By Rotimi Fasan
PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari must have surprised many Nigerians when he took the quite unprecedented step of writing an op-ed that was obviously meant for Nigerians in a foreign newspaper, Christian Times. The surprising thing about the entire episode is that a notoriously taciturn President, one who apparently finds it difficult to talk, to say nothing of him offering an explanation for any of his action, chose to put down his thoughts in print.
I will return to this point, lest I get ahead of myself. For most, if not previous Nigerian presidents or heads of government, with the notable exception of President Olusegun Obasanjo, writing would not come as a natural or preferred means of communication at any point in time.
Writing in the context of Nigeria’s leaders’ club would imply intellection, a quality with which only a couple of them could be identified. Nigerian leaders typically have no truck with being seen as intellectuals. Most of them are content being seen and called political leaders or just simply politicians- of very pedestrian specimen, if you ask me.
To say Buhari is not an intellectual is, therefore, neither a deliberate put-down, an attempt to throw mud on his person or reinforce any notion out there among some Nigerians of his presumed illiteracy. Intellectual presumptions are simply off for most Nigerian politicians, much more so for a Buhari who one would assume would rather be perceived as pious than intellectual.
If writing now is perhaps a first for President Muhammadu Buhari that he chose to do so through a foreign medium, over and above any in the country, would follow an established pattern of his presidency. President Buhari has in nearly four years of his administration as an elected ruler chosen to make very momentous verbal statements for and about Nigeria and Nigerians while travelling abroad and talking to foreign journalists.
Many times some of the statements credited to the President have hardly been complimentary to Nigerians. This would appear an unexplainable irony for a Nigerian leader that is as ‘Nigerian’ as they come.
Buhari is not ‘butty’. Could this habit of his be some kind of self-loathing if not a veiled contempt for Nigerian journalists? Is this a carry-over form of the press war the President waged against Nigerian journalists in his days in starched khaki?
What possible explanation can there be that a Nigerian president does not engage with the Nigerian press in a manner that could ease his relationship with Nigerians? Not even known outlets such as the monthly presidential briefings pioneered by President Obasanjo and which previous occupants of the office of president have taken advantage of, have recommended themselves to Buhari.
That the All Progressives Congress and supporters of the President have dropped loud hints that President Buhari would not participate in debates lined up for the 2019 elections is also a reminder of the uneasy relationship this president has with communicating his ideas to or engaging with Nigerians or the Nigerian press more generally. Hence, the surprise that he would write an article at all.
The ‘opinion’ piece, more of an apologia, came out of the blue. Write-ups like this are often penned by paid hands. That is why there are presidential speech writers. But this particular one appears to have the imprint, if not finger prints, of Femi Adesina all over it. Or is this Aso Rock Chaplain talking in Buhari’s name?
I don’t want to think the Vice President had a part in putting this article together even when some of the sentiments expressed in it could have originated from a cleric like him. As a professor and past adviser to some Nigerian leaders, things like this would have formed part of the VP’s responsibilities. So, could Yemi Osinbajo have had a hand in Buhari’s article?
From the excursion into Christian theology or the genealogical explanation (from a clearly Christian perspective) of his origination as a son of Abraham, there is nothing to say but that this was a ghost work. The Christian brethren who suggested or wrote this had better hoped it fulfils its intended aim. Any backlash from this is bound to offend the mullahs in the kitchen cabinet.
Buhari, it appears, could only have been talked, if not ‘bullied’, into writing that article. And there is no plausible explanation for it other than the need to curry votes- perhaps from the South East, the disaffected but heavily Christian block of the Nigerian state that is least invested in the Buhari presidency. It is apparent that Buhari’s men and women are not giving up yet on that zone and are poised to fight for votes therein. That is the region from where his main rival, Atiku Abubakar, has made his vice presidential pick and is expected to get overwhelming support outside his home base.
These are campaign seasons and every politician is expected to do what will bring in the votes. At the end of the day, it is the votes that count not the number of enemies or even friends made. Buhari’s minders would, therefore, be doing the right thing politically to offer Nigerians a glimpse of the President’s religious mindset. Yet matters appear far gone to sway those voters the President’s article is meant for.
That the President is biased to his religion is a notion many, if not most, Nigerians would appear to share. The issue is not that the President is a Muslim but that he displays brazen bias for Muslims and his decisions are, to a large extent, influenced by this fact.
If this is, in fact, not more than a perception, it is one that President Buhari has done a lot to encourage by his actions. It is doubtful if this article could do anything to convince the unconverted and others not persuaded by Buhari’s governance style.
This is why leaders actively engage their audience and those they lead regularly. The President need not have waited until the eve of another election to tell Nigerians of a diverse religious persuasion that he is not the bigot that many have long concluded he is.
Perhaps the President is correct to say that his government is balanced from a religious perspective (looking here strictly at just Islam and Christianity- there is no question that other religions are totally sidelined), but there is something about its make-up that skews it in a particular direction both ethnically and religiously.
The Buhari government is overwhelmingly monochromatic in its ethnic and religious configuration. But the government insists this is a perception. Yet perception matters as does interpretation. After all, this government makes no distinction between ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ ministers. All are ministers. The same way Nigerians are of different religions under the sovereignty of one God.