For politicians, especially presidents, images matter a lot. Perception is reality. The eye can be tyrannical; it demands to be fed with images that contour its bias. That is why leaders meticulously construct their image through appearances. Studies have shown that people do not primarily vote issues but impressions. On that basis, I understand why the documentary, “The Human Side of Buhari,” had to exist. What I do not quite understand is why the material, created to influence our perception of the President, was not subliminally and deftly pushed to the public. Those who market image know not to overstate their agenda so they do not lose the ability to persuade.
Take away the unsubtle title, and the agenda of that documentary unravels: the image of a stern and “Spartan” leader whose forceful personality will solve Nigeria’s problems of corruption and indiscipline that favoured the President in 2015 will be counter-productive for 2019. Two and a half years after his Presidency was activated, Nigerians – the ones who do not wallow in self-delusion, that is– have realised that what ails the country requires more than what one leader’s “body language” can resolve. Retaining President Buhari’s image of a benevolent brute for 2019 election will be burdensome and reconfiguring his image has, therefore, become a necessity. Also, telling Nigerians the President is human is to coopt people to sympathise with his failures. If he has failed to achieve the weighty promises he made while running for President, it is because he is a mere human.
Overall, the documentary set out to answer some questions about Buhari, and the responses came from those who have worked with him closely.
Do you doubt Buhari’s democratic toga? When the President delegates, does he interfere? What are his major strengths? Is Buhari receptive to counsel? How would you describe his personal style? What is one thing you wished Nigerians knew about Buhari? Has President Buhari shared his famed humour with you? By the time I watched the first 15 minutes, I had wondered if I was in North Korea watching state-sponsored propaganda on behalf of Dear Leader, Kim Jong-un.
The questions were answered mostly by the same set of people: Buhari’s deputy, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo; state governors cosy to Buhari such as Mallam Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna, Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun, and Umar Tanko Al Makura of Nasarawa State; Buhari’s cabinet members: Babatunde Fashola, Geoffrey Onyeama, Audu Ogbeh; the APC members: John Odigie-Oyegun, Bolaji Abdullahi, Rachel Akpabio; personal aides like Abike Dabiri-Erewa; Buhari’s daughter, Halima; a cameo appearance by Prof. Tam David-West; and Buhari’s regular bullhorns: Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu (and a few others too). The cast was obviously handpicked to be representative of ethnicity and gender, thereby presenting Buhari’s government as an inclusive one. For each of the questions, one respondent after the other gave their perspective and decorated the President in the most luminous sheen one could imagine.
Right from the first question about Buhari’s democratic credentials, I wondered why the conversation was necessary at all. Why is the President’s democratic ethos being interrogated by his own people, 30 months after he assumed power and had been supposedly running the government with the instruments of democracy? At this stage of his Presidency, is anyone losing sleep on whether Buhari is a sculpture made out of a scaffold of iron rods and laced with concrete and painted brass? Have Nigerians not accepted their fate about their choice already? Did it occur to Buhari’s people that by asking these questions and answering them among themselves, they might, in fact, be projecting their anxiety and assumptions about the man’s lack of democratic credentials on the public? Was his stern persona not what sold them in 2015?
By the time the respondents were answering the question about whether Buhari delegates and interferes with bureaucratic processes, the whole show had become not just a needless chatter but a worrisome one too. For all their desperate attempts to make Buhari look like an inspired leader who trusts people with responsibility, the reality is that presidents are not supposed to pore over minutiae on issues. There is a good reason they have an array of aides and consultants who brief them on issues and carry out administrative tasks. Presidents build and oversee the administration’s overarching vision, not interfere with bureaucracy.
As the segment aired and each commentator repeated the other, I thought it would have made far much sense if its premise had been structured around his 75th birthday and had at least tried to give a far more objective assessment of the man. The programme ended abruptly, and no credit ran on the screen after the broadcast. One does not know whose brainchild the documentary’s conception was. Whoever they are, did they think they made sense by asking people whose political future depends on saying the patronising things about the President to convince us of his human side? The applause of Buhari’s sense of basic decency and conformity to the rules that bind a civilian president was sheer sycophantic.
Also, the speakers echoed one another; like the six proverbial blind men who touched the elephant and all felt the same side. None of the respondents shared any insight on Buhari one could consider either epiphanous or particularly perceptive. From A-Z, it was all the same “none is good except Buhari alone.” Even the examples of his “famed humour” left me wondering if these people would find Buhari’s jokes funny if he were not the President.
When the show was over, I could only rue my Nigerian existence. Here we are, at the tail end of 2017, suffering from our recurring Third World problems. The country has been in the throes of biting fuel scarcity, inadequate power supply, recession, unemployment, and overall downturn in almost all aspects of our economic and social lives. Yet, the Presidency could not hold back their tawdry propaganda video that window-dresses President Buhari until a more auspicious time? Are Buhari’s ambition and entitlement to power more urgent than the needs of the people who entrusted him with power? Why be photoshopping the President’s image when the country is groaning under the weight of administrative incompetence?
Now, speaking of the President’s humanity, I was amused how introverted the entire show was – it consisted mainly of testimonials by people who work or who have worked directly with Buhari; as if Nigeria’s history begins and ends within the Aso Rock echo chamber! Did anyone ponder Buhari’s celebrated human side from 2011 when an estimated 800 people were killed just because he lost the presidential election? What act of public atonement did Buhari make to demonstrate his “human side” other than to warn us that baboons and monkeys would be further soaked in blood? What happened to his human side when the Shiites were massacred in Kaduna? Buhari, on live TV during the media chat that has now gone comatose under his watch, practically justified their deaths when he blamed the victims for their intransigence. Where was his finicky attitude towards observing constitutional processes (which Osinbajo described) when pro-Biafra protesters fell to state-sponsored violence? How well has the President’s human side served the victims of herdsmen massacres?
Buhari’s polishers maintained that he cares about Nigerians and their challenges, and he is not aloof from their suffering. Well, their closeness to power might be making them confuse sheer sentimentality with empathy. Nigeria does not need a dewy-eyed leader who sympathises with their misery from the lofty heights of Aso Rock privilege. We need a visionary who can execute grand plans to raise Nigeria from poverty and underdevelopment. Such a leader does not even need to have a “human side,” they may as well be a super computer. As long as it saves the country, to whom does the “human side” matter?