Once more, our president had another foot-in-the-mouth moment. True, we’ve all been there before; our own faux pas moments when you wish you never uttered those words. But, we all recover from such; however, it could be terrible for public officials. While such moments show that we’re human after all, some leave irreparable damage on a public official’s image or brand, to use a political communication lingo.
Ever since a journalist asked that question at a Commonwealth Business Forum in Westminster on Wednesday, April 18, the Muhammadu Buhari government seemed to have done nothing beyond putting out the fire that the president’s gaffe kindled. While the president’s media handlers may spin it whichever way they want, his words reflect badly on his person, office, and by extension, Nigeria.
The president’s handlers at a level deserve our sympathies, especially those of them who are fine professionals and who seemingly have a big task managing such an unpredictable personality, but they too should realise, if they were yet to come that realization, our president is human and so will make mistakes.
Beyond the billions of words churned out critiquing or defending the president over his answer to a critical question on why Nigeria did not sign the African Continental Free Trade Agreement in Rwanda, this intervention is premised on two pivots: the ability of our president to comprehend issues and offer critical thinking and leadership on a myriad of challenges confronting us as a country. It also brings to focus one more time the deification of Buhari, a theme that has attracted this column’s attention a while back. We’ve got an army of aides, fans and supporters armed with nothing but keyboards and phones – thankfully at least – who just cannot warp their heads around the fact that our president is human, warts and all. We shall return to this later. To them, their god cannot make mistakes and he is somehow between humanity and divinity. We shall therefore ignore attempts of wannabe language experts who wanted to teach Nigerians the rudiments of English language.
To show the enormity of the president’s gaffe, other important actions he took at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting went unreported or under-reported. The unfortunate incident clearly overshadowed weightier matters; this is a lesson in how not to manage a brand. For the army of defenders too, a story by this newspaper on the reporter who broke the story shows how, despite their public pretence to the contrary, Buhari’s team was stunned by the incident going as far as persuading and later threatening the reporter and the publisher to pull down the video. But we have Mayowa Tijani to thank for pulling the curtain back enough to show us a further glimpse into President Buhari’s mind.
Few commentators have noted the off tangent answer Buhari gave to the question on the free trade agreement, which in my mind is one of the best decisions taken by his government. When juxtaposed with the fact that South Africa refused to sign the agreement also, it definitely makes more sense that our government took that courageous decision. Unfortunately, Buhari threw away a golden moment to explain the thinking behind that decision and also tell the world our future steps on trade within the continent. A pertinent question is how well does our president process information in taking decision? What about his line of critical thinking? A true test of leadership is the ability to think on one’s feet; it is unsure how much of this our president possesses. It is doubtful, if not outright impossible, that the president would not also have been prepped with a question on the African Continental Free Trade Agreement especially since he was going for a business forum, but the president failed to hold his ground when confronted with such question.
And for those who have turned Buhari to a deity that can do no wrong, the joke is on them. From an armada of defenders, paid and unpaid, the American aphorism that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging is most apt. Anytime a media handler needs a release to clarify or amplify his principal’s statement or speech, then something fundamentally is wrong. Attempts at teaching Nigerians English language merely worsened the situation as the story just refused to go away.
What could have happened if the handlers apologised and thereby sucked the oxygen out of the fiasco? No, they must continue to insult us and gratuitously lecture us on how our understanding of the English language is deficient. How many times have we been saddled with aides who cannot tell truth to power? Or who must always filter what their principal hears or sees in order to justify the aides’ insecurity and prejudices?
Fanaticism is a dangerous attribute, more particularly for a politician who has shown that he is human like the rest of us.