By Rotimi Fasan
It was a bolt from the blue and a little extraordinary for Nigeria’s most tight-lipped ruler; quite unprecedented that President Muhammadu Buhari would address Nigerians, in major television events, twice even thrice (if one adds his visit to Lagos to launch the Lagos-Ibadan railway) in as many days. What was happening? A change of heart or strategy to reach out to and engage Nigerians? Or just a way to humour the people in these dangerously unhappy times? It remains to be seen for how long this would last.
Whether after this back-to-back in-person appearance in the media the president would continue his engagement with Nigerians. Or he would return, in hibernation, to his old ways. But the truth is that after a long time away from the media and quite unlike any other time since he became president in 2015, President Buhari thought it necessary to speak to Nigerians and to address some of the more important issues that have troubled the people for most of the last two years, if not more.
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One might not be wrong to say that it all started with the much-criticised tweet of the President threatening secessionist agitators too young to have known the pains of the 30-month Civil War that they would be taught in the only language they understood- that of force, apparently. That tweet, viewed as an exhibition of hate, was taken down by Twitter after it was flagged by Nigerians who reported the matter to the micro-blogging company. The Nigerian government accused Twitter of bias, dating back to the #EndSARS protests of October 2020, and of offering space to opponents of the government to destabilise the country. It promptly suspended the licence of the organisation to operate in the country, a move that has elicited negative responses from the leading Western powers and is turning into a diplomatic gaffe for Abuja.
Government has since doubled down on its decision, threatening to prosecute violators of the suspension order, even as Nigerians, including agents of the government at both the state and federal levels, have found a way round it and continued to tweet via VPN. Nigerians have wondered if Buhari was aware of the tweet that went out in his name, certain it was the handiwork of one his handlers.
As ‘the presidency’ continued to rage rather impotently and defended the position of the government on the suspension of Twitter and the equally contentious issue of open grazing, the President would shortly after erase all doubts about what he knew of the offensive tweet when, in responding to a question on the matter during the first of his two live television interviews, he not only repeated that the would-be secessionists would be ruthlessly dealt with but he also balked at the idea of contradicting his ‘own’ Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami.
It was in the heat of the Twitter suspension order that Buhari made a visit to Lagos to inaugurate the Lagos-Ibadan railway for commercial service. The railway line is one of the landmark projects the Buhari government claims it has been borrowing foreign loans to finance as part of its investment in infrastructure. It was a proud moment for the President and the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi.
Well managed, this railway project should go a long way in easing the transportation problem of Nigerians. The railway project was one the government was determined to roll out the drums for, and they were not going to let the euphoria die down without some song and dance. Which is understandable given the perpetually bleak news of abductions, ethnic massacres and insurgent activities that has become standard all across the country.
A day after the event in Lagos, Buhari sat before the cameras for an exclusive live interview since-God-knows-when. That Thursday, it was with the crew from Arise Television, the same television station that had earned Abuja’s displeasure over its coverage of the #EndSARS protest and would be consequently fined by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission.
With two of its regular anchors, Reuben Abati (a veteran of Aso Rock press corps) and Tundun Abiola (a daughter of M.K.O. Abiola), Segun Adeniyi (of Thisday Editorial Board and himself a former presidential spokesperson like Abati) and Nduka Obaigbena (the publisher of Thisday and chairperson of Arise Television), the President sat for about 40 minutes in an interview session that has been equally praised and slammed by the respective camps of the President’s dyed-in-the-wool supporters and opponents.
While clarifying his and his government’s stand on number of issues, he also presented his scorecard and motivations for his action. He came across as abreast of certain controversial developments in his government even as he appears to provide answers that sometimes appear to veer violently away from the questions asked.
In a reprise of his 1984 inaugural interview as head of state during which he darkly promised to ‘tamper’ with press freedom, Buhari confirmed the venom of his offensive tweet that secessionists would be taught in the language they understood. Perhaps it was a reflection of his unaccustomed dark humour, he said soldiers would be sent after the secessionists and they would be pursued with no place for them to hide.
It was V.S. Naipaul who, in talking of the smallness of his island nation, Trinidad, called it a dot on the map. Buhari metonymically equating IPOB with the Igbo, described them as a dot in a circle with no escape route or access to the sea.
This description of the Igbo land space brings to mind, in somewhat related context, Wole Soyinka’s ‘hole in the zero of nothing’ in Madmen and Specialists. It’s quite remarkable that Buhari’s could in one breath evoke the words of two Nobel laureates. Could the President’s metaphoric evocations be reflective of a poetic sensibility or an expression of his humour, albeit dark, that some of those who know him have spoken about? He appeared, indeed, to be enjoying himself when he made these otherwise shocking remarks.
Accused of pampering the terror herders while threatening violence on IPOB, the President responded a day after in another interview with the Nigerian Television Authority that killer herders would also be taught in the only language of violence that they understood. That was fast even if he was silent on the killings in Igangan.
While some have criticised the Arise crew for giving Buhari an easy ride of questions, Nigerians have to realise a super taciturn man like the President can only be eased into unfamiliar territories like live interviews if he is not to be frightened back into his shell. A day after the NTA interview, Buhari gave a national broadcast on June 12. Four, five major outings in one week! With this, Nigerians need neither rumours nor ‘the presidency’.