Doing the job of President is hard enough anywhere. For Nigeria’ Muhammadu Buhari it’s many times harder. It is one day one trouble.
When he’s not dueling with protesting youths and secessionist groups, the retired Army General is at odds with Ibrahim El-Zakzaki of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State or the Southern Governors Conference. Alternatively, he is under fire for mishandling Boko Haram Insurgency and Banditry in the North, blamed for sponsoring killer herdsman in the Middle Belt, lampooned for installing a puppet Governor in the Southeast, or criticized for giving a drab speech at the UN General Assembly.
This is a president, it seems, who can do no right. Having inherited the Boko Haram insurgency in 2015, Buhari has managed to create over a dozen other “insurgencies” across the country by 2021. Nigeria is literally an active volcano under him. But why would anyone work so hard on his daily job only to repeatedly put himself and his people in so much trouble and pain? Why is Muhammadu Buhari plagued by an endless cycle of self-sabotage?
One possible explanation is his background. Born and raised in rural, feudal Northern Nigeria, Mr. Buhari is culturally wired to think of himself in certain ways. One of these is as a ruler, not a leader. I will explain. The African “Chief” or “Emir” considered himself superior to his subjects. Like the king’s of Europe before the revolutions, he owed his position, not to his people or their sovereign will, but to God. He was under no obligation to do their will.
Perhaps this is PMB’s default setting. His reactions to public opinion, however clearly expressed, are typically monarchical. He is not alone. Africa literally craws with men in that mould. Clearly, this is a president ill at ease with such democratic nonsense as “power belongs to the people.” Or perhaps he knows he did not directly get his power from the people. He got it from a political coalition which automatically guaranteed the “people’s” acquiescence.
A second, more obvious, explanation for Buhari’s self-damaging temperament in power is his training as a soldier. The military establishment, globally, is one in which members are trained to follow the Command and Control philosophy. Having spent 24 years in the Army, and rising to the rank of Major General before retirement, you could say that Muhammadu Buhari was not programmed for dialogue, diplomacy and consensus-building. In hindsight, the combination of a traditional feudal upbringing and military training can only produce a despot – not a democrat.
But perhaps the least understood of Buhari’s demons are his personality defects or psychosocial handicaps. Medical and behavioral scientists have long been aware of a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders currently classified as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). They are conditions of varying severity marked by difficulty in learned social interaction and communication, and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour. Sufferers may be “just as smart as other folks,” but they have more trouble learning social skills and keeping normal relationships. They tend to have an obsessive focus or to perform the same behaviors again and again without modification, according to experts.
One condition within the ASD family is called Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder (SPCD). Doctors use it to describe people who have trouble talking and writing, but may have normal intelligence. Symptoms include difficulty in making eye contact. Sufferers feel deeply awkward in social situations and don’t know how best to respond when someone talks to them. “They may miss social cues that are obvious to other folks, like body language or the expressions on people’s faces. For instance, they may not realize that when somebody crosses their arms and scowls, they’re angry. They may show few emotions. They may not smile when they’re happy or laugh at a joke. Or they may speak (and sing) in a flat, robotic kind of way,” according to experts.
In Nigeria, very few cases of ASD are clinically diagnosed each year. Many more go undiagnosed. So, many sufferers live in blissful ignorance.
President Muhammadu Buhari had very few known friends in the Army despite a long, illustrious career. He was a classic loner. But his lack of social skills was probably passed off as stoicism or Spartan militarism. And it probably worked in his favor sometimes. But in life outside the military, especially as a politician, there is no hiding place.
For a man who enjoyed some of the most juicy political postings under various military regimes and was schooled in some of the most elite military institutions in the world, his chronic unease within social and speaking circles borders on congenital handicap. The man is simply not learning the requisite skill sets and it is probably not his fault.
In recent years, neuroscientists and emotional intelligence experts have started to suspect a strong correlation between such handicaps and the state of the Amygdalae, a pair of almond-shaped cells located near the base of our brains. They say people with smaller or impaired Amygdalae tend to be low on emotional intelligence which in turn secerely limits their social relationship and adaptation skills. So, Buhari like many of us who are classified as highly introverted and taciturn, may well not be snobbish or mean. They may simply live in a world of alternative reality. They see the world in Black and White. Others see it in full color.
In two years, Buhari was sacked by his colleagues with whom he toppled the Shagari Administration in 1983. They accused him of being unresponsive to decisions taken by the Supreme Military Council and of pursuing an opaque private agenda. Today, most Nigerians accuse him of the exact same offences. If anyone is to blame for Buhari’s current travails, it is not Buhari himself. It is those who perfumed and presented him afresh as a “Born again Democrat.” And the rest of us who despite his well known proclivities agreed with the spin doctors.
Victor Anazonwu, a historian, journalist and author, writes from Lagos.