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Dude, Where’s “My” President?

January 29, 2009
It is no longer news that the man I reluctantly call the president of Nigeria has been missing in inaction for a while. Every vocal observer has complained about how little of Yar’adua Nigerians have seen since his problematic ascendance almost two years ago.

So deafening and routine has the public outcry become that Yar’adua’s handlers seem to have devised a strategy for handling it. They wait until a dangerous threshold is reached, the level at which idle gossips about immobility and near-death emergencies solidify into unchallenged truths. Then, like giddy lawyers seeking to undo some shoddy allegation with an evidentiary bombshell, they roll Yar’adua out. They guide his increasingly frail body to a few events, all the while gloating at those who whispered unspeakable possibilities about the president’s health and mental alertness.

After these triumphant cameos through a few of Abuja’s high profile political events, the president retreats into another prolonged hibernation, until there is another public outrage about his absence from the nation’s economic and political life.

The president’s men have perfected the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil art of self-deception. They reckon that as long as the president is strategically unleashed on the nation to sow an illusion of his mental and physical capacity to lead, all will be well. And Yar’adua’s well-known infirmities will remain a private matter to be tucked away beyond the realm of public speculation.

In their attempt to fight public perception about Yar’adua’s physical fitness and cognitive grasp of the country’s challenges, his handlers have treated the presidency like a showcase in a museum, displaying the president to Nigerians as needed to remind them that their president is still around. And in charge. They have treated the president’s physical and mental whereabouts as a state secret. When questions persist, the strategy has been to neither deny nor confirm the steady trickle of speculations on the president and his troubles.

The problem is that this strategy has not worked in the past. Take the bungling of Mr. Yar’adua’s last medical trip to Saudi Arabia. In an age of dizzying information flows, it only took a few days for the lesser hajj narrative to unravel and for the president’s medical struggles in Saudi Arabia to make their way into the news cycle.

Hiding Yar’adua’s medical and political travails doesn’t fly with a discerning public, especially since the narrative of Yar’adua’s incapacity has become the staple of quotidian political gossips.

Nor is there a discernible utilitarian logic to the choreographed and heavily assisted public appearances of the president. For one thing, because they are often done in response to mounting criticisms of the long, inexplicable lulls in the president’s leadership, they actually reinforce the perception they are calculated to combat. Second, because the president’s physical comportment at these showcase events contradict the intended message of his staged appearances, the public showings stoke instead of defuse public speculation about his lingering disabilities.
The president’s aides seem to have a superficial understanding of the public concern about the man’s absence from governance. Their superficial solution of occasionally making the president available for public viewing stems from this misperception.

Only very few critics of the president’s failures, absences, and silences, mean “absence” in the simple physical sense of the president not being in the public view or retreating out of view for long periods, although, of course, a president also has to be seen to be physically presiding over things as his office demands. But most outraged commentators are not simply preoccupied with the inanity of beholding the president in his regal and ceremonial splendor. Were that the case, the public frustration with the Yar’adua administration would have receded in correspondence to the president’s occasional public appearances.

To complain about the president’s long absences and curious silences and inaction is to lament his failure to take charge of the nation’s problems as a competent administrator would. To complain that the president is reclusive is to invoke the most obvious metaphor of the man’s growing legend of incompetence and administrative timidity.

Segun Adeniyi and other members of the president’s inner circle of aides should try once in a while to properly understand Nigerians’ frustration with the administrative style or lack thereof of their principal. It will save them the perennial embarrassment of unwittingly validating the ubiquitous alternative narratives and theories of Yar’adua’s political slumber.


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