A small sigh of relief is supposedly in order as Nigeria’s President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) peeped over the balustrade last week in an interview with Arise TV.
But the event was both a scandal and a fiasco for the television station and for the President of Nigeria, and an alarming signal for Nigeria.
For some reason, Arise appeared to treat the event like a celebrity showcase rather than serious journalism, or a fireside chat minus the fire.
To sustain the metaphor: for a burning country, it was surprising that Buhari’s feet were not yanked out of his comfortable shoes and held to the fire. For a country on the brink of splintering into pieces on account of his six years of malfeasance, Arise could not devise a way to make him uncomfortable with the irresistibility of its thoroughness.
Why? Arise demonstrated little sense of teamwork or preparation or strategy. Buhari’s responses to most questions were predictable but Arise did not take advantage of the power of follow-up questions.
For instance, how on earth could Buhari’s response to a corruption question, ending with “…Those who are …responsible know that we don’t tolerate corruption,” be abruptly followed by a questioner saying, “Shekau is reported dead…”?
Arise was not armed with quotations or numbers or statistics to challenge Buhari’s freelance narratives. For instance, the president identified one question which he thought was designed to pit him “against my Attorney-General,” but nobody pushed him to the brink.
Buhari has no Attorney-General. That office is the “Attorney-General of the Federation,” which is currently occupied by Abubakar Malami, an official who sadly travels around with mounting allegations of corruption.
The immediate question was about open grazing, but Buhari was not asked how he expects to enjoy any credibility without addressing the elephant in the room: Malami. [Perhaps this elephant was literally at the interview].
The event was a bigger fiasco for Buhari, who again exposed himself as being out of his depth, stuck with cliches, stuck to the past and stuck to his chair. He lacked cohesion and attention and continuity of thought.
One of Buhari’s early claims in the interview is: “I have not changed.” He indeed has not. He blames previous administrations and Nigerians he describes as misbehaving “misbehaving” (which is code for “undisciplined”.)
Arise did not rise to remind him that the very reason that he was voted into office is that he campaigned to provide solutions but has made everything demonstrably worse.
The oil economy is gone, but nowhere in the interview did Buhari sound as if he understands this changing world. Instead, he announced—even as the world moves away from fossil fuels into clean energy, that the Republic of Niger has also now “discovered” oil, in justification for spending billions of dollars on roads and rail to that country. Nobody asked him to whom Niger would sell its oil, where Nigeria cannot. He talks about the “Cameroons” as he did Western Germany.
Nor was Buhari challenged about his inexistent war on corruption. When there is such a war, the corrupt flee, thereby freeing men and women of character, expertise and intellect to emerge. In Buhari’s Nigeria, it is the corrupt who are most prominent.
A part of the fraud of the Buhari era is that despite his bragging, the funds looted in the 30 years since he was booted out as Head of State have remained in the hands of the thieves. Buhari claims that democracy is tying his hands, but since his return in 2015 he has fraternised with the same people and accepted them in his party.
And of course, there is that perennial question: if Buhari is whom he claims to be, why does he not lead by example by publicly declaring his assets? It is a simple proposition.
But asked by Arise as to how he combats corruption, Buhari provided this non-answer: “…whoever we have…correct intelligence that he is not being very accountable, we ease him out. We don’t give it too much publicity, but I assure you that those who are responsible know that we don’t tolerate corruption.”
Ease him out? How many people have been “quietly” eased out of government in six years? How many ministers or permanent secretaries? None.
Even if there were such people, corruption is not often the stealing of money. If Nigeria does not work, it is in the perversion of processes and institutions, such as maintenance of the facilities used by the boss but not those of the rest of the staff; giving the official car or presidential jet to your daughter; accepting gifts for doing your job; or converting official property into a personal possession. These have all become standard under Buhari.
Buhari was happy to regale his guests with the tale of two governors from the South-West who recently visited him over their violent Fulani herdsmen problem, and how he sent them back to take care of the problem by themselves. He was not asked whether he transferred to them the president’s constitutional authority over security matters.
Buhari made news on Arise, but I am not sure the station noticed. On open grazing, he announced he would “resuscitate [ancient] cattle routes and grazing areas,” on the back of an old government gazette he had heard about. His interviewers did not ask him how a practice during an era of limited herds and herders would apply to the present, nor did they bring up a 1969 court ban on open grazing.
Among the most disturbing thoughts to keep in mind are the following:
Asked about restructuring: Buhari responded that the local government tier is “virtually killed,” as elected chairmen are systematically cheated out of their budgets. That was his answer.
About devolution of powers: Buhari described accountability as being “very important” and that educational standards have virtually collapsed. That was his answer.
Given the insecurity in schools in the North, how did he propose to honour his promise(made two years ago this weekend) to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty? Buhari called for people to “try and appreciate” the efforts of his government, and that the new service chiefs are working hard. That was his answer.
IPOB? “We will organize the police and the military to pursue them. That is what we can do. And we will do it.” His answer.
How would he include the South-East, and the South in general, in his government, especially in security services and MDAs? Buhari cited the NNPC and the military. “People who have been there for 18 or 10 years… They trained…served…rose…And you think you just pick up somebody just to balance up? These positions have to be earned…Just because somebody will say, well there’s nobody, if you don’t join, you are not forced to join, but when you join, you go through the rigmarole, you go through the problem, throughout, and you learn by the system.” His answer.
After watching this interview, Nigerians must weep over a “leader” who feels neither embarrassment nor shame for self or country kicking 70 generals out of the army for one junior officer to take high office.
And I weep.
Sonala, a veteran journalist, first contributed this piece to The Punch