Buhari, ideas and these times
Against the background of the raging controversy over the lines he reportedly lifted from a 2008 speech by his American colleague, Barack Obama, I feel compelled to remind President Muhammadu Buhari of my advice to him on matters of ideas a few months ago.
Then, I had derided those who questioned his educational qualifications as a bunch of comedians who had probably never met the president’s classmates or, better still, his students or subordinates in all the divisions of the Nigerian Army in which he served!
I had met a few of those people, long before Buhari became President, and narrated their testimonies. Those testimonies are best summed up in the words of one of them, Mohammed Buba Marwa, former military governor of Lagos State: Buhari was not only good, he had few equals as an officer as well as a trainer. A voracious reader then and a meticulous teacher, he was so disciplined in class and stingy with marks that to pass through Buhari with whatever grade was enough a badge of honour.
With this, the statement by the President to the effect that he had not read and would not bother to read the report of the 2014 national conference then got me worried and I expressed that worry unequivocally.
As I wrote then, my worry was not predicated on Buhari’s decision to consign that body of ideas to the archives but his disposition to ideas in general!
My worry was that a certain modicum of intellectual curiousity expected of any leader, especially of a complex country like Nigeria with its complicated challenges, a curiousity on ideas from anywhere and on anything with a view to coming to the closest truth of a decision, was lacking.
By being so scornful of ideas, throwing a report into the archives without even the slightest query or examination, no matter how knowledgeable and however wise the leader may be, he has demonstrated a terribly wrong disposition for which the country would pay very dearly sooner or later.
And with that in mind, I went into a reflection on whose spirit to summon for help for Buhari on his need to cast the net very wide for ideas. I then remembered Vaclav Havel, the late Czech leader and writer who believed nothing could trump the potency of ideas and that the greatest battles are waged and won in the mind.
Havel spent many years in and out of Communist prisons and endured the suppression of his plays and essays. He led his people in protests and eventually won freedom for them. A grateful people made him their president for 14 years and his moral authority was unparalleled before and after gaining power, in life and in death.
Even after he quit the Czech presidency in 2003, he remained a moral guide to many, including world leaders who often sought him out for counsel. When he met President Barack Obama in March 2009, Havel warned of the perils of limitless hope being retailed by any leader especially on account of such leader’s perceived infallibility and reverence by the people. According to Havel, an unmitigated investment of trust could lead to disappointment which could boil over into anger, with the result that the people’s hero arrives at villainy faster than usual. Obama, that retailer of the most audacious of hopes, was quick to admit this.
President Muhammadu Buhari, he of very audacious change promised, needs Vaclav Havel’s words now more than ever!
But first, Buhari may wish to know that Havel was a strident warrior against any form of authoritarian rule and what he regarded as its humiliation of the human spirit.
In his much celebrated essay “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978, but which circulated largely underground because his writings were banned, he correctly predicted that the forces of freedom would triumph over dictatorship.
Before then, in 1975, he attacked what he called a “political apartheid” which separated the rulers from the ruled.
His most eloquent words were, however, reserved for dictators in the garb of democrats, pretenders to the course of the people while listening only to themselves, repressors of progress in the guise of promoting unity and those who deny the individuality of each, who conveniently ignore the diversity of all just to maintain the hegemony of a few. Hence he railed against a ruling elite which he said had chosen “the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity.”
In July 1992, as Czechoslovakia imploded, Havel chose not to be leader while the country split and resigned as president. Of course, he was an idealist whose ideas sometimes ran against the grain of reality and he was ever quick to admit that the transformation from the comfort zone of a philosopher into that of a king was not an easy one for him.
Yet, his ideas were right. Only that the people failed to catch up with him in the race to take them to the future! He was a crusader even while in office as president. He cherished the rule of law and freedom and always decried the “the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eyes to dictatorship…”
The most inflammable fuel for dictatorship, he would say, is sycophantic adulation, denying the leader the truth or telling him he is the best thing to happen when the worst is thriving on his watch.
Buhari does not deserve, and, I hope, would not condone that kind of situation.
To escape ascending the vacuous Throne of One Who Knows It All In The Knowledge Of Nothing, however, President Muhammadu Leko Buhari must develop a voracious appetite for ideas. As leader of the world’s leading Black nation, anything less is unacceptable.
In an interview in 1992, Vaclav Havel made one of the most illustrative statements about the connection between a leader’s personal style, taste for ideas, preferences even in the most mundane matters, his idiosyncrasies, and his governing style!
According to him, good taste plays an important role in politics for the singular reason that good taste is a visible manifestation of human sensibility toward the world, environment, people and everything!
He then narrated the story of how he assumed the presidency of Czechoslovakia and arrived the presidential castle, inspeced other governmental residences inherited from previous leaders in the communist era, and was confronted with abysmally poor taste! Empty libraries of books where there were libraries at all! Tasteless furniture and, for a country so rich in history, tasteless pictures and works of art. “Only then did I realize how closely the bad taste of rulers was connected with their bad way of ruling,” Havel exclaimed!
He then went on to discuss how much good taste meant to politics and leadership. During political talks, he said, the feeling of how and when to convey something, of how long to speak, the degree of attention, how to address the public, forms and words to be used are not only important, ‘’ all these political behaviours relate to good taste in a broader sense.”
With these words, Havel, ever the bohemian, a lover of good wine, fine cigar and, of course, beautiful women, was first to say he spoke not of a taste at knowing which tie matched a particular shirt, which wine went with a meal or which colour of furniture worked in a particular room, but what nourishment of ideas and in what quantity, was good for a leader’s soul.
I would not know which books President Muhammadu Buhari reads, in addition to cabinet memos and other submissions by his advisers, formal and informal. He will do well, however, to develop a taste for ideas through books or, if he already has, to expand his scope.
As he governs Nigeria at these difficult times, while it may not show through so easily, Buhari may truly be possessed of what the renowned African-American scholar, Cornel West, calls a moral vision, a sense of sympathy and empathy for the people, one that never loses sight of the humanity of Nigerians. But he still needs to open up his mind to much more ideas, expand his outlook by consuming much more than he does now, including ideas from the archives!
Only then would he be able to take what West calls a critical courageous stand, in which our president would not only have the courage of his convictions but ‘the courage to attack his own convictions!’
Only then would he develop a sophistication of the mind that can serve Nigeria better. Only then can his much-vaunted integrity become better informed, better deployed and, therefore, much more useful to his country.
Only then would he escape such an embarrassing spectacle as cheaply reading someone else’s words as his, without questions to the speech writer.