There was a lot of trepidation that President Buhari’s visit to the US would be as gaffe-plagued as most of his foreign visits. (During an October 2016 German visit, for instance, while standing beside the world’s most powerful woman, Buhari dissed his wife as fit only for his “kitchen” and “the other room.” While in the UK in February 2016, he said diasporan Nigerians are resented in the West because they are criminals. A few weeks ago in the UK, he described “a lot of” Nigerian youth as illiterate, parasitic idlers).
I have to admit that in terms of protocol and comportment, the president did well this last visit-like he did in his first American visit. He was composed, presidential, and admirably guarded. (Americans said he looked “caged” and intimidated, but I didn’t see that.) During his joint press briefing with President Trump, Buhari chose his words wisely, carefully, and deliberately- and committed no gaucherie.
I particularly liked how he handled the “gotcha” questions from reporters, such as the one that wanted to know if he discussed Trump’s belittling of African countries as “shitholes.” Buhari’s gracious response to the question was certainly the trigger for Trump’s hyperbolic, you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours remark about there being “no country more beautiful” than Nigeria in the world. It would have been supremely awkward and socially tactless to ask Trump about an uncomplimentary comment he didn’t make publicly.
My recounting of Buhari’s first visit to America, published in my July 25, 2015 column titled, “President Buhari’s Grand Movements in America,” was also overwhelmingly positive. I wrote: “From his polished, dignified comportment during meetings with Obama and other top American government officials at the White House, to his exceptionally well-written and brilliantly delivered speech at the United States Institute of Peace, to his dexterous and humorous responses to questions from audience members at the USIP, to his perfect poise and self-assured delivery at the American Chamber of Commerce dinner, to his witty, informative session with Nigerians in America, and to his interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, President Buhari shone like a star.”
The Low Points
There were three major low points in the visit for me. The first is that Buhari allowed Trump to get away with a horrendous factual inaccuracy about the mass insecurity in the country. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,”Trump said. “We’re going to be working on that problem and working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”
Of course, Trump didn’t say that out of any genuine concern for Nigerian Christians. (Trump isn’t even a believing, churchgoing Christian). He said it simply to stir up his US support base, which is largely evangelical Christian.Instead of looking at him stone-faced and tongue-tied, Buhari could have said something like, “I thank you, Mr. President, for yourconcern about the needless deaths in my country. It’s true that a lot of Christians have been murdered by herders, but just as many Muslims have been murdered by the same people. In spite of appearances to the contrary, this isn’t a religious war.” Or something along those lines.
No one who is even halfway sincere can make the case with a straight face that the murderous fury of bloodthirsty herders across Nigeria is motivated by religion. Zamfara people, who are predominantly Muslims, are as much victims of the homicidal marauders as the predominantly Christian Benue and Plateau people.
The second low point wasBuhari’s admission that he sought no favors from Trump other than buying “helicopters” to fight Boko Haram. He said it was not in his place to tell America where to buy its crude oil from. Yet Trump said he wanted Nigeria to open its market for American agricultural products, shortly after Buhari disclosed that increased local rice production in Nigeria had caused a 90 percent reduction in the importation of rice. How could Buhari waste an opportunity to negotiate deals in the interest of the nation, something Trump did for his own country? Being sold “helicopters” to fight insurgents isn’t exactly a favor because Nigeria paid for it-illegally it turned out.
My guess is that Buhari was tongue-tied with excessive restraint because he was overly scripted. He appeared to be intimidated by Trump who has a reputation for antagonistic brusqueness. Buhari probably alsodidn’t want to risk being publicly tongue-lashed and humiliated by Trump, so he towed the line of least resistance by being unnaturally meek.
The third low point was Buhari’s stigmatization of northern youth in his interview with the Voice of America on Tuesday. When he was asked to clarify his reference to Nigerian youth as uneducated, entitled parasites, the president implied that his remark was actually directed at northern Nigerian youth.
“You know in the north most youthsare uneducated or school dropouts. If not because we had good harvests in the last two farming seasons, the situation would have deteriorated,” he said. “These youths even if they travel out of the north for greener pasture they hardly make it economically because what they earn as income cannot afford them to meet their basic needs or return home.”
So, again, the president chose a foreign media outlet in a foreign land to narrow down and double down on his unprovoked, unwarranted censure of the youth. Well, at least it’s no longer “a lot of” Nigerian youth that are lazy and uneducated; just “most” northern youth. When he travels to another country someday soon, he will probably narrow it further to “northern Muslim youth”- and perhaps even further to God knows what. Since most of his defenders are northern youth, thiswon’t provoke any outrage. Theaffrontwill probably be worn as a badge of honor.
In other words, since the president’s initial London answer, which he “clarified” to VOA, was in response to investment opportunities in the northeast, he was basically telling potential foreign investors to steer clear of the north because the region’s youth are mostly parasitic, uneducated, entitled do-nothings. Even if this were true, which responsible president goes abroad to castigate his compatriots? I have no problem with telling each other uncomfortable home truths at home. But to outsiders who are actually giving you an opportunity to say something positive about your people? No!
And why would a president on whose watch youth unemployment more than doubled have no twinge of moral compunction about stigmatizing and denigrating his country’s vulnerable youth population abroad? Youth unemployment was 14.9 in July 2015. By July 2017, it climbed to 33.1, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. And given the trend from 2015, it doesn’t seem likely that this grim picture will change for the better by July 2018.
By denouncing Nigerian youth in London when he was asked to tell the world about investment opportunities in the north, Buhari dug a hole and threw the sand away. By narrowing his denunciation to “most northern youth” in Washington, DC, he dug a fresh hole and used the sand from it to cover the first hole he dug.But it’s the same difference: there is still an uncovered hole. Well, an English proverb says, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”