By Sonala Olumhense

In President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2000-word Independence Day address to Nigerians, he appeared determined to portray the image of a unifier.  He used the word, together, 10 times. Together, he said, was adopted together as the theme of the event.  He did not clarify who comprised “together.”

But it was not the most important word in the speech.  That honour goes to “impudence.”

In a government known to be thin on substance, Buhari was describing his mammoth efforts in office.  He said, “Those in the previous governments from 1999–2015 who presided over the near destruction of the country have now the impudence to attempt to criticise our efforts.”

He was referring to one Olusegun Obasanjo, another ex-supporter who recently said Nigeria under Buhari was becoming a failed state.

But Buhari did not say that name.  He lumped him together with his successors, Umaru-Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan.  While Buhari should have started from 1985 when he was kicked out of office, that would have roped in some of his friends.

In any event, Yar’Adua, is dead.  And Jonathan has not openly been critical. Clearly then, the impudence cudgel was aimed at Obasanjo.

But impudence is a strong word.  It has to do with extreme rudeness or contempt.  It is a fight word, the kind a brawler reaches for when he has risen to his feet and elevated his fists.  It is not one that a leader would normally use against his predecessors.  Buhari not only used it, he described those predecessors as “[men] who presided over the near-destruction of the country…”

Impudence and near destruction in the same sentence are a brutal charge.  But perhaps the word he was looking was not a carving knife that might someday slash the other way but one with discretion and elbow room, such as “imprudent?”

Nonetheless, if “imprudent” is not what he was trying to say, he has not paid attention to the adjectives and labels by which Nigerians have identified him these five years.

What does it mean that there are men who have “presided over the near destruction” of the country if Buhari, who is in his sixth year in charge, has done nothing about them?  How many questions has Obasanjo had to answer?  How many has Jonathan answered about the things Buhari told his biographer John Paden?

If none, the words duplicity and complicity apply to Buhari.

But impudence—or even the absence of subtlety and discretion—is not what made Buhari’s speech unacceptable, but that it reminded Nigerians of the severity of his limitations.

Think about it: when Buhari goes to his doctors in London, he goes for treatment, not repeated diagnosis.

Think about it: days before the national anniversary, Buhari launched a new “road map” called the “National Ethics and Integrity Policy.”

His diagnosis: “We need to deploy resources to address our common needs rather than the greed of a callous few. We need a corruption-free public sector…we need a judicial system…We need laws and legal system…we need ethical re-orientation…”

“We need”?

But he was not done.  “The National Ethics and Integrity Policy projects government’s aspiration for rediscovery of our cherished traditional ethical values…”

If you feel you have heard this before, you have!  When Buhari launched “Change Begin With Me” four years ago, he said, “There is no doubt that our value system has been badly eroded over the years. The long-cherished and time-honoured, time-tested virtues of honesty, integrity, hard work, punctuality, good neighbourliness, abhorrence of corruption and patriotism, have given way in the main to dishonesty, indolence, unbridled corruption and widespread impunity.”

That “national re-orientation campaign,” “Change,” then disappeared and we returned to business as usual.  The same gospel is now launched with a new name just as Buhari reverts to his perennial blaming of his predecessors.

But as badly as Obasanjo performed in office, he is right when he assails Buhari’s spectacular failures.

“Sixty years of nationhood provides an opportunity to ask ourselves questions on the extent to which we have sustained the aspirations of our founding fathers,” Buhari observed last Thursday.  “Where did we do the right things? Are we on course?”

If Buhari really wants to hear an answer, it is that while Nigerians may not be the best of followers, Nigerian leaders have been the worst of leaders. They have successively been hypocrites, and there is no finer example than he, and his 60th National Day speech should be taught in schools as a testament to hypocrisy.

In it, Buhari talks the talk, but in the past five years, his policies and actions have mocked and attacked our traditions and democracy’s finest principles.

In Paragraph 26, for instance, he identified six things Nigerians must do to move forward, but he has consistently breached all but one since he came to power.

The exception?   “Lifting 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years.”  That is a policy objective he broached in June 2019, but for which he has failed to produce a strategy document.  Perhaps intentions combat poverty.

One of the others is: “Supporting the enthronement of the rule of law, demanding accountability of elected representatives and contributing to good governance.”

But not only does Buhari ignore the rule of law in practice, he bristles at anyone demanding accountability of him, as pro-democracy demonstrators found out on Thursday.

“Where did we do the right things?”  How can we remedy and retrace?  Well, he can stop leading by nepotism, and stop surrounding himself with the most corrupt, and lead by good example.  He can provide answers, not simply list questions.

It is evident that Nigeria is heading for failure largely because of the hypocrisy of Nigerian rulers since 1983 when Buhari first took power.  And it is always a shame when the doctor who announced he had returned to the hospital to cure makes the patient far worse.

“Are we on course?”

No.  Nigeria continues to lack men of character: those who can stand by the words they utter, rather than hoodwink by them.  Even in Katsina, Buhari is increasingly the target of citizens’ protests.

One of Buhari’s characteristics is that he is so afraid of his limitations and hidden agenda that the only time he speaks publicly is when he is armed with a written speech.  Nigerians have not forgotten the international embarrassment of his having to apologize for plagiarizing Barack Obama.

But five years after taking office, he should be reporting on the fulfilment of the electoral campaign for which he was elected, rather than repeating promises or making new ones.  A ruler who cannot speak from the heart or identify his accomplishments has achieved nothing.

I know that Nigeria will triumph despite lacking leaders rather than because of them.  And if Nigerians are wise, they will work together for their country rather than seek momentarily convenient fragments of it.

For the next three years, Buhari is certain to continue with his imprudent course.  But history assures us that it is not impudence when the citizens who own both the estate and the errand raise their voice to a crescendo.

[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials.]

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