Three years into what increasingly looks like his first term in office, President Muhammadu Buhari still appears not to have come to an understanding of the compassion and citizen deference that modern democratic leadership demands. If those were in his contemplation, his comment, last week, to the effect that illegal immigrants from Nigeria were on their own would never have happened.
Truth is that, in addition to capacity, intellect, integrity and whatever other competences a leader brings to his duty, democracy requires that he adds compassion and respect for the people that he leads. And the compassion being spoken about here is not only about whimsically dispensing favours, an essential ingredient of this critical position is what the leader says at every material time he deals with the people. A leader must in speaking about any issue, consider how well he has performed in the delivery of his fundamental responsibilities to the people and the sensibilities of the citizenry, no matter how diverse or even eerie, they may be. In societies where leaders have come to grasp their democratic rights, indiscretions on these fronts really do cost leaders a lot in societies where citizens have come to grasp with their democratic rights.
Ask former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. During a door-to-door campaign undertaken by Brown towards the May 6, 2010 general election in Great Britain, he had encountered a 65-year-old widow, Gillian Duffy. Duffy, a longstanding Labour Party supporter and resident of Rochdale, Greater Manchester, had taken on the PM over his administration’s policy on national debt, education and his party’s immigration policy. While speaking with the retiree grandmother, Brown took all the points she made in his strides, trying to play the responsible and responsive politician obligated to the lowliest voter. He even complimented her by acknowledging that she was from a good family and ended the conversation with an: “It’s very nice to see you. Take care.”
But the Prime Minister had another thought on his mind. On getting back into his car, Brown engaged in the following exchange with his Communications Director, Justin Forsyth:
Brown: That was a disaster. Sue should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that?
Forsyth: I don’t know, I didn’t see her.
Brown: Sue’s, I think. Just ridiculous…
Forsyth: What did she say?
Brown: Everything, she was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour. I mean, it’s just ridiculous…”
Unfortunately for Brown, what he thought was a private conversation was amplified by the microphone of a TV channel still on his lapel and his vituperation against the women became the talk of the world within minutes.
While it may be hyperbolic to attribute the eventual loss of the general election by Brown’s Labour Party to this event, there is no doubt that this act of disrespect by the PM took its own toll regardless of the various apologies including “an extraordinary address to a live television audience from the grandmother’s driveway where he described himself as “a penitent sinner,” and an eventual email to supporters of the party where he expressed his “profound regret” for his behaviour.
In an article written the same day, The Telegraph quoted Lance Price, a former adviser under Prime Minister Tony Blair, as saying: “To sustain its share of the vote and maximise the number of MPs it returns, Labour needs the votes of millions of traditional supporters like Mrs. Duffy. The party has lost not just hers, but potentially thousands of others who will listen to what she said and find that they agree. Does Brown think they are all bigots too?”
Brown was repentant, affirming the supremacy of the voter although he eventually lost the elections. Politicians in Nigeria have no such concerns. They in fact, do not consider accountability as one of the ingredients of good governance, neither do they have any sense of remorse at the avoidable conditions that their failure in office has imposed on the people, which is why a former governor who have now moved up in the political ladder told a widow to go home and die just a few years back.
It is in the same breath that President Buhari’s comments during his joint press conference with the visiting German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, last Friday smacks of total disrespect for the feelings of Nigerians. It is, of course, trite that no state supports the illegal immigration of its citizens. However, the test of a country’s capacity to hold its people back at home is the provision of the essential ingredients of life which they see in the countries that they seek to travel to by hook or crook.
President Buhari himself infers that illegal immigrants from the country are in search of greener pastures even though he imagines that their decision to leave the country by illegal routes is a measure of indiscipline, which his government does not support. What he failed to tell the German leader and the world is what is being done to reverse Nigeria’s disgraceful record as the country with the highest number of poorest people on the planet as the International Monetary Fund recently stated days ago.
His conclusion to the effect that if an illegal immigrant is “stuck somewhere in Libya between his final destination and Nigeria, we will rescue him and bring him back home and send him back to his local government,” also goes a long way to show the condescending and largely unaware mindset of a lot of those in government in Nigeria. The question is: Did the alleged immigrant’s local government send him on the harmful expedition and how does dumping him in his local government discourage him from venturing out again?
But assuming without conceding that nothing but indulgent desperation drives Nigerians to embark on these deadly and illegal voyages, how does Nigeria react to the millions of its citizens leaving their, sometimes very lucrative careers, taking their children who are the future of the country and selling off their valuables to take residence in countries like Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and even Australia? Or the country should not be concerned about this?
While Nigeria is currently said to have a one doctor to 6,000 patients ratio for instance, the UK is believed to register 12 new immigrant Nigerian doctors weekly! How can this level of brain drain not be a source of concern?
Every year, over one million Nigerian youths fail to get admitted into institutions of higher learning in spite of their aspirations and qualifications and the country has not found any way to solve the problem or keep these agile and active youths engaged. That is not to speak of the millions of people who have roamed the streets for years without gainful employment. These and other issues like the insecurity of lives and property push many Nigerians to venture beyond the edge.
A story is told of a Nigerian who had lived in the UK for about two decades and chose to return home a couple of years back. Having done well for himself as an ICT expert in the years of his sojourn, he invested his lifesavings into some solutions that he thought Nigeria was in need of at the time. It did not take long before the coarse business environment here caught up with him as he lost all his investment.
But the story does not end. While driving from Lagos to Benin one day, he was said to have run into a group of armed robbers. He was beaten black and blue for having less than N5,000 on him. But just when he was left to proceed on his journey after the harassers had dispossessed him of the only money on him, one of them called him and offered what was a lifesaving advice: “If you know you have no money on you, turn back. Not too far from here, you will meet another group led by our boss and if you have no money, he will not just take your car, but kill you!” The beneficent robber explained to the victim that he gave him the information because he perceived he was new in Nigeria and had cooperated with them in their operation. Needless to say that this returnee took the next flight back to the UK and would not broach any discussion about Nigeria ever since.
How can the country’s number one citizen then say those who take these desperate journeys are on their own especially in a world where human capital is increasing defining the destinies of nations?
What to do in the circumstance is to make Nigeria more liveable for people and while at that, employ the carrot and stick approach to dealing with the issue of illegal migration. Staying on the high horse of superior morality is unhelpful as it is unacceptable.