On Sunday, the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to President Muhammadu Buhari, Garba Shehu, responded to the trio of the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union who had expressed concerns regarding the purported suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen. Though his statement was a measured response, it was loaded with explanatory and justificatory rhetoric, and peppered with both emotional blackmail and an imperious pronouncement of Onnoghen’s guilt. Those to whom Shehu responded were similarly temperate in their language; their words were carefully selected to show they maintain the necessary detachment from the situation. Otherwise, in the next few years, after the election has been lost and won, another sore loser will write a book blaming his electoral loss on the combo of the conspiratorial US, the UK, and the EU. Nevertheless, their intervention still felt paternalistic.
Shehu claimed the trio lacked the accurate picture of the situation and their meddlesomeness was a condescension to Nigeria’s sovereignty. On this one, I am divided. On the one hand, we must acknowledge that given the amount of global power these countries possess, we need their intervention in local matters to put a check on the excesses of Nigerian politicians for whom Nigerian lives do not matter. On the other hand, having these “big brother” countries sort us out every election cycle is embarrassing. Our leaders themselves have not helped with their habit of dragging themselves before foreign adjudicators as if there is no legal system in their own country.
In 2015, it was this same Shehu, as the Director of Media and Publicity for the APC presidential campaign, that announced that they were sending a petition against President Goodluck Jonathan to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. They claimed some armed pro-Jonathan groups attacked Lagosians under the pretext that they were demanding the sacking of then Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega. That same year, they announced again that they were taking the First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, to the ICC over the “hate speech” she had used during the campaigns. The PDP too retaliated by threatening to take Buhari to the ICC over the 2011 post-election violence. There was a series of other incidents where the APC threatened to use the ICC against their opponents. Just a few days ago, the PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, also petitioned France, Germany, the UK, the US, and the EU over alleged constitutional infractions by President Muhammadu Buhari. If we cannot manage our affairs and we take issues that should be resolved with our democratic jurisprudence tools to these countries for mediation and resolution, why complain about their infantilising us?
Shehu’s reaction on behalf of the President shows at least two things: One, by treating these countries as interlopers, they demonstrate strength, assertiveness, and self-pride to their hailing Nigerian supporters. However, considering how much our country, or more specifically, our political class, relies on the cultural power the like of the US, the UK, and the EU possess, such African pride is a luxury they can barely afford. Two, their response also shows that their government might be genuinely rattled that their political opponents could wage – and win- an international propaganda war against them, cause them to lose face in international circles, and then suffer the attendant shame. This fear by the APC is understandable considering how much the APC – as the opposition – de-legitimised the Jonathan government using a similar campaign of calumny in Washington.
Here is one thing for Shehu to think about the next time he wants to make a plea about national sovereignty and respect: you had this one coming. Yes, you begged for the insult, and you cannot talk your way out of it by insinuating meddlesomeness and alleging condescension on the part of these western countries. Your government has been seeking approbation from western countries by pandering to them, and you have been doing so by sanctimoniously extricating Buhari’s pure persona from the people, the ethically tainted Nigerians.
In December, when Buhari was booed at the National Assembly as he presented the 2019 budget, he made a remark that was somewhat revelatory. He said to the lawmakers who called him a “liar” for the preposterous claims he had made about the economy, “May I appeal to the honourable members that the world is watching us and we’re supposed to be above this”. There are several off-the-cuff statements that have given a quick snapshot of the kind of person Buhari is, and this one was one of them. When he said, “the world is watching us,” what he meant was that they should not embarrass him by calling him out on the outlandishness of his claims. His idea of “the world” was not about Nigerians and what they might think of their President being booed; half of them have already sworn their devotion to him, and the other half do not count. He would rather look good before western observers who could be viewing the event through their media than be truly good. To him, “the world” is the white gaze and the symbolic investiture power they confer on him as the morally pure leader who leads a nation of “fantastically corrupt” people.
This anxiety about being seen as better than the rest of Nigerians has led Buhari to curate himself as an untainted, yet, the poor burden bearer of collective sins. His international visits after he became the President, quickly became a means of staging his virtues and making a concomitant annunciation of them before the western officials. He went to the UK and superciliously proclaimed that Nigerians’ penchant for crimes had made them unwelcome in the west. Months later, and with the same smugness, he announced that a lot of Nigerian youths are “lazy,” uneducated lots who want free things. In his first Independence Day Speech as a civilian leader, he referred to Nigerians as “unruly,” another language that symptomises his disdain for his people. One might ask, what kind of leader throws his own people under the bus and drives over them like that? Well, the one who wants “the world” to see him as virtuous, an ethical contrast to his people whose filthy souls need his charisma – not democratic institutions – for its refurbishment. It was a drive for legitimation of his person and whatever actions he might want to take to straighten the people out.
That holier-than-thou attitude led him to agree with then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who had said Nigerians were “fantastically corrupt.” In a later interview, he told the Sky News editor that asked him about the incident that Cameron did not owe us an apology for his statement, that Nigerians were indeed fantastically corrupt. That acquiescence, meanwhile, came after an outrage by the same Shehu who claimed they were embarrassed Cameron did not factor the good work Buhari was doing on corruption into his assessment. Rather than reject the entire commentary outright, they zoomed in on the portion that favoured Buhari as the sole possessor of virtues; the one who was on a redemptive project to whitewash our dirty poor souls. Today, their government seems surprised they are no longer buying into the myth of Buhari’s incorruptibility and are now taking on his government for its transgressive actions on the rule of law. Their egos have been bruised, they have started noticing western “condescension.”
Last year, when Buhari went to the USA for his White House visit, Shehu addressed a press conference in Washington where he announced that Trump had been more supportive of their government than his predecessor, Barack Obama. I wrote then that the game Shehu was playing was not wise, that he was too obsequious towards Trump and his well-understood mission to obliterate Obama’s legacies. The endgame of this ego-stroking, I surmised then, was to get Trump’s support for Buhari’s re-election. Rather than maintain a clear-headedness about their mission to Washington, they turned the visit into political opportunism. Well, as he can see, their games did not win them medals, only the embarrassment of being told we are not mature enough to rule ourselves.