In a piece on leadership contributed for Forbes magazine in August last year, Victor Lipman wrote: “A leader’s words always matter. Tone matters. Fact matters. Nuance matters. Discipline matters. With extreme power comes extreme responsibility.”
It is within that context that we should situate the unfortunate gaffe in London last week by President Muhammadu Buhari at the Commonwealth Business Forum after giving a keynote address. The moderator had asked: “President Buhari, there is great interest in your thoughts on many issues, especially on investment in the North-east; on the continental free trade agreement…Would you like to take the microphone and leave us with the final thought from you?”
Ordinarily, that question is simple and straight-forward: Investment opportunities in the North-east as well as the agreement signed on March 21 this year to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) at an extraordinary summit in Kigali, Rwanda by representatives of 44 of the 55 African Union (AU) member states without Nigeria and for which there has been no official explanation from the federal government. For the record, this was the president’s response: “We have a very young population; our population is estimated conservatively to be 180 million. More than 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30. A lot of them have not been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria has been an oil producing country, therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare and education free.”
We can debate the point that the president failed to connect his response to the question but I disagree with those who say he went off tangent by choosing to speak on other things. When it comes to ‘final thought’ or ‘closing argument’ in public engagement, there are no real restrictions and what any clever speaker does is to take an issue on which they are comfortable or consider very important to them. The real problem was that President Buhari betrayed what has become a penchant for putting Nigeria and Nigerians down whenever he faces international audience.
The interpretation of what the president said, from a wide spectrum of young Nigerians, is that he categorised them among those committing one of the Seven Social Sins listed by Mahatma Ghandi: seeking wealth without work! Of course, there have been some interpretations and interpolations of what the president actually meant. But what the handlers fail to understand is that while other people could be given the benefit of doubt, not Buhari; essentially because this is not the first time he would choose a public engagement abroad (and he never speaks at home) to say negative things about our people back home.
In my February 2016 column, “The ‘Prophet Elijah Complex’”, I had expressed concern that while President Buhari has a fixation with highlighting the negatives in our country “he has never spared a sentence in praise of majority of our people who are honest, hardworking and for whom you cannot impute corruption.” I wrote the piece following the publication by London Telegraph of a report with the banner headline: “Nigerians’ reputation for crime has made them unwelcome in Britain, says country’s president”. The story, which immediately provoked outrage among many of our nationals in the Diaspora, had as its rider: “Muhammadu Buhari tells Telegraph that too many Nigerians are in jail abroad – and that they shouldn’t try to claim asylum”.
This was my take at the time: “It is neither helping us as a nation nor advancing his own cause to continue to harp on the negatives in Nigeria without also speaking on the goodness of the vast majority of our people. The president has to find a way of balancing his rhetoric by remembering-whenever he must speak-the honest Nigerians, both at home and in the Diaspora, who are making positive contributions not only to our country but to our world.” Two months later, on a day President Buhari had another speaking engagement in London, I intervened again by reminding him: “I hope the president will not approach the issue with the usual predilection for self-righteousness…The president should also not miss the opportunity to speak about the many hard working Nigerian professionals—doctors, nurses, teachers, bankers and civil servants making valuable and unimpeachable contribution to British society. A few bad apples (whether at home or abroad) cannot represent, and must not be allowed to taint, 180 million Nigerians.”
That my admonitions were not heeded could be glimpsed from the latest fiasco and the darts being thrown at the president and members of his immediate family on social media platforms. But Buhari brought it upon himself. Even if we choose to excuse the context, let us examine the content of his remark. That many of our children and young adults are out of school is not only the fault of the authorities at all levels but also that of the national elite of which Buhari has always been a prominent member.
A friend of mine who works for an international organisation in London told me two years ago that what she holds against Buhari is that despite his cult-like following in the North, he has never used that awesome power to promote any good cause. “Imagine if Buhari had taken it upon himself years ago to launch a campaign in the North that all parents must send their children to school? I bet majority of them, in deference to his call, would have done that and the situation in the region today would be different” argued my friend who incidentally happens to be a Northerner.
Now, we have a situation where in Zamfara, no fewer than 1. 5 million persons (as at 2015) were registered to vote as a result of mobilisation by politicians, yet only 28 pupils from the state registered for the 2018 National Common Entrance Examination! The result of that is the anarchy to which the state has descended; afterall, the devil must find work for the thousands of young people of school age who have been denied opportunities for self-advancement. That also explains the violence and banditry in several theatres across the country today.
Let us now come to the president’s claim about the entitlement culture among a segment of our young population. For several years, the argument of the opposition which Buhari led (before they came to power in 2015) has always been that “once we tackle corruption, Nigeria has enough resources for everyone to enjoy” or something like that. To compound the problem, if you do the arithmetic of all the ‘looted’ billions of Dollars from the statements made at different times by the Information and Culture Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the only conclusion to draw is that we are indeed a very rich country that can afford free education and free health services for all citizens now that corruption has been ‘eliminated’ by Buhari. And with the State Department 2017 Country Report on Nigeria alleging widespread corruption and impunity under the current administration, I will not be surprised if the name of President DonaldTrump features in the next ‘Looters List’ since corruption is now fighting back from America!
To be sure, there are many young men and women in our country who are indeed very lazy and indolent because I don’t know how to characterise those who would go to the airport and wait for several hours to harass and molest a returning ‘Big Brother Naija’ participant they don’t know just because of what they watched on television. You also find some of them on Twitter, spending productive hours trolling people they don’t know and passing judgements that reflect more on their character than the one they assail. But majority of our young men and women want to work in an environment where opportunities are shrinking every day. A classic example is that of the Adamu brothers in Kaduna which features in my coming book on irregular migration.
Not long after they returned from Libya, they decided to embark on the dangerous journey back after realising that there are no jobs for them in Nigeria aside the notorious fact that many of the young men with whom they grew up are now hooked on drugs. “I have a family and aged parents who depend on me for their upkeep. If I die along the road (to Europe through Libya) I would have no regret because that’s my fate. I can’t stay in Nigeria to die of hunger and hopelessness” said one of the twins.
Meanwhile, we also have thousands of enterprising young men and women who are excelling in their chosen professions despite the hostile business environment and regardless of the absence of any support from government. Last Thursday in Abuja, the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, in collaboration with the European Union (EU) office in Nigeria, premiered a must-watch documentary titled “Swallow: Food Security in Nigeria’s Changing Climate” essentially to highlight the point that a country as richly-endowed as Nigeria should not be suffering from the scourge of food scarcity.
What struck me in the documentary is the new energy and creativity that many of our young men and women are bringing to agriculture, even though it also did not escape the attention of Ms Adaobi Nwabauni (who sat by my side) that most of these young Nigerians (featured in the move) schooled abroad, given their distinctive accents. Unfortunately, despite the invitations extended to critical Nigerian stakeholders in the sector, half the people in the audience were foreign diplomats with Senator Oluremi Tinubu and Kebbi State Governor Abubakar Bagudu the only notable government officials at the event.
All said, the point that should not be missed is that there is an overriding error of judgment in the president’s take on the youth problem. Besides, real life evidence fatally contradicts his misrepresentation. As the president correctly surmised, over 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30. To therefore denigrate this critical mass in any way is to alienate the future. Now that he is going to the United States to meet with President Trump on Monday, I hope he will use the American media platforms that the visit would afford him to speak good about Nigeria and Nigerians.
President Buhari must understand that he cannot continue to sell Nigerians cheap abroad and expect anybody to take him seriously as a leader who cares for his people. That point was underscored by Linia Anirudhan in her thesis, “The Power of Words in Leadership” where she argues that because words can uplift or destroy, using them wisely by leaders is not an option. “At the end of the day, the choice is in our hands: to use words to complain or to appreciate; to tear down people’s dreams or to raise them; to blame when things go wrong or to rejoice when things go well” said Anirudhan.
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