By Olu Fasan
YOU would not, at first sight, think of commonalities between President Muhammadu Buhari and President Donald Trump. Would you? Both are seemingly worlds apart. One is a brash billionaire, the other, according to The Economist, is a “sandal-wearing ascetic”.
Yet,truth is, both have a lot in common! The London Times recently described President Trump as “the most capricious of presidents”, and a columnist for the newspaper, Gerald Baker, called him “the most narcissistic and pugnacious president in modern history”.
Well, admittedly to lesser degrees, President Buhari could also be described in those terms. But, put broadly, what Buhari and Trump have in common is their preference for personal rule over institutional government. They personalise power and govern wilfully in a very top-down manner, impervious to sensitivities in the wider society.
For instance, President Buhari effectively runs a “presidential monarchy”. There he is in his Abuja “palace”, acting magisterially, with utter aloofness. When he talks to Nigerians, it is in a didactic, know-all, my-way-or-the-high-way manner. For Buhari, open-minded dialogue,compromises and consensus-building are signs of weakness. That’s a feature of personal rule: indifference to societal demands and distance from the ordinary people.
But, sociologically, personal rule is incompatible with the modern state, which, for legitimacy, requires leaders to interact on a continuous basis with an underlying national society and its diverse constituent groups, conciliate the conflicts of society and be responsive to, and address, societal demands. In other words, government is a “sociological activity”. But with personal rule, political activity and governance are not shaped by institutions or impersonal social forces but the authority, power and predilections of the ruler.
We will come to some of the practices of personal governance, demonstrated by Buhari and Trump, in a moment. But, first, let’s consider a core personal characteristic that, in part, shapes their preference for personal rule: anti-intellectualism. This is important because leaders must be readers, they must find ideas engaging and they must be good communicators of ideas and vision.
Truth is, reading and engaging with genuine intellectualism have civilising effects on leaders, especially political leaders who, by definition, must interact with diverse groups in society beyond the political class. Furthermore, in a world where governments must be purposive, problem-solving and progress-creating agencies, a leader of any government can only succeed if he or she is exposed to the best ideas and is surrounded by some of the best and brightest and not by yes-men and yes-women, which is the case with personal regimes.
But Presidents Buhari and Trump are not readers. In a book titled Unhinged: An Insider’s account of the Trump’s White House, Omorosa Newman, a former Trump aide, said: “Trump is not someone who reads.” A former Buhari ally, Junaid Mohammed, once said the same about the president: “Buhari doesn’t read”!
As I said, this seemingly trivial point is important because one of the key characteristics of personal rule is anti-intellectualism and aversion to new ideas. But it is precisely such closed mindedness and lack of exposure to reality that lead to some of the characteristic practices of personal rule or governance.
In their interesting article titled: Personal Rule Theory and Practice, Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg argue that personal governance is characterised by practices such as clientelism, divisive rule and authoritarianism. Many will, of course, associate these practices with Buhari’s and Trump’s administrations.
Take clientelism. Well, Presidents Trump and Buhari put personal loyalty and dyadic relations above competence, and such factors underpin the patron-client linkages in their administrations. Of course, such intermingling of personal loyalty and patronage often borders on blatant abuse of power, even corruption.
I mean, when President Buhari nominated Lauretta Onochie, one his loyal and partisan aides, as a national electoral commissioner, what, for goodness sake, was he thinking? Onochie is not only a dye-in-the-wool Buharist, but she is also an overzealous APC protagonist. So, how could she possibly qualify as an “independent” national electoral commissioner? Well, personal rule puts personal loyalty above the national interest!
But leave aside clientelism, what about divisiveness? For political reasons, President Trump refused to condemn the atrocities of the racist Ku Klux Klan, KKK, and the militant Proud Boys, whose members represented a core part of his electoral base. Both organisations endorsed him in the 2016 and this year’s presidential elections.
That, of course, bears a similarity to President Buhari’s refusal to condemn the killer-herdsmen, even at the height of their atrocities, to avoid offending his Fulani electoral base. Unsurprisingly, amid public outrage, Miyetti Allah, the herdsmen’s association, endorsed Buhari as its sole candidate for last year’s presidential election. Again, that confirms the theory, personal regimes do not conciliate the conflicts of the underlying national society but pander to the core base of regime supporters while suppressing rebellions.
Which brings us to authoritarianism. Americans, including military chiefs, were shocked when President Trump threatened to use soldiers to stop the #BlackLivesMatter protesters. Civilised nations don’t use the military to deal with civil protests. But from “Operation Python Dance” to “Operation Crocodile Smile” to the “Lekki shootings”, President Buhari has used heavily armed soldiers to suppress legitimate agitations and protests. Indeed, as if the Lekki shootings were not heinous enough, he recently vowed: “I won’t allow a repeat of #EndSARS protests in Nigeria”, presumably a threat of brutal military crackdown on future protests!
Inevitably, personal regimes are intolerant of the media. President Trump declared “war” on the US television outfit, CNN, which constantly criticised his personal, arbitrary rule. Recently, CNN broadcast an investigative report on the Lekki shootings titled: “How a bloody night of bullets and brutality quashed a young protest movement.”
The Buhari government called the report “fake news”, threatening to sanction the media organisation.
Truth is, adherents of personal rule are, more or less, the same worldwide. America has its Donald Trump. Nigeria has its Muhammadu Buhari. But while Trump has lost power, Buhari still has a chance to redeem his reputation for personal rule. Would he?