked to us pre-1999 – by reading prepared speeches on TV. Those speeches were almost always wooden, lacking any passion and the soldiers’ demeanour as they read the speech was as starchy as their uniforms. Up till now, Buhari – or any of his civilian predecessors – has yet to outgrow that disconnective method of relating to the citizenry.
If Buhari has been reticent dealing with Nigerians, he has instead been garrulous when talking to foreign journalists. He has given exclusive interviews to foreign journalists, published an op-ed in the Washington Post and some of the most outrageous things he has said about Nigeria and Nigerians were uttered on foreign soil while he was speaking to the western media. I recall that his aide, Femi Adesina, once defended him, saying that since the world was a global village, it did not matter where he spoke or to whom he spoke as long as the message was relayed to those who were concerned. That kind of cosmopolitanism would have been meaningful if Nigeria were that much significant in the aggregate of the affairs of the world.
What we have is a narcissist President who sees engagement with the western media as an opportunity to preen before the world. The people who elected him to the office and to whom he owes accountability do not come up high on his priority scale. If Macron had not been in Nigeria, Buhari would probably never appear before journalists. However, a white man was visiting and our reclusive president thought it would do him a world of good if he stood beside a European counterpart. His plan for self-admiration was busted when, at the briefing, a Nigerian journalist asked Macron what his intentions were to curb terrorism in Africa and to resolve the herdsmen crisis. First, the question was awkward and by now, Macron is likely exasperated or bored with entitled Africans who cannot stop asking him what he will do to save their country from themselves.
Macron was also in Burkina Faso in December where he addressed a student audience with the President, Roch Kabore. At the event, they asked him similar questions about the provision of electricity, education reforms and other responsibilities they should have put to their President who was standing right in front of them. Yes, we have become so used to a democracy where the leadership mode of conduct is to sequester itself from the people. When we finally meet our leaders, we are too disconnected to press them on their responsibility. One cannot entirely blame the people for asking the President of France to take over their own President’s job when our leaders add lack of accessibility to their ineptitude.
Buhari’s body language when the journalist asked that question showed he was embarrassed that his moment of shining before the European press had been soiled by the reminder that his country was suffering. If I know Buhari well enough, I can bet he came out for the press briefing hoping that Macron would burnish his narcissism by praising him for being the most honest and incorruptible man in the world. He would have regaled in the glory of the moment and returned into purdah in Aso Rock. He had no wish to address the nation or even take hard questions from anyone. The man despises Nigerians and he must think their concerns and angst over the many issues hazarding the country at present have nothing to do with him. He forgets that democracy is not merely about periodic elections and political rallies; it is an attitude, orientation, a series of daily performance that culminate in a system of practice. If you do not practice regularly meeting the people of your country periodically and giving an account of your stewardship, what you run is a farce and not a democracy.
Still speaking of accountability and responsibility, I find it extremely curious that the Minister of Finance, Ms. Kemi Adeosun, has (up to the moment of writing this) not responded to the allegations that she forged an exemption certificate of the National Youth Service Corps programme. Forgery is a crime under the Nigerian law and an issue like this one is not something you should ignore and hope it fizzles out. There is only one thing that can be true in this dishonourable accusation: whether she genuinely forged a certificate or not. She is the only one who can clarify the issue for all of us. I find her silence disconcerting. What could she be waiting for to respond? Does this woman think she can ride this wave out and continue her job as if this scandal never happened? Is this not the government that is supposed to be fighting corruption? Why are they silent on such a grievous accusation? Do they know the implications of a certificate forger heading one of the most critical government agencies? Why not sort this out quickly and partially restore our faith in our institutions? If this is true and Buhari condones it, how will he ever look us in the eyes and tell us he is an honest man and that he fights corruption?