Friday 4 December 2015

Why Is Buhari Not Talking To Nigerians?

President Muhammadu Buhari
by: Bayo Olupohunda

Prior to his assumption of office on May 29, President Muhammadu Buhari had a reputation that preceded him. Beginning from his first stint as a military head of state, the President’s public image as a tough, taciturn and unsmiling soldier with a Spartan personality has over the years helped create the Buhari myth. Now, three decades after as an elected President under a democracy, Buhari is still as solitary as ever. Even as a “born again democrat”, (his own words), the President still struggles to engage with the public and the media.

In a democracy where the electorate are increasingly becoming participatory and yearning to engage with governance and the leadership, Buhari’s taciturnity may yet turn out to be this administration’s Achilles heels. But it seems Nigerians may have to live with the stoicism of a President who even in his second coming may not easily shed the toga of mystery that surrounds his personality. As a military ruler, Buhari rarely spoke to the media and when he chose to do so, he picked his words.

Now as a democratic President, I perceive Buhari as a man who is still media shy. He seems to cringe at the thought of facing a battery of cameras and microphones while answering probing questions from journalists. Indeed, in his first outing as President, Buhari had solicited media cooperation to communicate his policies to the Nigerian public. He seemed aware of the gulf between him and the media. His election was greeted with euphoria by Nigerians who were hopeful that he would use his much touted integrity capital to arrest the slide of a nation adrift. While opinions are sharply divided on his performance in his six months in office, my assessment of his stewardship is centred on how he has engaged with Nigerians since he mounted the saddle.

I believe openness by a President who communicates and engages with the public is critical to his success and Nigeria’s development. In truth, Nigerians have been patient with Mr. President. They are in agreement that he inherited a battered country and many who ordinarily would have come out firing on all cylinders with scathing criticism of the President are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I am one of those Nigerians who have thus far refused to criticise the President since assumption of office. Not that there has not been any missteps, but I have decided to tarry awhile as this administration unfolds. Even after six months, I am still willing to cut the President some slack.

It was the same approach I had adopted with the Jonathan administration. I had refrained from criticising his administration in his first year. With Buhari, even while I have a few axes to grind with him and there are many of them, among which are his refusal to quickly constitute his cabinet, the hazy anti-corruption war, his penchant for frequent international travel, his lateness in addressing the neo-Biafran protests, his mute attitude to the state of the economy and fallen naira and his not addressing Nigerians on the continued fuel shortage, I am still willing to wait. But how long I do not know and I hope President Buhari does realise that the honeymoon will not last for long. I know the President’s detractors are already getting impatient and have started firing shots at the President. For me, the jury is still out on Buhari and his team. However, I am persuaded that he has good intentions and knows the expectations of Nigerians. One just has to keep hoping against hope that all will be well with a country that has been battered and raped for most all of its existence. To lose hope will be to give up on the country. President Buhari has to do more to engage with Nigerians. The electorate who voted for him cannot afford to be kept in the dark for too long about the affairs of government. He has chosen to engage sparsely with Nigerians. While this may be something to do with his personality, it may be counterproductive in a democracy where various issues are always in contention. In a plural society like Nigeria’s where various interests are at play, the number one citizen cannot afford to keep sealed lips.

The President must constantly engage with all the contending issues. Body language is good, but silence is not always golden. The presidential democracy, especially the American type we are practising, demands the president and other elected representatives to be in constant interactions with the electorate. In the United States of America, the White House has robust public engagement programmes to keep Americans abreast of the state of affairs of their country. The importance of these engagements is that the people are well-informed, are in constant touch and are assured that their leaders care enough to talk to them. Through the addresses by the president, they know that the leadership is also in touch.

These engagements are also evident that the president is not out of touch with the emerging challenges and issues in the polity. In the US, the Weekly Radio Address by the president, broadcast from the White House, is a weekly discussion of current events in the country. As the Internet became mainstream, the weekly address has been made available on other media platforms to meet the needs of the ICT savvy generation who are mostly youths. During the weekly broadcasts, the US president speaks directly with the citizens through a direct address on radio. Indeed, the weekly briefing is not the only medium used by the White House to engage with the citizens.

Another strategy deployed to reach Americans is the White House Press briefings which takes place on week days. The weekly press briefing is an opportunity for the president to address the American public on emerging issues. Through these channels, the president responds promptly as issues of national importance as news breaks. Through the Briefing Room, the White House provides timely and accurate information about the president’s latest events and public statements. Therein, he assures Americans that he is in on top of the situation.

In Nigeria, it is a different ball game. Our leaders rarely talk to Nigerians. They leave such tasks to their media handlers. The monthly media chat by the president is irregular, routine and patronising. In the end, when our leaders choose to talk to us, they speak with discordant tunes, an evidence of having lost touch with reality. This is why I am worried that Buhari has not spoken to Nigerians on the fuel scarcity ravaging the country as he travels the world on many of his international engagements. Nigerians are not even made aware of his itinerary. For crying out loud, we need Mr President to constantly speak to us. Openness and communication must be the hallmark of this administration because the President promised it would no longer be business as usual. The economy is not looking good. 

Nigerians want to know what the President is doing about creating jobs, reviving the naira and growing the economy. The President must shake off his taciturnity and begin to speak directly to Nigerians.

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