Some 48 hours to his second term inauguration, the Nigerian Television Authority aired an interview with President Muhammadu Buhari. After almost serving out an entire term ignoring the local media, the President finally granted a token interview where they not only set him up in a congenial atmosphere with the state-run media, the interviewer too, Adamu Sambo, was overly deferential. Indeed, the taped and edited interview went smoothly enough until almost the end when Sambo asked, “You have been described differently by different people: man of integrity, man of honour, incorruptible. Some simply say you are phenomenal in the Nigerian political landscape. How will you describe yourself personally? Who is Muhammdu Buhari?”
I reeled from the shock of his incoherent answer. The unctuous interviewer, seeing Buhari had badly mangled the question attempted some damage control. He asked again, “So, who is Muhammadu Buhari”? Unfortunately, the President once again veered off from Lokoja and headed towards Sambisa. He could not put an answer together to describe himself. Unlike the interview he had with Kadaria Ahmed before the election, he was on his own. There was no Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to answer on his behalf or even help him blame a faulty microphone. And no, his failure to give a thoughtful answer could not be a symptom of senescence because the question that came afterward was why people loved him so much. It was a question a narcissist leader would happily answer, and his response to that was clear enough.
Most likely, Buhari could not answer the question of “Who is Muhammadu Buhari?” because he had not engaged in the reflexive self-analysis necessary to sum himself up. The trouble is, if he had not given a thought to who he was, he has probably never considered other crucial questions such as his mission and how actions shape his legacy.
To be sure, the question is deceptively simple. On the surface, the answer is obvious: I am me, what else? But it is also a much deeper one than asking us to identify ourselves. Who is Muhammadu Buhari? is a question that asks him to sum up his self-discovery. To answer the question properly requires introspection on the choices that have defined you; it is about your backward glances at the roads that have brought you to your present standing. It is a question we will answer differently at various stages of our lives. Time, alongside the experiences we acquire with age, brings different levels of clarity to us about ourselves. For someone his age, the question of Who is Muhammadu Buhari? should have been easier to answer because it is expected that he has gone through definitive life experiences. He could have enunciated his natural and cultivated strengths, briefly discussed what he has learned from being President, and what is self-understanding portends for the nation especially now that he is starting a second term.
While we never got a chance at a well-thought-out answer, the scraps of his thoughts still say something about him. So, who is Muhammadu Buhari from the answer he gave? Amidst the ramble of his autobiography about how he was raised by boarding house teachers who either praised or “flogged students in front of the class or assembly hall,” and how he went through “hell throughout (his) career in the military,” and even his conclusion that he fully qualifies as a “suffering Nigerian,” the lineaments of his personality emerge.
He might not have told us who Muhammadu Buhari is, but from his words we see a man whose life has been defined by sin and punishment, suffering and privation, and who, consequently, is bereft of empathy to the point of sociopathy. From his answers, it made sense why Buhari is the man he is. Ours is a country where poverty, insecurity, and despair rage like a vicious storm and daily batter at our humanity, but our dear leader can hardly ever muster the necessary compassion to speak to these issues. His response to Sambo explains why he never seems to be able to summon fellow feelings even if his life depended on it. Buhari is strict, ascetic, and rather insensitive to collective suffering not just because of his military training but because his life has been hellish! By the time Providence brought him some reprieve and put him in privileged spaces where he could enjoy life, it was too late. His harshness had calcified, and his governance style has been to issue all of us an invoice for his experiences.
Again, if he is not given to primitive accumulation like other politicians, it is not because he is incorruptible as Sambo obsequiously puts it. Neither does it mean he has higher moral ideals than his counterparts who have robbed Nigeria blind. He is who he is because he has never learned to be kind enough to himself to self- aesthesise with the good things of life. He says his life has been hell, and he carries on as if the rest of us should share that fate as well. If today we have a President under whose watch Nigeria has slid into the poverty capital of the world, a President who valourises deprivation to the point that he claims he “fully qualifies as a suffering Nigerian,” it is partly because we are dealing with an individual whose variegated life experiences are marked by hardship, unpalatable ordeals, and the lingering trauma of the magisterial authorities who shaped his life. I listened to the interview several times, and I was puzzled that he made no promises of a better life for Nigerians. When he was asked what he would do differently in his second term, his response was mostly about punishing corruption by strengthening the judiciary and the police. He had no vision for social flourishing or economic prosperity, and it did not help that he was goaded by Sambo who kept throwing in the word “ruthless.”
A while ago, Buhari’s handlers came up with a documentary titled, ‘The Human Side of Buhari.” By doing so, they exposed the underbelly they were trying to protect because it spurred discerning people to ask that if the man were not a psychopath, why would they be invested in telling us that he has a human side? The other day also, a major Nigerian newspaper had a (non)story on its front page titled, “Many people don’t believe Buhari cracks jokes, laughs.” When you get over the shock and shame of a former flagship newspaper lending its front page to such crass idiocy, you wonder why Buhari’s handlers are obsessed with telling us he is capable of doing human things such as laughing and cracking jokes. The article quoted the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, as saying the President “cracks jokes and laughs raising his legs” and because most people don’t believe that, Ngige says he has suggested organising a social gathering where he (the President, yes) “will crack jokes, laugh and raise legs.”
We need not linger too much on the level of inane sycophancy that must permeate the Buhari administration to the point that a cabinet member will not only ask the President to play the role of a court jester, but also let go of his presidential dignity by “raising his legs.” What detains us here is that another of his handlers exhibits the same desperation at trying to cover up a character flaw by selling a story of a President human enough to find things funny. Ironically, despite the frantic attempts to paint a different picture of Buhari, the man defeated their spin when he slipped into a mode of unwitting honesty. He answered the question of Who is Muhammadu Buhari? by telling us pain and hellish suffering shaped him, and by doing so, we know better.
- This piece was first published on The Punch newspaper.