A president is supposed to be a country’s chief salesperson, biggest motivator, uniter-in-chief, and most enthusiastic fan. President Muhammadu Buhari, unfortunately, is none of these. He disdains Nigerians, is contemptuous of our youth, and widens our national fault-lines through his unwise, divisive utterances and actions, as I will show shortly. Former US First Lady Michelle Obama once said, “Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are.” The presidency is revealing the real Buhari in starker, blunter, more direct ways than we’ve ever known.
President Buhari has become our biggest “demarketer,” to use Nigerian financial lingo. He chooses international arenas to circulate and authorize negative stereotypes about Nigerians and to pathologize hardworking diasporan Nigerians. For instance, during a three-day visit to the UK in February 2016, Buhari told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that “Nigerians’ reputation for crime has made them unwelcome in Britain.” That was a remarkably below-the-belt dig.
“Some Nigerians’ claim is that life is too difficult back home, but they have also made it difficult for Europeans and Americans to accept them because of the number of Nigerians in prisons all over the world accused of drug trafficking or human trafficking,” he told The Telegraph. But that’s an intellectually impoverished, empirically problematic, broad-brush stereotypical generalization that feeds racist, xenophobic fantasies about Nigerians. There are infinitely more Nigerians abroad who excel in multiple areas of human endeavor than there are who traffic in crime.
In the United States, for instance, Nigerians are the most educated demographic group. They have supplanted Asians as America’s “model minority.” It’s the same in the UK and elsewhere. During Buhari’s medical tourism to the UK last year, several British journalists joked that Buhari would most likely be treated by Nigerian doctors in the UK, indicating the dominance of Nigerians in UK medical practice.
In addition, according to the World Bank, diasporan Nigerians remitted $22 billion back home in 2017 alone. It was $35 billion in 2016, which the UN said was the 6th largest diasporan remittance in the entire world. Yet the president of the country that has this distinction chose to isolate the indiscretions of a few criminal elements to pathologize all Nigerians living abroad. And he did this in a foreign land to a foreign media outlet!
You would think that the UK and the US that Buhari chose to validate don’t have criminals. Unfortunately for Buhari, the US and the UK lead Nigeria in all categories of crimes, including internet crime for which Nigeria is unfairly notorious, according to their own statistics. Yet US presidents and UK prime ministers would never be caught denigrating and criminalizing their compatriots-certainly not in a foreign country. In fact, no president worth the title ever goes to another country to stigmatize his or her citizens.
Buhari’s latest denunciation of Nigerians from a foreign country was directed at the Nigerian youth. “More than 60 percent of the population is below 30,” he said at the Commonwealth Business Forum in the UK on Wednesday. “A lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria is an oil producing country, therefore, they should sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free.”
This is from a president who supervises a government that serially engages in secretive, illegal employment of the children and relatives of high-ranking political elites (including his) in well-oiled, high-paying government agencies while millions of brilliant, hardworking but underprivileged young people vegetate in agonizing misery- or condemned to getting low-paying, temporary N-Power jobs.
This is a president whose presidential campaign in 2015 benefited from the voluntary financial contributions of hundreds of thousands of young Nigerians across the country. The Buhari campaign made a big PR show of primary and secondary school students who saved and donated their lunch money to the Buhari campaign. Three years later, Buhari goes to London and calls these young Nigerians lazy, uneducated, and entitled; as people who want to “sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free.”
Well, these are not the young people I see when I travel to Nigeria. They are not the young Nigerians I interact with on social media. The vast majority of young Nigerians I know are creative, imaginative, self-driven people who are stymied by the suffocatingly dysfunctional system that Buhari and his predecessors created and perpetually reproduce. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited Nigeria in September 2016, he said he was “blown me away by the talents of young entrepreneurs and developers in this country [who are] making a difference and making a change.” Those are the young people I also see.
Maybe Buhari is describing his children-and himself. His son, Yusuf, has no job, rides multi-million-naira power bikes, has free housing, and received top-notch German medical care at the expense of Nigerian taxpayers when he had a bike accident. If Buhari insists he is describing “most” Nigerian youth, not his children who are mooching off Nigeria’s resources, then his disconnect from reality is more severe than we had previously imagined.
When the president isn’t stigmatizing and dissing Nigerians abroad, he broadens and lubricates our primordial fissures at home though his utterances. Even as president with a national mandate, Buhari can’t resist the unhelpful, needlessly divisive “we-northerners-versus-they-southerners” rhetoric. In a December 2017 video, for example, which I shared on Facebook and Twitter, Buhari thanked Kano people for coming out en masse to welcome him and said, “saboda yan kudu su san har yanzu inada gata.” Rough translation: “… so that Southerners can see how favored I still am.” That was gratuitous divisiveness.
Utterances like this from people who wield enormous symbolic power like the president of the country gravely undermine efforts at national cohesion. It shows that even as a person who enjoys the perks and privileges of national leadership, he still sees Nigeria in dichotomous, mutually exclusive binaries: as “we northerners” and “they southerners.”
That dichotomization is indefensible, especially by a sitting president who was voted into power by both southerners and northerners; who wouldn’t have been a president if he was voted only by northerners, who always glibly talks about Nigeria’s unity being “non-negotiable,” whose utterances have far greater ramifications for Nigeria’s unity than any Nigerian alive today, and who still seeks to be voted into power for a second term with votes from even the “yan kudu.”
If he had said “so that my opponents will know that I still have gata,” that wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows. But why did he need to show off to the yan kudu? Are Southerners his enemies? Aren’t they part of the Nigerians he swore to serve?
That he said this at a public event where he knew he could- or would- be recorded is what is even sadder than the fact that he said it at all. It shows that he, in fact, doesn’t even pretend to be a Nigerian nationalist who sees all of Nigeria as one. No past, not to talk of incumbent, head of state or president has ever said anything even close to this in public. If Buhar’s second term, which he appears poised to get, doesn’t end Nigeria as we know it, nothing ever will again.