There are times when you want your nation’s president to look the part, to talk tough, appear like he really cares for each and every citizen, make the world to fear bringing any harm anywhere near you because doing so would mean incurring his wrath, take charge, be proactive, be assertive and speak up in the midst of a crisis.
Not President Buhari.
President Buhari goes mum when you need him barking orders or consoling his compatriots with reassuring words during a crisis.
When news broke that Nigerians were being attacked in South Africa, it took the Nigerian leader 72hrs to issue a statement in anger. It was also a bare-bone, lack luster and mundane statement—one that arrived with no force of conviction whatsoever. The kind of statement an aide would issue while sitting on the restroom seat.
While President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa appeared before the cameras to address the crisis like you expect every modern day leader to, President Buhari hid behind an aide to address the crisis.
The president’s statement contained the expressions: “deep concern” and “displeasure” at a time when “unacceptable” and a threat of severing bilateral ties with South Africa would have sufficed. It was as though the man didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.
On a day when Ramaphosa was informing the world that he would be convening an emergency cabinet meeting to address the attacks, Buhari was postponing the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting. “This is due to the fact that all the memos earlier submitted to the Council for consideration have been returned to the various Ministries. This action will allow Ministers who were recently sworn-in have their inputs in the memos sent by their predecessors in office”, a statement from the presidency read.
It didn’t occur to the Nigerian leader that you don’t postpone a cabinet meeting—the first of your second term in office--during a crisis or that you rather hurriedly convene one in times of ‘war’.
“I’m convening the ministers in the security cluster today to make sure that we keep a close eye on these acts of wanton violence and find ways of stopping them”, Ramaphosa said, while looking right into the cameras and displaying just the right emotions and body language. Presidential.
Even the Speaker of Nigeria's House of Representatives is thinking of cutting short his holiday and those of other members of the House because he understands that you don’t deal with a crisis from the venue of a vacation talk shop.
“I will be cutting short my trip to Tanzania for the 50th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference and will be leaving today, for the leadership of the House to consider cutting short the recess and reconvening for one day to address the killings of Nigerians in SA”, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila, announced.
President Buhari had other ideas. Not only was he calling off what should have been a ‘war time cabinet meeting’, he was sticking to an old schedule of traveling to South Africa in October—a month away—while dispatching an emissary to meet with the South African President instead.
“Next month, President Buhari will visit South Africa and meet with President Ramaphosa. Top on the agenda will be guaranteeing safety of all Nigerians in South Africa”, the presidency announced gleefully in a late night statement.
Who needs their president to guarantee their safety in a foreign land a month after they were almost lynched? Why wait for a month to show steel? Who is to say Nigerians in South Africa would be alive to welcome their president’s ‘safety’ a month after? Which envoy’s or minister’s words for that matter, carry as much weight as that of a nation’s president? Was this ‘Special Envoy’ the chap voted in for a second term in office last February?
There is a reason why the office of the president is the most powerful and significant in a federation. A nation’s president carries the nation’s hopes, successes and pain with him. One school of thought posits that the miscreants, arsonists and robbers who took to looting and vandalizing South African businesses in Nigeria would have thought twice if the nation’s president had appeared before TV Cameras at dawn to speak to them directly, appeal for calm and reassure them that he was personally sorting it all out with his South African counterpart.
Would robbers have taken to looting Shoprite if the nation’s Commander-in-Chief had summoned his security chiefs at dawn and tasked them with the job of securing prominent South African business outlets across Nigeria? Would a little proactive approach for once, hurt the president or anyone else in the presidency? Why are we so blest?
I understand that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and that this president prefers insularity and reticence. He was probably born that way. He’s never appeared in front of the cameras to address Boko Haram or gunmen killings. He’s never been one to appear on your TV with that calming, reassuring tone in the heat of a crisis to allay your fears. And he won’t start with a recurring xenophobic attack targeting his countrymen. This president's demeanor is perennially uninspiring and dour. His words soothe no one because they often come from the desks and brains of aides who never want to tell the boss the truth.
However, that still doesn’t excuse his lethargy, his irritating glacial pace when he should be moving at jet pace and his upsetting aloofness time and again. We should continue to demand of this president that he leads from the front, because leading from the front is exactly what he promised to do when he was begging for votes.
Leaders are elected for times like this. While we should call out and denounce the shallow minded South Africans who still do not understand that we live in a world without borders, our political leaders have to begin to act like they care, and look the part. On this score, President Buhari has been very disappointing.