By 17 December this year, President Muhammadu Buhari would be 81 years old. He would have completed his second and final term as Nigeria’s president eight months before then. I often wonder about what it must mean to be president of a country like Nigeria in the flesh and blood. I wonder about what the job entails and how does anyone go about doing it and succeeding at it. And I wonder whether President Buhari still wonders about how he used to wonder aloud about the job of being president.
As a public figure, the president’s 80 odd years can be divided into three parts. The first part stretches from his youth to the end of his short stint as a military Head of State of Nigeria and his forced retirement, detention and eventual release. This was the period in the president’s life when he carved a reputation for himself as a no-nonsense officer who took his job seriously, sometimes, over-seriously, a patriotic civil war hero and a puritan socialist who took power from a civilian government because he wanted to redress Nigeria’s corrupt ways and believed he could do it.
The second phase of the president’s life and career is the 30-year period from 1985-2015. This is the age of restlessness, when all the president ever wanted was a return to power in Nigeria. It was the phase during which Buhari stood outside but consistently looked in at the door of power. It was the period of mission in which in reels and reels of interviews and news statements, the president laid out an idea of what government and Nigeria would look like under his leadership, should he be given a free mandate by Nigerians, as opposed to his first stint which required having to usurp Nigeria’s constitutional order at the time.
I frequently wonder if President Buhari himself remembers some of the things he said during these 30 years of standing outside the corridors of power but unable to resist looking in. I wonder if the president remembers the attractive picture of Nigeria that he painted to Nigerians at the time. And I wonder precisely what happened or changed between the Buhari Nigerians know up to 2015, and the one we now have as president in the third phase of his life and career. Anyone who listened to Buhari and what he said he represented, indeed demonstrated, would scarcely believe the two are the same persons. And I wonder a lot what actually changed.
Who or what changed? Was it the man that changed or the circumstances of power that changed? Or was it that nothing changed because the real Buhari was always the one we now have?
As public figure, Buhari Part Three (2015 to date) is characterised by three main defects that no one would think Buhari Part Two (1985-2015) possessed. The first is President Buhari’s abject lack of sensitivity to the suffering of Nigerians at any time and in any circumstance, even where the suffering is caused directly by the actions or inactions of his own government.
The first signs of this insensitivity were on display when, still as president-elect, Buhari initially refused to even meet with Suleiman Hashimu, the man who trekked all the way from Lagos to Abuja to celebrate Buhari’s victory at the polls in 2015, until he was cajoled to do so. Yet another sign was refusing, to date, to visit the family of an old woman who gave away the entirety of her life savings so that Buhari could have a chance at the presidency.
I often wonder if or how the president remembers any of these things today because the extent of insensitivity to the plight of Nigerians displayed by his government is simply unprecedented.
No matter how many Nigerians are killed and however gruesome the manner of their death at the hands of bandits, terrorists and other deadly criminals now roaming freely across Nigeria, the president is always reluctant to show that he cares. No presidential visits to the families of those affected or the scenes of the events. No televised address to the nation in their hour of pain. If anything, the president continues his life as normal, as if nothing happened, like attending or even thinking of attending the Nigeria-Ghana match on Tuesday last week, after the Abuja-Kaduna train attack by gunmen on Monday night.
It would have been a massive public relations disaster for President Buhari to have attended the match the next day when the whole country was still in mourning; a disaster only worse than attending the launch of a book in Lagos as ordinary Nigerians burned alive in Sokoto.
However, the excuse that the president called off attendance because intelligence indicated criminal plots to bomb the stadium is equally bad PR because it implied that the government was happy to expose other Nigerians to bombing attacks so long as the president himself was not involved. What can be more insensitive than that? If intelligence showed deadly plots against the stadium, then a more sensitive and responsible course of action by the government would have been to call off the match entirely, or at best relocate it elsewhere. The excuse is itself evidence of criminal negligence no one would expect from Buhari Two.
Second, President Buhari and his government have grown completely intolerant of criticism, however constructive or well-intentioned. Buhari Three has forgotten that Buhari Two was the person most critical of government in Nigeria for nearly 30 years. In fact, it was criticism of previous governments and their leaders that transformed Buhari Two into Buhari Three. As an outsider looking in, the president’s criticisms of the Obasanjo government were acerbic. He was equally relentless in his criticisms of Obasanjo’s successors, the late Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. But today, a chief Imam of a mosque has been disrobed and suspended from his role for daring to offer advice to the president, advice that is in fact supported by truth.
Then there is Buhari Two’s simplicity and spartan ways of life which many millions of Nigerians believed he would take with him to Aso Rock and change the way business is done there. But seven years on, it is Aso Rock which has changed Buhari. The president has not given up any perquisite of office. Not the fleet of aircraft, not the hundreds of billions in annual budgets for the comfort of the president and his family alone, and certainly not the billions spent on foreign medical travels. But when previous leaders used to enjoy these same things, only less, Buhari Two thought it was criminal insensitivity to the rest of the country.
I do not know how the president’s government would end—and I certainly wish for him to end well—but it is impossible to forget the ever-widening gap between Buhari the candidate and Buhari the president. Perhaps someday, when all of this is over, the president himself might have time and reason to reflect back on the time he stood outside looking in at the corridors of power, and the time he was actually on the saddle. Perhaps he might then see that as president he could have done much better.
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