Soon, President Muhammadu Buhari’s minders and aides will begin to despair. In May, Nigeria was glad to be rid of the gaffes and malapropisms of the irresolute former president Goodluck Jonathan and his assertive and obtruding wife, Dame Patience.
In their stead came the ramrod, resolute and unflappable President Buhari and his polished but somewhat anonymous wife, Hajia Aisha. While there has been a change of personnel at the seat of power, very fascinating for the remarkable juxtapositions of characters and personages that accompanied it, some other things have remained unchangeable, such as the gaffes of course. President Buhari is turning out to be as gaffe-prone as his predecessor, in fact in ways that seem even more alarmingly memorable.
During his last two-day visit to France, the president spoke to France 24 Television, where, like his United States visit, he made glib references to his ideas and leadership philosophy. Asked about his cabinet, he spoke of his personal reluctance to constitute it. This was not new. He had shown back home that he thought ministers to be a superfluous addition to government, and only considered taking them on for constitutional reasons. “The ministers are there to make a lot of noise; for the politicians to make a lot of noise,” he growled. “But the work is being done by the technocrats. They are there to provide the continuity, dig into the records and then guide us, [those of us] who are just coming in.” Those who wondered why he had delayed in constituting his cabinet, and who were persuaded by the argument that he was taking his time because he wished to avoid making a mistake, now know better. “I think this question of ministers is political, ” he said warily. “People from different constituencies want to see their people directly in government, and see what they can get out of it.” In other words, his opinion of ministers is that apart from being needless, well, they are another name for graft.
The president was, however, not done. “As for the cabinet,” he said testily, “I said we will have one by the end of the month, and time flies. The end of the month is coming too quickly for my liking. I will send the names to the National Assembly.” It is clear the country and the constitution are forcing President Buhari to constitute a cabinet. He had given a September date to put one together; he would have preferred a later date, he seemed to say. Perhaps, if he had the courage to ask, the country could give him an extension. What is even clearer is that the president can’t seem to define and understand what a cabinet stands for. He prefers civil servants, especially the permanent secretaries, whom he regards as experienced technocrats. He is spending inordinate and careful amount of time in assembling his ministers, yet, he can’t seem to understand that they are the people to avail him different perspectives, unlike the obedient civil servants, and proffer great social and economic philosophies to help his government transcend the limiting attributes of his constricted past and hesitant present.
When he visited the US in July, he had advised US-based Nigerians eager to return home to stay put in their places of sojourn if they had something better doing. Then he suggested he was unlikely to treat all Nigerians equally on account of the fact that they did not vote for him equally in the last polls. Before one year is over, the country should expect more gaffes from the president. Dr Jonathan’s aides were unable to put a lid on his boyish optimism and utopian ideas; President Buhari’s aides have their work cut out for them in explaining and harmonising the president’s disparate and jarring thoughts. As president, Dr Jonathan couldn’t seem to identify any similarity between stealing and corruption, even as he engaged in colourful comparisons of presidential mannerisms, refusing in one comical instance to be likened to Nebuchadnezzar or Pharaoh, perhaps Pharaoh Ramses. He also accused and insulted the Lagos elite, mocked the body language of opposition leaders, and snarled insensitively at ethnic and religious tendentiousness. But as an untested politician who loved to prattle once goaded, Dr Jonathan was unsurprisingly at home with gaffes. President Buhari is on the other hand laconic, and his political and moral systems indiscernible. But this has not discouraged him from offering his publics dainty gaffes of his own, some of them as potent as Dr Jonathan’s.
President Buhari, it is clear, can be trusted with the nation’s money. He remains honest and possesses both integrity far better than his predecessor’s and a more reassuring ability to manage public funds. What is not so clear is whether as modern people and progressives Nigerians can also trust him with their lives; or, in view of his fairly antiquated opinions of government and society, trust him with their future.