President Muhammadu Buhari was on safe cruise as he delivered a prepared speech, at the Commonwealth Business Forum, during the week in London. But that was until injury time, the close of the event, when Professor Ngaire Woods of Oxford University asked Buhari to give his final thoughts on investments in north east of Nigeria and continental free trade agreements. We will return to this theme.
But first we must appreciate that the prepared speech Buhari delivered earlier dwelt pretty well on the Forum's subject matter: Making Business Easier between Commonwealth Countries. It identified trade, investment facilitation, regional integration and safeguards, empowerment of women and youths to growth, with provision of SMEs for the knowledge economy of today. It noted several contributions of Nigeria in this regard.
It was perhaps because of the ranging views in the prepared paper, that Professor Woods offered Buhari the last words of the session. So Buhari had to articulate his own personal views outside his carefully prepared paper. That was, as we say in my place, when "yawa gas". Mr President fiddled with the microphone and after some words about financing the northeast, and no word on continental trade, he launched into what is best described as a laboured, disjointed and disoriented offensive against a lot of Nigerian youths, declaring:
"We have a very young population and our population is estimated conservatively to be 180 million. The 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30. A lot of them have not been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria has been an oil producing country and therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare and education free."
There is nary a connection between this statement and the questions of finance for north east Nigeria or continental trade. So why did the President make such disparaging, uncalled for, comments about large segments of his own citizens at a foreign forum? Why did the President embark on this "unforced error" of a public relations and political blunder?
As to be expected, there has been an uproar of public disapproval by angry Nigerians over the statement. I will not bother about the Presidency's mischievously humorous attempt at explaining off the gaffe with semantic acrobatics about "transmogrification" of "a lot of them" to "all of them". Won't do. Didn't do. A joke.
But let's play the devil's advocate. Let us say the President wanted to highlight the socioeconomic challenges stunting the growth of Nigerian youths but that he put it pretty badly. Then the President could apologize and set the records aright with a more effacing statement identifying with the strengths of a lot of Nigerian youths. But that is not the way we roll. We return fire for fire, all guns blazing.
But then, even this advocacy attempt will fail anyway. Many will recall that two years ago in 2016, the same President Buhari, when asked by the Daily Telegraph of London, if it were legitimate for Nigerians taking the migrant routes to the UK to claim asylum saying their lives are at risk from Boko Haram, he had said:
"Some Nigerians claim is that life is too difficult back home, but then again some Nigerians have also made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in different prisons all over the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking."
But then, both the Commonwealth Business Forum and the Telegraph statements are not new either, but actually a continuing trend from the deep bowels of history. For way back in 1989, some 29 years ago, the late inimitable Fela in his album, Beasts Of No Nation, decried Buhari's trademark denigrating remarks for Nigerians by using the General's own words as lyrics: "My people are useless, my people are senseless, my people are indisciplined." The height of image disaster for a nation by its own leader.
I am yet to see a country's leader speak so derisively of his people and in foreign lands. Are some Nigerians criminals? Yes. As it is with many other countries. Are Nigerians honest, entrepreneurial, hardworking and driven? Yes, millions of them. Also true is that they labor under the sweltering oppression of a decadent, rogue, insensitive ruling elite.
So this really is not about the Nigerian. But about a peep into Buhari's peculiar persona. An engaging psychoanalyst read of the man and perhaps ruling elites, who are removed far away from the horrible reality of the people they rule over. Like Queen Marie Antoinette of 1789 France who when told that the people were revolting as they had no bread and were hungry, reportedly asked why they were not given cakes.
Not much is known of Buhari's childhood, but here is a man who all his adult life has lived freely off the fat of the land. A typical "Government Pikin" catapulted by military coups and tribal sentiments to juicy public appointments as commissioner, governor, oil minister, army general and even military head of state. His Chi has smiled again on him and he is now civilian President enjoying all the appurtenances of power including all publicly paid, months long, London based medical expenses.
Buhari, is the typical poster boy of Nigeria's idle rich and powerful. For 30 years after he was ousted from power as military head of state in August 1985, Buhari was not known to have embarked on intellectual pursuits nor run a private NGO or serious business, except run for President. It would therefore seem that Buhari in excoriating the Nigerian youth may actually be speaking to himself when he said: "A lot of them have not been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria has been an oil producing country and therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare and education free." Does this not sound and feel like Buhari? Getting all free from oil largesse?
It is therefore possible that in the deep recesses of Buhari's mind, he wonders why the youths of today are not commissioners, ministers, generals etc as he was. He probably imagines that laziness explains the almajiris in the north and jobless masses in the oil producing areas. He possibly thinks greed for free oil money is reason why millions of youths are not in school, why they join the Boko Haram ragtag army, why they are thronging to Libya and Europe to be slaves and corpse washers, fraudsters etc. He really may not understand why the youths are not working hard as he has done in the five decades of his life in plush public positions.
It is probably beyond Buhari to see that he and other men in power in the past 50 years destroyed and bequeathed an economy corrosively unproductive, corrupt and poverty ridden. It may shock him to accept that it is rulership from 1967, which he is part of, that made the economy solely dependent on oil, contributing over 90% of the nation's total annual import revenue until today. It is the same milieu of leaders that adopted and still run the destructive, divisive, unproductive, free oil revenue sharing, thieving, deeply militarily centralized political, socioeconomic structure masquerading as federalism. A system built on corruption, north/south divide, tribalism and lack of core values.
This is the failed structure and system, our rulers bequeathed to the youths. It is an irony that Buhari now willfully disdains the produce of the rulers' exertions, blaming the "a lot of the youths" for emulating their greedy, lazy elders.
Buhari's mindset appears fixated on a messiah complex, watered by an illusion that he is perhaps the only Nigerian with towering integrity and exemplary hard work. One divinely gifted to clean up corruption by jailing a few folks, get the disgraceful masses of lazy youths back to work and kick the butts of those treasonable enough to want to break away from Nigeria. What we see in the President's disparaging statements abroad is the narrative that he is a man who speaks truth no matter how unreal, not factual and destructive to his country. That he is the only Nigerian with integrity and the world's leading anti-corruption tzar. The challenge is, in the twilight of his long life, can Buhari get real and change the narrative? I doubt.
Buhari ought understand that a key quality of leadership is the capacity and power to inspire. But he seems to lack this special quality. A leader blind to strengths of his people cannot inspire them to greater heights. Typically, leaders who adjudge their people with deep negativity tend to apply acidic words and actions to enforce what they deem as imperative change. Creative and positive initiatives are often not the forte of such leaders. Whereas their messianic personality draws initial cult-like support, they soon breed deep resentment, pain and depression than progress.
It is worse when the messianic leader, who despite loudly verbalizing change, remains ultra conservative, resisting urgent radical restructuring of political and socioeconomic structures/systems proven irrevocably to drive corruption, tribalism, poverty and underdevelopment. It is much more worse when the leader is not in touch with hard reality as with the sad case of Nigeria.
It is doubtful if Buhari is aware that over 100 million citizens live below poverty line, that some 30 percent of youths are jobless, that industry and manufacturing contribute less than 10 percent to GDP, that social services-education, healthcare, water, power are decrepit, that insecurity and bloodbath violence are rampant, that corruption is Nigeria's biggest business not only among our rogue elite, that yet oil money is freely shared and looted every month, for decades, until today through the federation account system of a unitary structure.
If Buhari gets real, he may come to realize that it is only to be expected that the hordes of youth, the displaced, oppressed, hopeless, scared and most vulnerable of a country like ours will seek refuge and asylum in foreign lands? If he is aware and real, Mr President will appreciate and be sensitive to the hard reality Nigerians live in.
He calls on Nigerians to stay back home to salvage the country. But salvage which country? The one with patently unpatriotic and certified thieves as leaders who steal and inculcate the culture of roguery, violence and impudence? A country where billions of dollars in resources meant to deliver basic social services and development, to save the millions of children who die because poor parents cannot afford N1000 for malaria medicine, end up in private accounts in foreign banks and real estate? One that pays free loading, kills initiative and hope? It is hard.
Still, truth is that the great majority of Nigerians, despite harrowing conditions and despair, are resilient, resourceful, brilliant, productive and hardworking. A President who can see beyond the narrow prism of aristocratic and elite luxury, who knows his people will be awed by their capacity in a nation like ours. He would deploy that power of the people to grow productivity, pride, self worth, hope and prosperity.