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Friday, 17 February 2017

SYMBOLISM MATTERS

Symbolism matters in leadership. Many members of the Nigerian ruling class do not realize this. In three weeks of being acting president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo has not done anything substantively different from what President Buhari has been doing for almost two years. He has not healed a broken economy, tamed inflation, stemmed the collapse of the naira, improved power, or engineered a miraculous infrastructural renaissance. Nor has he dealt a final, decisive blow on Boko Haram. In other words, he has not changed the governing paradigm of the APC/Buhari administration and has thus not fundamentally altered how the administration is perceived and evaluated. It is still a calamitous administration on several fronts.
What the Acting President has done however is to introduce a new temperament into governance, a new civility, a new ability to clearly articulate the trajectory and anticipated outcomes of governing decisions. Whether you agree or disagree with the decisions, the new clarity is refreshing. As is the new decisiveness, a marked contrast to the indecision and delay that reigned prior. More importantly, Professor Osinbajo has brought a tone of empathy and humility into presidential pronouncements. He has brought a culture of outreach, conciliation, and deliberation to the management of the familiar tensions and fault lines of the country; a new sensitivity and a willingness to listen rather than lecture.

When Buhari granted interviews to local journalists, he sounded irritated at being asked questions bordering on his obligatory accountability to the Nigerian people. He would get angry, bark answers, adopt a self-righteous, preachy tone. Everything was always somebody else's fault; he never took responsibility for anything. When he was not delivering a sermon to Nigerians on what they were doing wrong and what they should be doing, he would rant about the previous administration, his favorite scapegoat for all that ails Nigeria, and about those who "destroyed Nigeria." He acted, talked, and carried himself as though he was doing Nigerians a favor by being their president. There was always an arrogant, insensitive aloofness when he spoke about the mess his administration has created. He seemed to be trafficking in alternative facts and inhabiting a different universe. On the unprecedented level of suffering in the country, Buhari came across as blaming Nigerians, their consumption choices, and their impatience. He would snarl at any suggestion that he has anything to do with the suffering or that it is his job to alleviate it.

Osinbajo on the other hand has been humble, sensitive, paternal, empathetic, and lucid. Buhari adopted an attitude of insult, infantilization, and blame toward the Niger Delta. Osinbajo's words toward the same region have been marked by sympathetic understanding. What's more, instead of dismissing and antagonizing nationally controversial but locally beloved regional flamethrowers like Wike as Buhari has done, Osinbajo has reached out to them.

Whereas Buhari was in the habit of dismissively infantilizing Biafra agitators and angrily scolding the Igbo with outbursts such as the infamous "what do the Igbo want?," Osinbajo has adopted a more respectful tone in dealing with the Southeast.

When the #IstandwithNigeria protests occurred recently, Osinbajo tweeted and granted interviews in which he expressed sympathy with the marchers and with Nigerians who are suffering and groaning in this recessed economy. Unlike Buhari, he acknowledged that Nigerians deserve better, that the government takes responsibility for the situation, and that it is its job to bring relief and recovery. Buhari would have responded to the protests with his usual angry, grumpy dismissal of the marchers. He would have called them impatient and compromised by corruption. His minions, knowing how their principal would have reacted, organized a counter protest in Abuja and took to multiple media platforms to insult and smear Nigerians who protested or expressed solidarity with the protesters.

We wish President Buhari a total and speedy recovery. He will get well soon and return to the country and it would be a relief to the country, a happy occasion to douse the current tension surrounding his absence. However, when he returns, he needs to take a cue or two from his Vice President, who has shown that, no matter how bad things are, symbolic gestures can go a long way, that no matter how divided the country may be, empathy and sensitivity can heal some of the divide. Osinbajo's three weeks in charge has shown how Buhari missed several opportunities to bring the country together in the wake of the 2015 election and instead deepened our fissures with his clannish, arrogant, self-righteous anger and sense of infallibility. Osinbajo has shown that, no matter how ferocious the oppositional agitation may be, a leader cannot and should not take it personal, and that in some cases what the agitators are looking for is simply to be heard, to be shown empathy.


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