I have followed, with some concern, the conversations and arguments by Nigerians following last week’s publication of President Buhari’s UK interview with the Telegraph. Some Nigerians—particularly migrants confronted with racial realities—are worried about the consequences (and lack of empathy) of the president’s statement, other Nigerians are happy that the president is “saying it as it is,” while others simply do not want this “unpatriotic” criticism of their homeland. All of these are justifiable perspectives and there is little sense in arguing which is correct.
What requires examination is a persisting attitude that suggests that the president is, generally, entitled to express his opinion. And, although the presidency has tried to clarify the statement and the publication of the full interview with Telegraph has softened the original impact, we still ought to re-stimulate a conversation around the statements and role of the president (and other public officials) as a reflection of the Nigerian identity and Nigeria’s foreign policy.
This is necessary when we consider that, for decades, our national identity and foreign policy has been shaped by the personal opinion of the person at the helm, and not by identifiable and measurable constitutional mandates. Thus, it has become normal for presidents (and other public officials) to conflate their opinions and actions as individuals with their opinions and actions as representatives of a Nigerian mandate. This inability by public officials to differentiate between private views and policy statements has continuously subjected Nigerians to international bewilderment, contempt and pity.
Consider, also, the recent example of the Jonathan administration. The tenure was plagued by poorly calculated statements that indicated the president’s inability to communicate with, and on behalf of, Nigerians. Accordingly, he created an impression of insensitivity (“I don’t give a damn”), hasty generalisation (“Nigeria is not a poor country”, “Ask Nigerians, they have light”) and an absence of critical thought (“Stealing is not corruption”, “You cannot put a goat, yam and plantain together and say that the goat should not eat yam”).While these statements may have been his “genuine” opinion, a president’s “official” statement —as the envoy of some 170 million souls —deserves better construction.
Today, President Buhari’s unscripted statements seem to have adopted the same pattern, even if differing in its outlook. For example, in his international statements, the president has implied his personal incapacity (“At 72, there is a limit to what I can do”), delegitimised the Nigerian judiciary (“On the fight against corruption vis-à-vis the judiciary, Nigerians will be right to say that is my main headache for now”), and now admonished migrant Nigerians (“…difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in prisons all over the world”).
Of course, President Jonathan’s statements seem worse because they expressed an exaggerated sense of optimism that could be truly astonishing. Yet, while the pessimism expressed by President Buhari may be closer to the Nigerian condition, the careless manner of volunteering his private opinion on public policy issues shows a similar lack of self-discipline in both leaders. Yes, these statements may be the “real” opinion of either Jonathan or Buhari, but it is just as easy for any teenager with a twitter account to blurt out an opinion. Self-discipline, in words and actions, should be a key requirement for leadership positions.
How then should presidents, and other public officials, express themselves publicly and, to an extent, privately? Is there a “Guide to Self-discipline in Public Office Statements”?
A possible answer can be extracted from section 19 of the Nigerian Constitution. That section (which is one of several sections “recommending” the conduct of government policy and the duty of citizens) states that the foreign policy objectives of the government should be, amongst other things, the “promotion and protection of the national interest”.
The manner of “promoting and protecting the national interest” is, of course, a subjective judgement. One official may promote the national interest through cheery optimism while another may promote it through gloomy realism. What is key, however, is that the person in each case is able to show just how his or her contribution improves Nigerian interests.
And this point brings us back to the need for a conversation on our national interest and identity. Why should Nigerian leaders exercise self-discipline in their public statements? Is Nigeria’s national interest—whatever that means—worth promoting and protecting? Can we really identify a national identity that we expect our leaders to safeguard and protect? Do we have a fundamental foreign policy, or is our foreign policy merely an ad hoc packaging of the president’s current opinion? Are we merely shape-shifting yearly, adapting to whatever identity every passing public official confers on us?
As the students will say, “Is it that deep?”
These are existential issues for Nigeria and the answers should not simply be left to the president’s opinion.
But, as long as we are still sharing opinions, here is mine. I think that we—those of us who ought to be educated and enlightened enough—are politically lazy citizens. We are reluctant to query the foreign policy of our leaders, not only for condemnation but also for official clarifications. Our laziness is caused by—and equally reinforces—our lack of national values, principles or standards. It is not surprising that our embassies around the world are generally useless to the citizens: because we have no identity to protect as a country. If we have any national value at all, it is the perpetuation of our overblown patronage system—the ability to choose masters and milk them in exchange for our praises.
This may sound harsh but it’s my opinion. Yet, considering the constitutional injunction to promote and protect our national interest, do you think I would repeat these views to a foreign audience?
You bet I would. But then, I am not the president of Nigeria.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch
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