The dehumanisation of a president
When President Muhammadu Buhari made a habit of cancelling his public engagements at very short notice, last year and rumours became rife about his health, I reminded Nigerians of what I called one of the most enduring images of the 2015 presidential campaign: Muhammadu Buhari dancing to the music of Wasiu Ayinde Marshal on the soap-box in Ibadan.
It was only a few seconds of swinging to the fuji rhythm, but it sent the mammoth crowd into a frenzy! Surprised by his own feat, the man who would be President also publicly enthused: “I can’t remember the last time I danced,” if he ever did!
So powerful was that singular shuffle that even if we cannot say today with certainty that it won him the election, that dance, a spontaneous gesture of his humanity certainly must have endeared Buhari to many hearts.
And I was annoyed enough to wonder why the President perfected that art of cancelling his engagements, causing disappointments and disruptions which, to me, undermined national security by creating the ambience for unfounded speculations.
If this was my feeling then, my emotions now are only better imagined with President Buhari a month and a half out of town and with contradictory information being peddled on the state of his health.
For a President who rode to power on the crest of immense goodwill and invested with the kind of trust possible only in a messiah, the cloud created over the state of his health by courtiers has only succeeded in fouling up an already tense atmosphere. What a shame!
As I once wrote, the symbolisms of power can sometimes be more powerful than its substance. The subtle messages sent to the people in words and appearances can sometimes portray the leader as being in lock-step or out of touch with his people.
For a leader, in a democracy, constant engagement with the people is a must and openness on just about any matter is not a favour to them. Integrity is the currency with which Muhammadu Buhari bought the trust of the Nigerian people. He cannot afford to lose that stock of trust by being portrayed as one who has a quiver full of everything but integrity, even in his own personal affairs. And I am happy to insinuate that he is not to blame in the first instance. But he should review the damage being done to his person by those who have counseled him so far and created in his world the unnecessary cloud of speculations and rumours.
At 74, a man’s health may not necessarily be top-notch and understandably so. And, as I once said, I challenge those who may want to make mockery of old age to show me any 40 year-old who would run the kind of schedule of work the president has run in the last two years and not break down!
By writing regularly to the Senate to ask for extension of his medical vacation, the man, to me, seems honest enough to admit his condition and let Nigerians know he remains unwell.
So, what is the fuss over his long vacation and state of health about? The handling or his handlers. The denials by aides, false statements on how vigorous his health is, the childish spin lines and the amateurish, even deceitful, photo-ops certainly do Buhari no favours.
Once again, this reminds me of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and how a decent, humble man, a very honest leader and a genuinely patriotic Nigerian was caricatured and almost robbed of his humanity by over-zealous aides, selfish acolytes and an incompetent state apparatus.
As I narrated on these pages before, even before he was installed president and commander-in-chief, Yar’Adua’s no frills nature was well known. When I first met him shortly before his election in 2007, his modest looks were striking. His appearance was not what you would expect of an aspiring president, or, at least, a sitting governor as he then was. Aversed to rambunctious courtiers, he made a public point of being himself and being just human.
He could hardly be dissuaded from speaking about just anything, including his health, which was the subject of so much concern and speculation then. That impression was reinforced when I met him again at the State House, in the company of three of my colleagues, for the only long interview he ever granted in office as President.
The speculations about his deteriorating health and talks of his impending death had taken on the air of a wicked soap opera to which the whole world was treated in the most dramatic manner, given the most intriguing plots by aides and family members who pretended to love Yar’Adua more than himself. But the man was his own best public relations officer on the matter while he still had the strength. He was always the first to tell anybody who had a chance to meet him that he was ill! He would even discuss some details of the condition and the improvement he was making.
During our encounter, he took questions for hours and showed that he not only had a strong grasp of the issues, he had clear ideas about how to proceed on solving Nigeria’s problems.
Of course, the temptation to ask about his health was irresistible. And when we did, he expressed his shock at how aides mystified issues about his health, leaving room for unnecessary speculations. He spoke of the mortality of every human being and wondered why people obsessed themselves with his life when he, in fact, could go on living for much longer than those presumed to be healthier than him. He illustrated this with the story of his older sister who, hale and hearty, suddenly died around that period.
When I drew attention to how well he had spoken for hours with so much clarity of thought and voice, and remarked how well he looked in spite of his ill-health, he leaned towards me and interjected with a humorous do-not-deceive-me: “I know I look frail!”
So, though terminally ill, Yar’Adua came across as a man comfortable in his skin and condition, true to the people and true to himself! Until the courtiers, eventually known as ‘the Cabal’ took over and created so much myth around him and his illness that he was pronounced dead long before his time and the country was practically put on the verge of destruction.
The situation was so bad that even governors, including his son-in-law, Governor Isa Yuguda, then of Bauchi State, who went to Saudi Arabia where the President was receiving treatment, were not allowed to see him, until he died.
I have narrated this to explain the damage often done to a leader’s reputation and to the country by over-zealous aides, family members or acolytes who strip him of his humanity, create a monster that really does not exist and a chasm between him and his fellow citizens.
I reiterate: democracy is not enhanced by needless mysteries. Such can only lead to distrust and undermine a leader’s integrity. Buhari enjoys the trust and respect of most Nigerians. He is the only hope they have in these times of despair, and seeing him, or knowing what his condition is like, symbolic as that may seem, means a lot to them.
It is, however, gratifying but not surprising that the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo has run a good shop in the President’s absence. Brilliant, articulate, energetic and fiercely loyal to his boss, he has been a re-assuring presence.
Long before now, he has impressed me as the most compelling advocate and the most coherent or the most credible voice of the Muhammadu Buhari-led government.
As I once observed, where people see barrenness of ideas or tentativeness of action, he conveys a certain depth of knowledge and sure-footedness that are very comforting. Where signs of poor preparation for the enormous task of re-building Nigeria appear hoisted on the forehead of every other person, he comes along with words, data and projections that speak not only readiness but also capacity to deliver.
The lawyer in him deploys logic, facts and figures to persuade, the preacher in him conveys the Buhari gospel truthfully from the heart and practically makes you believe the evidence of change still hoped for.
Indeed, whoever recommended him and the man who accepted him as deputy both deserve a Nobel Prize for good judgment.
Nigeria is bigger than anyone, even its President. Buhari has demonstrated this by officially handing over to his deputy each time he has had to, not only because the constitution demands it but also because, I suspect, he has beside him a man in whom he has total trust.
And this is why, in the matter of Muhammadu Buhari’s health and long vacation, Nigerians should disregard the attempts at the dehumanisation of the President, the lies or the truth about his sound health and appreciate his sound judgment instead.