Nigeria: Between Jaw-Jaw and War-War - Buhari Must Choose Dialogue Over Belligerence

29 October 2020

President Muhammadu Buhari's leadership traits are unsuited for a crisis-prone country. His unbelievable aloofness in the face of a national crisis and his pugilistic style are the antithesis of what a leader needs to unite a country. President Buhari should be seekingto build a national consensus through engagement and dialogue. Instead, he sets up boogeymen, draws battle lines and threatens fire and brimstone.

Last week,on October 20, soldiers reportedly opened fire on peaceful #EndSARSprotesters in Lekki TollGate inLagos, killing at least 10 people. It was a test of leadership. But Buhari failed to rise to the occasion.His personality and leadership flaws, yet again,stood in the way!

Take the aloofness. For two days after what activists now call "Lekki massacre", President Buhari's voice was noticeably absent. The Lagos State governor, BabajideSanwo-Olu,said he tried to speak to the president, but could not get through to him.Why would a president and commander-in-chief be incommunicado at such a critical moment? There is no greater disconnect between responsibility and accountability.

Of course, as images of the brutal crackdown immediately went viral,international condemnation was swift. World leaders, from Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, to Joe Biden, theleading candidate in next week's US presidential election, strongly criticised the unprovoked military attacks.

Inevitably, President Buhari succumbed to pressure and broke his silence. But his 10-minute speech on 22 October 22 was so lacking in awareness and sympathy it was obvious he ignored the national mood.

The speech rightly attracted widespread opprobrium. Chimamanda Adichie, the famous Nigerian writer, was so piqued by the president's broadcast she wrote an alternative speech, titled: "The address President Buhari could have given." It was, indeed, the speech President Buhari ought to have given. "As commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the ultimate responsibility is mine", she wrote, putting words in Buhari's mouth.

But President Buhari doesn't take personal responsibility for anything that goes wrong on his watch. Someone else must be blamed. And he doesn't take responsibility in leading and building a national consensus on how to remove the structural causes of the perennial tensions and crises that have long hindered Nigeria's progress.

Instead of engaging Nigerians to forge common grounds on the country's future,Buhari sees himself as a living embodiment of the people and believes he alone can solve Nigeria's problems. Those who reject his didactic "my-way-or-the-highway" approach are unpatriotic and condemnable.

Typically, as with every speech he has given after a crisis, President Buhari started and ended last week's speech with warnings. "I must warn those ... ", he began, and concluded with: "Under no circumstances will this be tolerated." He was referring to those he said wanted to "truncate our nascent democracy" and "undermine national security".

At no point, in-between those warnings and threats, did President Buhari mention the Lekki shootings and those killed in the brutal crackdown. For a president who talks a lot about patriotism, it did not matter to him that the soldiers opened fire on the protesters as they sang the national anthem and waved the national flag!

One of the protesters told the Financial Times: "First they started shooting in the air, so we said, keep sitting on the floor, wave your flags, sing the national anthem, they are military, they won't shoot you if you are waiving a Nigerian flag. Then they started shooting into the crowd." At least 10 were reportedly killed!

President Buhari said he wanted to wait "until all the facts are established" before talking about the Lekki shootings. But what "facts" beyond establishing culpability? It's undisputed that the military opened fire on the protesters and that some of them were killed. Wasn't that enough to merit at least a mention in a speech that came after it?

Yet, President Buhari used the speech to sound tough rather than empathetic, emollient or conciliatory. He said his decision to dissolve SARS had "been misconstrued as a sign of weakness". By corollary, the subsequent brutal crackdown must be construed as a sign of strength. Of course, it's evident that Buhari, a former military dictator, considers it a sign of weakness to engage Nigerians, seek dialogue and buildconsensus. As Adichie said in another statement: "Buhari acts like engaging Nigerians is beneath him." Which is true!

But President Buhari and his advisersshould have read Dale Carnegie's book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, an international best seller, first published in 1937. A key nugget of truth in the book is that no leader can get people to do something by "sticking revolver in their ribs". As Carnegie put it: "The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it."

Thus, if President Buhari were to heed Carnegie's advice, he would be talking about what Nigerians want and leading in forging a national consensus on how to achieve it. That way he would not need to "stick revolver in their ribs" by sending soldiers to maintain order in the country.Fairness endears peace, injustice repels it!

But the starting point is dialogue. The German sociologist Jorgen Habermas, known as the father of "communicative action", is another philosopher of dialogue. Habermasinventedthe phrase "Let's talk"! His greatest insight is that nations achieve greater progress when they seek to reach common understanding through reasoned argument and dialogue.

Nigeria needs communicative action, it needs dialogue, based on reasoned argument and the spirit of cooperation, to create the transformational change for real progress. It must stop the animosity and brinkmanship and start a dialogue to negotiate a better future.

Surely, it is the president's responsibility to initiate the national dialogue and create the negotiating forum. Yet, despite this country's perennial tension and instability, President Buhari rejects a negotiated settlement as the way forward. But asCarnegieput it: "Avoid bellicosity, negotiate, talk." In other words, jaw-jaw is better than war-war!


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