During his recent visit to Qatar, President Muhammadu Buhari sat for an interview with Martine Dennis of Al Jazeera. Last weekend, close to two weeks after the trip, I finally found time to watch the entirety of the interview. I found it enlightening, for two broad reasons.
The first and minor one was to remark the interviewer’s composure and confidence. She had a grasp of her subject (Nigeria’s economic woes, widespread disappointment with Mr. Buhari’s budget, and growing apprehension about the outline of his economic and security policies). The interviewer’s full-throttle style was in sharp contrast with the fawning and deferential manner adopted by many a Nigerian reporter when given the opportunity to interview an incumbent or former president—or even lesser ranking public officials. In question after question, Ms. Dennis zeroed in on specific details of Buharinomics and politics Buhariana. And she was rather quick-footed whenever the occasion called for a follow-up question.
My major interest in the interview was the opportunity it offered to take a measure of the president’s mindset.
Buhari had a few fine moments in the interview, the hallmark arriving when—reminded by Ms. Dennis that the IMF was not enamored of his refusal to devalue the naira—he replied that his country’s interest trumped the IMF’s prescription.
On the whole, however, I came away with the impression that President Buhari’s interview was simply “interesting.” And I have borrowed the word, interesting, with all its freight of ambiguities, from Mr. Buhari.
He seemed uncomfortable when the interviewer touched on the subject of how the government’s forex policy was affecting parents who are paying school fees for their children studying abroad. Yet, when she reminded him that his own children were also studying abroad—implying that he was now among the super-privileged—he seemed unfazed.
One of most revealing segments of the interview concerned the scandal-plagued budget the president forwarded to the National Assembly. As Ms. Dennis asked pointed questions backed with dispiriting facts, Mr. Buhari seemed perplexed about his own budgetary proposals. He ducked or deflected her tough specific questions—say, about the fact that the VP’s office was allocated more funds for book purchases than all the country’s polytechnics put together, or about the even more disconcerting fact that the budget for improving the State House clinic was larger than the total budget for Nigeria’s teaching hospitals. Even though the government recently punished some bureaucrats on account of the budget fiasco, the question remains: How did Mr. Buhari imprint a budget without first getting a handful of trusted hands to vet it?
The interviewer brought up the scandal called security votes. “Security votes have been described as (perhaps) the most enduring form of corruption in Nigeria. Why don’t you just eliminate them completely?” she asked. And that’s when Mr. Buhari responded: “You know more about our budget than I do. That’s very interesting.” He then went ahead to enumerate Nigeria’s security challenges, including Boko Haram and resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta. “Nigeria has got all these security problems. So if money is voted for security, I don’t mind, people can go as far as they can to find out whether that money is being utilized for security or is being shared in the pocket like the $2.1 billion the previous administration did.”
His response was both in character and disappointing. Where the journalist challenged him to do something that would amount to a structural blow against corruption, Mr. Buhari was content to invoke his personal integrity. Yet, no community should settle for the chancy goodwill and character of its leaders. It is far better to institute a system that discourages or curbs excesses than to hope for the wheels of fortune to throw up a good man or woman on occasion. Nigeria’s security budget should be entirely routed through its security agencies—the armed forces and intelligence apparatuses. There is no justification for security votes, which have evolved into a tested system for siphoning funds into private pockets. In a haste to be defensive, the president missed the deeper implication of the journalist’s questions. That implication is that Nigeria needs systemic, institutional reforms, not just the sprinkle of a few good men and women.
The absence of that institutional focus is, for me, one of the most troubling aspects of the Buhari Presidency. The Al Jazeera reporter noted that the president’s anti-corruption crusade has netted no convictions, yet. One expects a few to come soon, but it’s still going to be a trickle.
My fear is that some of Nigeria’s captains of corruption have exhaled. They don’t see the president pushing any judicial reforms to put corruption cases on a fast track, to fix Nigeria’s labyrinthine and slumberous judicial system—where each court session becomes an exasperating exercise in motions and counter-motions, designed to occasion long adjournments or appeals.
To fight corruption more effectively, the president ought to initiate legal and judicial reforms. As cases plod along in court, the corrupt find time and opportunities to manipulate the system. Many Nigerians have stashed away illicitly acquired millions of dollars. Do we doubt their readiness to use that loot not only to hire the best defense lawyers but also to pay off prosecutors and some judges who are not averse to auctioning off their revered bench?
The most troubling glimpse into the president’s mind came in his responses to the question of Biafra. First, he declined to watch footage in which Nigerian security agents are seen closing in to teargas and then shoot some unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. Several protesters were killed, many more wounded. Harping on the two million who perished in the Biafran War of 1967-1970, Mr. Buhari could not fathom why some youngsters—who were perhaps not born at the time of that war—would just “wake up” to say they “want Biafra again.”
Asked why his government had not invited the agitators for talks, Mr. Buhari coldly retorted, “Why should we invite them?” Let me chip in one or two reasons. For one: because it’s the president’s job to assuage popular disaffection. Two, it makes better sense to talk than to shoot. Any leader who believes in the humanity of his citizens would never shoot them as a first recourse. After all, a leader is called to govern the living, not preside over a mass of corpses.
I am opposed to the agitation for Biafra, but that does not excuse the president’s icy, insensitive and hectoring tone—much less the impression that he would sooner deploy what Ms. Dennis described as “very heavy-handed” military force to brutalize agitators than make a good faith effort to reach out, to talk, to listen.
Few people would wish to secede from a success story. The reason multitudes of youth are defying bullets to ask for Biafra is that Nigeria has grown into an almost 56-year old experiment in failure. It doesn’t mean that Biafra is the answer. But we must remember that other sections of Nigeria have also voiced the same sense of disenchantment. Many Nigerians are revolted by Nigeria: a mess of a country that we’ve all helped to create.
The Igbo are resilient entrepreneurs, and their enterprising genius is best unfurled, I have argued, within a larger rather than smaller territorial canvas. They are better off in Nigeria, and Nigeria is better off with the Igbo. Al Jazeera gave Mr. Buhari an opportunity to strike a large-spirited, conciliatory note that could have healed wounds. It is “interesting” and disappointing, but not surprising, that he squandered the opportunity.