As Nigeria grapples with its own share of the imported novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, its president, the septuagenarian retired Army General, Muhammadu Buhari, has gone into hiding.
He has offered no daily updates or assurances on the pandemic like other world leaders have been doing, he has not appeared before the television cameras to issue soothing words of hope and he hasn’t looked on top of the situation in any way, shape or form from his Aso Rock hideout.
A viral, lifeless 23-second clip of Buhari pronouncing COVID-19 as “COVIK one nine”, as made available by his personal assistant on New Media, Bashir Ahmad, was neither from a live nor recent footage, and was cut from the president’s brief remarks on the subject when he hosted courtesy callers at the state house days prior.
The president has also not issued a televised broadcast on the pandemic in anger, if only to show he is in charge or in control.
Instead, presidency talking heads Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina have wasted little time reminding us it is the president’s style not to speak too much once he’s delegated responsibility, while harassing us with press statements and social media posts ostensibly authored by their principal.
However, in 2015 and 2019, Nigerians didn’t elect Shehu, Adesina, Lai Mohammed or any of the other presidential courtiers or jesters. In crisis times like what the world is currently experiencing, the people look up to their presidents or elected office holders to speak or communicate with them directly and not through hired intermediaries.
It is in the middle of battle that presidents earn their epaulets. It is in war times that Commander-in-Chiefs are forged. Banal press statements are what they are--well crafted, hollow takes on a subject to fill newspaper pages or online columns without an originality about them. They cannot supplant the emotional feeling a people get from watching and listening to their president communicate with them directly.
How many people in rural Nigeria have access to the internet or can read? Nothing beats local folks watching their president address an issue on NTA or on Voice of Nigeria or on the network news, while huddled round the mango tree.
President Buhari’s no-show has led to rumours that he’s contracted the virus, is critically ill from it all and that he is being shielded from the public by aides who do not want the people to see how weak and frail their president has become.
There was even a Whatsapp voice note about the president escaping from Nigeria for treatment alongside his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari, who has since tested positive for the virus. Of course it was all a tissue of lies and a fabrication. But the presidency has created the vacuum for this kind of fake news to thrive by shielding the C-in-C from his people when they most need him.
In contrast, Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, his Health Commissioner Prof Akin Abayomi and other members of his stellar team have led admirably from the front, providing daily updates through all media channels and inundating the people with steps being taken to curb the spread of the deadly virus--from the frontlines.
Other governors like Kaduna State’s Nasir el-Rufai have also not hidden behind marbled walls and tastefully furnished offices in these difficult times.
It is true that Buhari is intrinsically taciturn and prefers insularity, but the job he vehemently campaigned for on numerous occasions is not one for introverts or for the tongue-tied. It is also true that this president has never been blessed with the gift of gab. It is also true that he prefers not to speak when action would suffice.
However, leaders do not have to be the best speakers to show that they care. They just have to show up and empathize. Buhari hasn’t shown up in these coronavirus times and has been missing in action for much of his six years on the saddle as terrorists and bandits ravage the land.
President Buhari often comes across as aloof, standoffish and arrogant because when you need him to speak up and provide comfort with words, he’s never there. Nigerians need the president’s arm around them at this time and that's not too much to ask. Undated pictures from his handlers to show he’s still alive and in good spirits, will no longer cut it.