Columns

March 9, 2024

President Tinubu and the little foxes, by Ugoji Egbujo 

President Tinubu and the little foxes, by Ugoji Egbujo 

Some months ago, the president banned his son from attending the Federal Executive Council meetings. In Nigeria, nothing is strange. The president’s son isn’t a public official. Some said only a weak president would publicly announce a prohibition he could place and enforce with one stare. Others, many intellectuals inclusive, said the president’s approach was innovatively no-nonsense and clapped for him for being courageous. 

Last week, the president was in Qatar. Among the dignitaries lined up for diplomatic recognition was the president’s son, who used to gate-crash cabinet meetings. As the bemused public murmured, the president’s supporters said the presidents of the United States and the United Kingdom had done similar things in the past, so Tinubu should be allowed to breathe. Critics countered that the president was aloof.

Because a sensitive president wouldn’t wantonly grate the sensibilities of hungry Nigerians with the frivolity of sons and daughters travelling with him on official trips in these difficult times. Others made rude insinuations about ill health. But the trip aside, how difficult was it to gauge the reaction of Nigerians to the presence of the president’s son on that protocol queue? Nobody knows what Oransaye would have said about this. 

The Bible talks a lot about little foxes. The foxes come into the vineyard for the grapes. They can’t reach the grapes because the grapes are at the top of the tree. So the foxes quietly chew the stem so that the tree falls. When this happens, all the grapes, ripe and unripe, are wasted. The Bible uses ‘the little foxes’ metaphor to portray the perniciousness of small habitual sins. We ignore them and their enormity until they have caused disastrous damage.

When a president spends most of his time extracting sacrifices from the poor, he must fake empathy if need be. The bleating poor are on the lookout to see if their agony is torture or cure. If monkeys are denied, while baboons frolic, then it’s unbearable torment. When the minders of the president can’t caution him about optics, they must not aggravate the poor with specious analogies. Comparing a country where hunger has induced looting with countries where the jobless receive monthly subventions and milk is buffoonish.  

Perception is important. If the nation is broke and the masses are being squeezed from all sides, then everybody on the president’s entourage to a small country who isn’t useful must be hidden from photographs. If the president can no longer travel alone, without a family member, then he should indulge public opinion. After all the pictures we see are the pictures released to us. And that is the reason we shouldn’t have been informed that President Tinubu, while wooing Qatari investors, covered the issue of bribery and corruption. He told them no one would frustrate them if they came to invest, but if government officials tried to extort them, then they should report such fellows to him. The president was doing his best to sell the country. But he sold a negative perception. No investor wants to go to where he has to report bribe-takers to the president. They would rather go where bribes are exceptions, which can be handled swiftly by the local police. So when on business trips and pitching investors, our president’s entourage and speeches must be measured. No flabby stuff. The presence of family members dangling like industrialists sends the wrong message of cavalierism. Speeches must stay tight on chosen themes. When the president commits a blunder, it must be recognised and mitigated. Sending absurd pictures back home, raw, drains hope. 

This government has unshakeable and enviable faith in the Middle East. The president has scoured the region, supposedly, to woe investors. It is obvious we need money, and those folks haven’t been generous, but we must preserve our dignity. So that we don’t become the butt of Mediterranean jokes. A few months ago, The president was in the UAE. He was barely airborne for home when the presidency announced that the ban on Nigerian travelling to that country had been lifted, courtesy of the diplomatic expertise of the president. The UAE denied it. The indignity was hard to swallow. This week, the presidency, once again, announced a lifting of the ban. Again, it was denied, and the presidency reversed itself. Why does the presidency hurry to make diplomatic announcements with beer parlour carefreeness? A presidency struggling with crippling economic problems should worry about credibility. It can’t leave the impression that it’s incorrigibly untidy, flippant and without a sense of honour.

Perhaps those who believe we shouldn’t judge our presidents with foreign standards have a point. Perhaps it would help to see them as Obas or Emirs, worthy of reverence and worship. At this point, Governor Bago deserves a mention. While the president was away, Bago fell in love with Peter Obi. He agreed with Peter Obi that it was disgraceful for Nigeria to collect alms and grains from a war-ravaged Ukraine, living off Western charity. He concurred with Peter Obi’s mantra that Nigeria wouldn’t survive, except it switched preoccupation from consumption to production. To cap the effusions, Bago referred to Peter Obi as Boss.

Peter had, at an earlier conference, said that Niger state had sufficient arable lands to feed the country, yet Niger citizens were dying of hunger. It is difficult to assess if Bago’s promise to make Peter proud irked a few of his party leaders. When the president returned, Bago went to see him. For some reason, Bago knelt to shake the president with both hands. It was a bizarre posture of supplication. Politeness is good. But a governor grovelling before a president who didn’t bother to discourage him wasn’t a good sight. The president’s body language didn’t show discomfort. The presidency released the photograph. The president must discourage the practice. It is neither respect nor humility. When a president lives around such obeisance, he metamorphoses. When he considers it normal rather than cringeworthy and shows it to the public, he corroborates political opponents who insist he has it in him to be an emperor.  

The president prides himself on being a political warrior, so once in a while, he taunts opponents with 2027. His ministers make the same mistake. 2027 is not that important. Unifying the country riven by the last election, cutting the cost of governance, fighting insecurity that has metastasised to make living miserable, curbing inflation and naira instability, and fighting hunger and disease are important. Despite his ego and the possibility of all politicians supporting him, the president must always pretend that 2027 will depend on the masses who are now crying for food and security.  

The little foxes spoil the vine. But perhaps we shouldn’t be talking about little foxes when there are elephants on the farm, when the farm is beset with major afflictions like indiscriminate and voracious banditry, a virulent infestation of pests and diseases and earth-scorching drought. But he must tackle the little foxes because that will be the first real sign that he isn’t a continuing part of the problem.