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COVID-19 calls for visible national leadership: Buhari fails the test

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By Olu Fasan

COMETH the hour, cometh the man! Well, in Nigeria, the hour has come, but not the man. All over the world, the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic is demanding visible national leadership, requiring leaders to engage openly with their citizens. As someone said: “Faced with the global pandemic, people are looking to their leaders for information, reassurance and guidance”. Yet, President Muhammadu Buhari is leading by self-isolation and distancing – no, not induced by COVID-19, but by his personal style!

A few days ago, President Buhari finally addressed the country, after weeks of refusing to speak to Nigerians, despite the clear and present danger of COVID-19. The speech failed to inspire confidence that his government is in control of the health, economic and social crises being triggered by the pandemic. But that’s a subject for another day. My focus here is on governance and leadership, because they reveal the nature of Nigeria’s politics and democracy, which are utterly unresponsive and unaccountable.

Take the timing of Buhari’s address. If President Buhari was going to put Nigeria in a lockdown, ordering “all citizens to stay at home” and banning “all movements”, why did he hibernate for weeks, coming out only to impose such draconian measures? As Professor Wole Soyinka rightly put it, President Buhari apparently “woke up after a prolonged siesta and began to issue orders”. That’s anything but good leadership.

Say what you like about President Trump’s initial self-denial about COVID-19, he addressed Americans every day, for several days, ahead of his announcement of emergency measures. Similarly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, flanked by Britain’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, held a daily press conference as he prepared the British people for a coronavirus lockdown. It was important to engage with the citizens to win their trust.

But President Buhari did not only disappear from the public glare for weeks, as the fear of COVID-19 gripped Nigerians. When he eventually came out to give his quarantine orders, he did so through a pre-recorded broadcast. Yet the president’s address raised many questions that a live press conference would have allowed journalists to ask on behalf of Nigerians.

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For instance, the World Health Organisation, WHO, said that while lockdowns are important for social distancing, the key to stopping the spread of coronavirus is testing. The WHO’s mantra is “test, test, test” on the basis that without Antigen test to check for the presence of the coronavirus in the body, you won’t know the prevalence of the virus in your country. Yet, the National Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, said it would only test those who have COVID-19 symptoms. This is not just a technical issue for NCDC, but also a political one for the president. But if he only speaks to Nigerians through pre-recorded broadcasts or press statements, he won’t inspire confidence that he is in control of the problem.

Transparent, open and honest communication is key to carrying people along in the arduous battle against the coronavirus. Sadly, governance is not transparent or open in Nigeria. The government only tells the people what it wants them to know, not what they are entitled to know. And, of course, it treats journalists with absolute disdain. But that’s the behaviour of authoritarian regimes like China, which has been widely blamed for accelerating the spread of coronavirus through initial cover-ups. That’s not how genuine democracies behave. In true democracies, leaders are accountable; they submit themselves to proper questioning.

But Nigeria is not practising true democracy. In this country, democracy is seen only through the prism of elections, flawed as they always are. But democracy is more than elections; it’s also about elected politicians and governments being responsive and accountable to the people between elections. Well, in Nigeria, in-between elections, elected politicians and governments behave as the masters, not the servants, of the people. I mean, how else would anyone describe President Buhari’s poor leadership, his detachment and remoteness from Nigerians? And how else would anyone describe the utterly partisan and self-interested defence of president by his acolytes and party on social media and elsewhere?

Recently, Femi Adesina, President Buhari’s spokesman, offered a bizarre defence of the president’s refusal to address Nigerians on COVID-19. “Not addressing Nigerians on coronavirus is a matter of style”, he said, adding: “Everybody is at liberty to adopt a style that suits them”. Really? You mean a president can, as a matter of style, be incommunicado at time of great national anxiety and panic? Well, apart from Adesina, President Buhari’ s party, APC, also thinks so. The party tweeted a picture of Buhari, after apparently emerging from weeks of hibernation, with the words: “Fresh boy. Show them”! What a trivialisation of governance!

But, let’s face it, the truth about Buhari’s style, is that he has two fundamental weaknesses. First, he is reclusive; second, he is taciturn. Yet, in crisis or not, effective leaders are visible and good communicators. But a Chatham House report last year described Buhari as “an aloof and disengaged leader, walled off from Nigerians”. That’s a perfect description of the president’s personality and leadership style. But an aloof, disengaged and distant leader is not the kind that can provide visible and effective leadership during a national crisis like the coronavirus outbreak.

Then, there’s the question of judgement. One of President Buhari’s decisions after COVID-19 reached Nigeria was to suspend the weekly meeting of the Federal Executive Council “until further notice”. The Constitution says the FEC must meet “regularly” for the purposes of “determining the general direction of domestic and foreign policies”, which makes it Nigeria’s highest policy-making body. Cabinets are meeting all over the world to tackle the COVID-19. But Nigeria suspends its own. Well, as Adesina would say, it’s matter of style!

Truth is, President Buhari has so far failed the Covid-19 crisis leadership test. He must raise his game to inspire confidence that he’s in control of the problem to make Nigerians secure.


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