But Buhari’s honeymoon could end in a bitter divorce from his genuine supporters if he does not respond to criticism with positive energy.
Am I surprised at the gradual change in the public perception of President Muhammadu Buhari in approximately two months? No, I am not. He has been accused of being too slow, of making lop-sided appointments, of committing faux pas, of having an agenda against certain sections of the country, and of committing similar “offences” he had accused former President Goodluck Jonathan of. However, one thing I will not do is group all his critics into one category. It took me only a few weeks to see an emerging pattern and, while things are still taking shape, you can be sure the ranks of critics will swell in the months ahead.
Predictably, criticism is borne out of different motives. In Category One are those who never fancied Buhari and will never fancy him. For instance, the job of the opposition party is to say the incumbent is not performing. APC used to play that role and has now passed the anointing to PDP. Most Category One critics are Jonathan supporters, who think the former president was hounded out of power because he is a minority. They accuse the Hausa/Fulani “supremacists” and their south-west “collaborators” of conspiracy. Also, some harbour genuine dislike for the “born-to-rule” Fulani. They have written Buhari off already. All they seek is his failure so they can gloat.
The Category Two critics are those who used to support Buhari but are beginning to think they will lose out or are already losing out in the new dispensation. Their expectations are steadily being cut off. With their dreams of controlling the game gradually fading away, they have launched subtle or open media attacks on Buhari. These attacks are brilliantly disguised as “a call to action” and a mere expression of concern. Some of them still think they can pile pressure on Buhari to rush him into taking certain decisions and making certain appointments, but the strategy does not seem to be working. Buhari, for good or for ill, appears unmoved by these gimmicks.
The Category Three of critics is made up of many genuine Buhari supporters and neutrals. I define neutrals as those who do not have any passionate position on who should be president — all they desire is a better Nigeria. Now, there are Buhari supporters who are truly worried about the early days of his government. There are neutrals who honestly want to give Buhari a chance but are not comfortable with what they are seeing. But while they are not too pleased with the pace and pronouncements of Buhari in his first 60 days, they are still ready to give him a benefit of the doubt. They think it is too early in the day to write him off. They seek his success.
How should Buhari respond to his critics? His biggest mistake — which Jonathan also made for five years — will be to gather his critics into one category and classify all of them as enemies. As a THISDAY columnist for 12 straight years now, I must say that there is hardly anything I write that I don’t get abused or criticised. While some readers will decently disagree with me and seek an honest debate, others will malign me, accuse me of being on someone’s payroll and try to pull me to the gutter — their natural habitat. The trick is to keep your eye on the ball, engage with the constructive critics and pay little attention to the hate-mongers.
Yes, I know there is a big difference between journalism and politics, but certain principles cross borders. Buhari can, therefore, pick a simple message from that. He must not treat all his critics as enemies or hate-mongers. There are those who actually wish him well and seek to make him a great president, compared to those who only think about how to pull him down. If he loses his true supporters, that would be disastrous. Ironically, even those who malign him may unwittingly end up helping him. Knowing the price of failure should motivate him to pursue only the option of success with determination. It is human nature to try to prove your haters wrong.
Having said this, I must immediately admit that Buhari has taken many steps that worry me. I have not seen enough evidence to write him off, but I believe he can handle some things far better. For instance, I can never understand why he made that “97% vs 5%” statement in trying to explain a simple matter of inclusiveness and equity. By saying those who gave him 97% of their votes deserve more goodies than those who gave him 5%, he simply played into the hands of his Category One critics. Yet, his conclusion was fantastic: by law, no part of Nigeria can be marginalised in federal appointments! So why give the “97% vs 5%” analogy at all?
Even on the issue of appointments, Buhari must be very sensitive to the political realities of Nigeria. Over the years, I have argued over and over again on this page that in a multi-cultural and complicated political set-up like ours, there must be a conscious effort to avoid lop-sidedness. A country packed with over 250 ethnic groups — and well-pronounced geo-political and ethno-religious divides — requires delicate and deft political management. I understand very well that there are still thousands of appointments to come, but the impression you don’t want to create from the beginning is that you are one-sided. It is difficult to erase first impressions.
I am finding something very amusing though: the ease with which people shift their arguments in Nigeria. There was a time some people argued that competence must be the sole determinant of appointments. They derided federal character. Now that Buhari is appointing clearly competent people but mostly from a different part of the country, the new argument is that federal character should matter! This is just a manifestation of the in-built hypocrisy in public discourse in Nigeria, where arguments are inconsistently constructed primarily to suit sentiments per time. Nevertheless, I have always insisted on fairness and equity, and that remains my advice to Buhari.
I fully respect the president’s position that he will not appoint ministers until September, even if I don’t really agree with him. As far as I’m concerned, Buhari became president four months ago — on April 1 to be specific, when he was declared winner of the March 28 poll. I don’t think it should take four months to appoint ministers. But I concede to the argument that he is only being careful in the midst of the pressure and the commotion. He wants only the best hands in his team, not the usual all-comers affair. Past cabinets were filled with election losers and party chieftains. The result was a preoccupation with settling political IOUs to the detriment of Nigeria’s development.
It is always difficult to fight corruption when you are seeking to compensate politicians and your sponsors with cabinet appointments. It is a wrong way for any government to take off. More so, Buhari is someone that once he gives you a job to do, he gives you the free hand to do it. We should remember he is a retired general, who served when Nigerian military was not yet that of “anything goes”. Buhari believes in systems. He believes in hierarchy. He believes in teamwork and team discipline. I am, therefore, willing to wait patiently till next month for Team Buhari to emerge. But it had better be a solid team. If not, God have mercy!
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, one of the architects of Buhari’s victory, has asked us to be patient with the president, maintaining that he deserves at least 100 days of honeymoon. Tinubu has been there before — we were all on his case when he became Lagos governor in 1999 and spent the first few months renaming streets in honour of NADECO heroes. We got so fed up we told him he was not elected to be renaming streets. He took the criticism constructively and went on to build a solid foundation for Lagos — which his successor Babatunde Fashola admirably built upon. That is a positive way of using criticism.
But Buhari’s honeymoon could end in a bitter divorce from his genuine supporters if he does not respond to criticism with positive energy. I believe Jonathan would have performed far better if he had made positive use of criticism. He paid too much attention to his Category One critics and lumped everyone together — missing the key messages in the process. Buhari’s responses to criticism so far are in order, but the risk of “lumping” is there if the kitchen gets hotter.
He should remember the trick: engage with constructive criticism, keep your eye on the ball and refuse to go into the gutter with the naysayers who, by the way, may also have a point.
SEE ALSO: Goodbye Awolowo, Welcome Buhari
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