By Oma Djebah
The root of the current political debate- as to the appropriate designation of the acting President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo- arising from President Muhammadu Buhari’s trip to the UK on Medical grounds- lies much more on lack of communication or censored information on the part of the President’s team than any other factor else.
The ability of a president to communicate his broad vision on national and international issues and communicate his/her personal and national challenges transparently, is therefore an important component of that office, even though the word communication does not appear in the constitutional job description for that office. I believe that President Buhari’s present ill-health is not necessarily the issue that has troubled Nigerians but its management. It can be safely argued that war-time British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill who ensured the surrender of Germany in 1945 during the 2nd World War and went on to build a strong political profile for himself, suffered devastating stroke as Prime Minister in 1953. But his openness about his health status, his addresses at Parliament going forward generated public love for him until 1965 when he retired as British Prime Minister but remained as a member of Parliament till 1964, a year before he passed on in 1965.
Today, Winston Churchill is remembered for his clarity of vision amidst challenges he faced. In his maiden address to the British Parliament on May 13, 1940 he said: “… I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government; I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind…You ask, what is our policy? I can say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air with all our might and with the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny…You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; …”
The Buhari administration must not hide issues relating the President’s health. It is therefore surprising that since the issue of the President’s health conditions started manifesting in public discourse, the Presidency never addressed a joint session of the National Assembly as the elected representatives of the Nigerian people about the President’s health status and lay open his broad national agenda for the country going forward. My first encounter with him in 2007, when I interviewed him in his home in Daura during the 2007 Presidential elections, left me with very positive impressions about him. Since then, my admiration for the President grew! His simplicity, his honesty of purpose, and his vision for the country readily manifest naturally. But why would the Minister of Health, for example, not communicate to Nigerians the current Health status of the President? Or why would the Personal Physician to the President not address a Press Conference on the issue?
Clearly, the communication role of the president has not been accorded high priority in our country, judging by the record of Nigerian presidents –whether military and civilian. But that is not to say that a few of Nigerian leaders have not left their footprints in the sands of history in terms of memorable, stirring speeches. The Buhari/Idiagbon regime(1983-1985) is remembered for its strong commitment to the War Against Indiscipline(WAI) and war against corruption. The regime made visionary speeches that restored hope to a hopeless citizenry between 1983-1985.
Equally, the Murtala’/Obasanjo regime is best remembered for its purposeful and inspirational leadership. Murtala made Nigeria to be heard in the world. He restored Nigeria’s strong image in world affairs. His often quoted speech “Africa has Come of Age”, which he delivered at the extraordinary meeting of the Organization of African Unity(OAU) held in Addis Ababa on January 11, 1976, was most inspiring: “ Mr Chairman, when I contemplate the evils of apartheid, my heart bleeds and I am sure the heart of every true blooded African bleeds. Africa has come of age. It is no longer under the order of any extra continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful. The fortunes of Africa are in our hands to make or to mar. For too long have we been kicked around; for too long have we been treated like adolescents who cannot discern their interests and act accordingly…The time has come when we should make it clear that we can decide for ourselves…”
Also, Gen Yakubu Gowon, who was Head of State at a most trying time(the three year old Civil war) in our country’s history is well known for his leadership role which culminated in his famous “No Victor, No Vanquished” Speech, which was crafted by Ambassador Akporode Clark, former Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United nations.
American presidents are famous for memorable speeches that communicate their national and international vision and the challenges ahead. Three speeches by three American Presidents stand out. In 26 June 1963, President John F Kennedy made his famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in West Berlin in then divided Germany. He said “ All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.
If Kennedy’s Speech in West Berlin is internationally famous as a symbolic commitment to contain communism and promote freedom, there was an equally significant and historic one that outlined US ambition in space race. On May 25, 1961, Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. In the speech appropriately titled “Urgent National Needs”, President Kennedy said of the nation’s space ambition that “ I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth”. In 1969, almost six year after President Kennedy died, Astronaut Neil Armstrong fulfilled Kennedy’s and America’s dream. President Kennedy made clear in his speech that he had been moved to act by the surprise launching in October 1957 of Sputnik ( Satellite in Space) by the Soviet Union. The launching of Sputnik by Soviet Union, now referred to in US public policy discourse as Sputnik moment, had a transforming effect on US scientific research and development, in general, and space technology in particular .Kennedy’s Berlin Speech, on 12 June 1987, President Reagan made his famous ’s “Tear down the Wall” address which made a great impact world –wide. Today Americans are proud of that era which dealt with the challenge posed by an ascendant USSR. Reagan had said: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”. On November 9, 1989, Eastern Germans decreed free and unrestrained passage for all into West Germany. And by 1990, the Wall finally came down, signaling the triumph of liberalization and market forces.
Thus, the question is not so much whether President Buhari is ill. It is in restoring hope to Nigerians who are daily becoming disillusioned. The first step is for the acting President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo to address a joint session of the National Assembly. In this regards, the captivating inaugural address of President Barack Obama to the American people on July 20, 2009 as the 44th President of the US readily comes to mind: “..,For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that, we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people; yes, we can..”
In matters of communications, there is often the question of whether the elegance of prose (rhetoric) matches action (reality.) Without a compelling vision, there can be no profound speeches because there is nothing to sell! Without a grand vision, there can be no great speeches crafted in elegant and captivating prose. It is analogous to a successful business: Only firms that have good products and services can market them with great conviction. And vision is intricately linked to what a leader wants his or her legacy to be. To hark back to President Kennedy’s address of 1961, when was the last time a Nigerian President addressed the country on its Urgent National Needs? This is where acting President Yemi Osinbajo must step forward and make a difference on behalf of President Buhari. He should address a joint session of the National Assembly on URGENT NATIONAL ISSUES. As Karl Rove wrote in his seminal book, Courage and Consequence, “Presidents who leave a large mark on history share certain traits. One is their ability to rise to the clear and present challenges that face the country…Lincoln tackled a pressing moral issue that fifteen presidents before him had avoided-slavery. FDR came into office three years after the stock market crashed… Reagan had to deal with a flagging economy and an ascendant Soviet Union…”. The time to act is now.