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Channels TV interview (sorry, torture) of President Buhari

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The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), is approaching the end of his second term in office. The taciturn president is known for communicating with the public through his “body language” and also through his press officers, otherwise known as the “spin doctors.” In the event of an urgent public policy issue, there is usually the crisp ‘statement’ from the presidency, clarifying and drawing the line on things. Nigerians often view (in envy) foreign leaders on television and online news being grilled by journalists on topical issues in their domain and wonder why that is not happening with their own leader at home. Surely, Buhari, with a firm background as a ‘law and order’ former Nigerian military strongman (1983–1985), who later fought so hard (running in four elections) before finally becoming President in 2015, would have a lot to say about the country’s state of affairs on a regular basis once in office. Alas, no. He has been reclusive and kept his own counsel on most things. A parliamentary system would not tolerate that from an elected leader, even for one week. Parliament and the executive operate in tandem, daily, and on camera, almost around the clock. In addition, there is little or no ministerial accountability under the presidential system either. Ministers in the Buhari regime have also taken their cue from the boss; they work behind the scenes and say very little.

This column has pointed out these lacunae on a couple of occasions in the last three months alone. Remember, “Why Channels TV is in government’s crosshair,” PUNCH September 7 2021? It was stated, “Let the President lead by example, by making himself available for a live interview once a month. That way, no ambiguities about any aspect of government policy would linger for too long”. A couple of weeks later, the column took the Minister of Finance, Budget and Planning to task, thus,  “Zainab Ahmed: Nigeria’s featherweight finance minister,” PUNCH September 21, 2021. It was a critique of the minister’s reluctance to submit herself to scrutiny on TV. To her credit, she did exactly that the following week and spoke eloquently as well. She showed the viewers what they had been missing all this while. One was left wondering why the palpably adroit minister has not made a point of defending government policy in media interrogations more often. On his part, President Buhari finally submitted himself for an interview on Channels TV last week, January 5, 2022. As it happens, the interview was granted on conditions usually associated with reclusive leaders in authoritarian regimes: no live interrogation, questions submitted in advance, and the whole engagement contained within forty minutes or less. The heavies — the state security personnel — were seen milling around the TV set inside Aso Rock, watching and keeping a close eye on things.

Despite the restrictions and constrictions designed to protect the President from being found out, the interview was a disaster from start to finish, at least from the point of view of public relations. It was like watching a train wreck.  The President looked like a rabbit caught in headlights throughout. The anchors, Seun Okinbaloye and Maope Ogun-Yusuf, are usually mild-mannered and courteous interviewers, to a fault at times. Their reputations were also on the line. Be too soft on the President and risk being viewed as lackeys, or adopt the aggressive, “hard talk” style and incur the wrath of the president’s handlers. It was such a tightrope. It was a situation of being damned if you do and damned if you do not. In the end, it was not made clear whether Channels TV retained full editorial control over the content of the broadcast. It would be scandalous if the pre-recorded interview was vetted by the presidency prior to broadcast. Channels should clear the air on that. Submitting the questions in advance is already bad enough.

Anyway, one would imagine that the President would have been sufficiently coached on what to say on TV, having had the exam questions leaked to him. It was, therefore, rather unfortunate to see him still looking befuddled by the mundane, some would say, anodyne line of questioning from the anchors. The advance briefing by his newly appointed Head of the Economic Council, Dr Doyin Salami, appeared to have left an imprint on his mind. It is that only 2.5% of Nigeria’s arable land has been cultivated thus far. So when the President was taken to task on the debt stock rising to 32 trillion from the 12 trillion he inherited, inflation rising to 15% from the 9% he inherited, unemployment rising to 32.2% from the 8.9% he inherited and the exchange rate rising to $400 to the naira from the $197 he inherited, he was completely flummoxed. He quickly gathered his thoughts; “we have to go back to the land…”, “only 2.5% arable land cultivated,” he emphasised as if he had found the magic wand for the country’s economic recovery. On the farmer-herdsmen conflict, it is a matter of “culture,” he said. “Farmers and herders have been co-existing for a long time in Nigeria.” Pity he was not taken to task on his wildly premature claim of having “technically defeated” Boko Haram back in December 2015.

On state police, Buhari said: “I don’t support state police. Role of traditional rulers must not be undermined.” What? As if calculated to rescue him from drowning, the beleaguered President was thrown a lifeline: “What kind of economy do you want to bequeath to Nigerians?” He came back alive, suddenly remembered his talking points: “Free economy, stop the smuggling, stop developed countries dumping goods on our country, make sure we encourage our own industries.” The anchors then lobbed an additional softball at him: “What comes to your mind when you hear PDP? INEC? Young people? 2023 election?” Etc. The President caught the lighter mood, chuckled, and rambled along to the end. What does this all mean, you might ask? That the President has no vast knowledge of issues? And that he is not an eloquent speaker? Capital YES to those questions but what does that matter? Well, it depends. US President, Ronald Reagan (1980-1989), was a Hollywood actor, who developed an age-related degenerative disease leading to lapses in his memory. That did not stop him from becoming a great American president, still fondly remembered to this day. Even the current US President, Joe Biden, is not a man known for being particularly bright as he tends to be verbose and clumsy with his choice of words on important occasions. And, at 79, the same age as Buhari, his mental state is likely to deteriorate further in the course of his presidency.

In all, Presidents do not need to be geniuses to be successful; a good and successful leader is propelled by a clear vision and strong moral fibre. Above all, a successful President needs an effective bureaucracy behind him. The “federal character” contortion used in employment and promotion in the federal civil service in Nigeria undermines merit and competence. Unlike in the West, therefore, a Nigerian President has no guarantee of an effective, politically-neutral civil service to lean on. And, if, on top of that, you then have a deficient person in the number one office, you have a recipe for bad governance. Buhari’s intellectual ability was known to the APC’s hierarchy that connived to put him up as their presidential candidate in 2015 and 2019. The electorate that twice voted for him en masse did not give a hoot about the depth of his knowledge of current affairs either. Nigeria of today accords no value to knowledgeable leaders in politics. Nigeria of tomorrow would embrace knowledgeable leaders in politics only if the people insist on it. Let Buhari be!

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