Anytime President Muhammadu Buhari goes overseas, he causes some embarrassment to the nation by what he says. The reason is simple. In Nigeria, he avoids media interviews and speaks to the public extempore. In his three years in office, he has only had one presidential media chat, which his predecessors used to have periodically, to address burning national issues. Whenever he addresses Nigerians within Nigeria, he reads from a prepared speech. But whenever he goes abroad, he cannot avoid being interviewed, especially when he is being hosted by another leader of a nation. In the West, a democratically elected leader cannot avoid regularly speaking to his people.
It is not unusual that within two weeks of being in the United Kingdom for his annual leave, he has had two gaffes: one gaffe per week. The first was two weeks ago when he met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Rev Justin Welby. While speaking about the killer Fulani herdsmen that have been killing people virtually on a daily basis in Nigeria, Buhari blamed the killings on those who were armed by the erstwhile Libyan leader, Col Muammar Gaddafi, but escaped to Nigeria when Gaddafi was killed. Gaddafi died in 2011.
Buhari came under severe criticism for his penchant for not taking responsibility and also because the reason he gave for the killings was flimsy. In the first place, it is close to seven years since Gaddafi was killed. Whether he armed some people or not is immaterial, as such a group should not be stronger than the security strength of a country like Nigeria, governed by a retired army general. Secondly, Libya does not share any border with Nigeria. In fact, Tripoli, the capital of Libya, is 4,680 kilometres from Benue State: more than 10 times the distance from Lagos to Accra, Ghana. The countries that are nearer Libya like Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Niger, and Chad could be giving such excuses, but not Nigeria.
In addition, Buhari and key members of his cabinet had given different reasons for the killings by herdsmen. While receiving Benue stakeholders in Abuja in January, Buhari said to them: “I ask you in the name of God to accommodate your countrymen.” The implication of that statement was that the reason for the killings attributed to herdsmen of Fulani extraction was the lack of tolerance by their host communities. One week later, the Minister of Defence, Brig. Gen. Mansur Dan-Ali (retd.), re-echoed Buhari’s message that the communities should “accommodate” their countrymen (the nomadic herdsmen) while blaming the cause of the killings on the blocking of the grazing routes as well as the enactment of the anti-open grazing law in Benue State. In early February, the Inspector General of Police, Mr Ibrahim Idris, toed the same line when he said that the cause of the Benue killings was the enactment of the anti-open grazing law by Benue State. So, Buhari and his lieutenants had earlier blamed the killings on the intolerance of the host communities (farmers) against the itinerant herdsmen.
The second gaffe the President made in London was last week at the Commonwealth Heads of Government and State Meeting where he accused “a lot of Nigerian youths” of laziness and expecting free things. The curious thing was that his comment about the Nigerian youths bore no relevance to the question he was asked about investment in the North-East zone and the continental free trade agreement. It reminded one of when he was asked how he would solve the restiveness in the Niger Delta and he went into the irrelevant rigmarole about those who gave him 97 percent votes and those who gave him five percent votes.
The surprising part of the statement about Nigerian youths being lazy was that he was speaking at a time he had the golden opportunity to market his country. But rather than sell Nigeria to the world, he used it as an opportunity to make a mockery of the same youths who voted him into office and have been tolerating his shortcomings.
Anytime the President makes a gaffe, there are people who make it their duty to offer one explanation or the other in defence of his comment or action. Some are employed by the President or the All Progressives Congress, while some are supporters who just believe that Buhari should be defended aggressively always. One thing one has noticed is that the Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to the President, Mr Femi Adesina, is getting angrier by the day while responding to the criticism heaped on his principal. His tone and mien show that he finds such criticism of Buhari irritating. On many occasions, he has had to “explain” what the President meant as if Buhari does not speak in English. It shows how difficult it is to be the spokesman for a leader who is prone to gaffes.
It is obvious that President Buhari has a weakness with communication, especially when it involves articulating his views on the spur of the moment. He has a tendency to veer off the point and make a comment that is either unpresidential or untoward.
One weakness of President Buhari that leads to these constant gaffes is his penchant to criticise rather than approbate. When a leader has the proclivity to praise rather than excoriate, it helps him in not being mired in frequent scandals. A cup that is neither full nor empty can be described from whatever point of view one chooses. An appreciative and positive person will dwell on what is available and the prospect of growth, while a cynic or a negative person will focus on what has not been achieved and the possibility of the existing little quantity being depleted.
The excuse that a leader needs to speak the truth in an international circle is lame because the truth is relative. Most importantly, being in the international space is not an opportunity for a leader to ridicule one’s nation or people. No people are without a positive side to focus on. The mayors or presidents of cities or countries with high crime rate don’t go abroad and talk about the high crime rate in their cities or countries. Even when such is mentioned to them, they reel out statistics to show what is being done about it. They focus on the positive sides of their city or nation and persuade people from other parts of the world to visit or invest in it. Not focusing on the high crime rates in their cities and countries does not mean that such leaders are hiding the truth.
It is said that you cannot teach old dogs new tricks. In the past three years of Buhari’s governance, there has not been any improvement in his international comments. Therefore, the chances of Buhari changing his method of international communication are low. The only available option may be to ensure that he reduces his foreign trips and reads from a paper anytime he has to speak. If the trip is one at which Vice President Yemi Osinbajo can represent him, let him allow him to represent him there. If not, let him stay at home.
But a person who is serious about creating a result-oriented way of doing things can drop the old way and imbibe a new way. That is why we are human beings, different from animals like dogs, horses, cats and the like who find it difficult to change whatever they have learnt at an earlier stage. President Buhari needs to work on his attitude to communication. His poor communication is harming the image of the country.
Mr Onwuka can be reached on Twitter: @BrandAzuka