Friday, June 11, 2021 12:05 am
By Chris Anyokwu
Speech, the saying goes, is silver; silence golden. That is under normal circumstances. Our present situation in Nigeria is not normal. Far from it. Thus speech is not always silver or silence golden. This saying shares contextual affinity with another saying, to wit: “Silence is the best answer given to a fool”. However, when a leader or a ruler at whatever level of social organisation conceives of his subjects or citizens as fools, he can then afford to ignore speaking to/with them, either on daily basis or, as is always the case, weekly or monthly basis. Some world leaders speak to their people, the electorate, quarterly or annually. In strange situations, some rulers (certainly not leaders) do not speak to their citizens. This is really strange because one of the delights of leadership is communication or information-sharing. Thus leaders usually take advantage of speaking extempore or in situ: a kind of off-the-cuff, unstructured and spontaneous verbal interchange with reporters and news-hounds, say on an airport tarmac or a conference centre. A periodic meet-the-press parley can also be organised at which issues and problems agitating the mind of the citizenry are ventilated and frayed nerves calmed. But a situation whereby the president merely deigns to read out a prepared speech in front of a battery of microphones and before media cameras is not good enough. Yet we must be thankful for this. What, to be sure, does one say about a situation whereby the president does not speak to his people at all?
And when yielding lugubriously to prolonged pressure, he manages to do so, his minders simply get him to pre-record a speech somewhere in the many posh rooms at the Villa, with a rough-and-ready paraphernalia of office put up as backdrop for the trademark briefest of speeches? Without belabouring the point, we all remember how the entire country was roiling during the EndSARS protests; how the country was unravelling, hurtling pell mell towards what seemed a bit of an end-game; a cataclysmic implosion as centrifugal forces, incandescent with arsonic rage, had taken position to barbecue the land. And the people, the electorate, cried and cried, calling on Mr. President to address the nation. But all pleas fell on deaf ears. He wouldn’t budge. No, not for all the cattle in Brazil and Argentina combined. But it would have been better if he did, for, after the “speech”, which was a pre-recorded one, many sections of which were already trending on social media, the general mood changed from taut expectancy to resigned bitterness. You couldn’t see or encounter a people looking more so woe-begone and hopeless.
Nigerians had wanted to see their president address them LIVE! They had pined so long to see, and, more importantly, hear him LIVE! For a nation is like a family full of children and the president is like the father of that family. From time to time, he gathers his children together around the dining-table and listens attentively to their complaints, their fears. He does his level best to allay their fears and reassure them of a buoyant and hopeful future. Nations rise and fall on account of the president’s speech. That is why serious-minded nations scrupulously and strenuously vet their would-be presidential speech-writers before hiring them for the job. It is not enough to know how to “blow” grammar; understanding the culture, the political climate, the ethno-religious sensitivities of the social self is a sine qua non. Beyond this, all the necessary security checks have to be done thoroughly and due diligence followed to the letter.
Down the line, someone should be wise enough to say to Mr. President: “Sir, this speech will set our country on fire. Let’s tone it down or change it outright”. The culture of privileged fawning by aides and spokespersons has done much harm already and has to stop. In public places, for instance, in beer parlours, viewing centres, staff clubs, etc., as soon as any of the media aides/spokespersons is shown on TV and begins to speak, what you hear is general hissing and sundry outbursts of uncomplimentary remarks aimed at the person on the screen. You can sum up these expressions of revulsion as: “Here we go again; they are always taking us for fools”. Then everyone switches off, sometimes barking instructions at the attendant to change the channel. Sometimes, also, they would just drown out the spokesperson’s voice with noisy, ear-splitting music and raucous laughter.
But, pray, should the presidential mouthpieces be so treated? With such disdain and irascible insouciance? As voices of power, shouldn’t they be carefully listened to and their words taken to heart? What is beyond doubt, however, is that family and friends of those who occupy the offices of presidential aides and spokespersons would concur with the generality of Nigerians that these minders have made a hash of it all. Just go through the timelines of “e-warriors” and e-critics; read their unsparing comments, you would weep, more for Nigeria than for the aides of power. You would weep less for them because people believe that they tend to go beyond the call of duty to denigrate and insult the collective intelligence of Nigerians. They do not make any bones about seeking to stupefy and bamboozle the citizenry as though ours is a nation of simpletons and retards.
As things stand at present, government is suffering from trust deficit (a topic for another day), and, as such, needs to put its house in order very quickly. To do so, Mr. President has got to jettison his trademark style of communicating through body-language. He must adopt and adapt to what is popularly referred to as global best practice in statecraft. US president Joe Biden addresses the American people almost every week, personally monitoring the unprecedented Infrastructure budget being debated on the Capitol. He is trying to secure bi-partisan approval for the coronavirus pandemic bail-out funding for every American, among others. Jen Psaki, the 42-year-old White House press secretary daily briefs American citizens on the ins-and-outs of government, thereby leaving no room whatsoever for invidious and venal speculation by mean-hearted mischief-makers.
The UK Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson normally stands in front 10, Dawning Street, London to address the British people from time to time as the need arises. He patronises corner-shops, rides his bicycle to and from work, attends public functions and socialises with common folk. Here in Africa, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is personally overseeing the effort to combat the dreaded coronavirus. Recently, he spoke out against what he called the “Vaccine Apartheid” against African countries instigated by the plutocratic West. There is a joke in town to the effect that a Nigerian and a Ghanaian were having an altercation. Whereupon the Nigerian boasted: “We are the Giant of Africa!” and the Ghanaian fired back: “We have a president, Nigerians don’t!” Global leaders are seen to be engaged; to be hands-on, on-the-beat. Citizens and the rest of the world are not left to be deciphering the body-language of the nation’s leader. A president is not synonymous with a Stone Age ruler, or an emperor who simply does whatever he deems fit. The president is answerable and accountable to the people as stipulated by the Constitution. Perhaps, it bears reiterating that the nation-state paradigm since Westphalia is operated on the basis of the rule of law. Therefore, government is not just there to dispense preferment and patronage or favours like a Santa Claus. By the same token, the commonwealth, as the word proclaims, is the common (collective) wealth of the common (citizens) people. Again: political scientists, cultural historians and analysts have characterised our current political dispensation as civilian autocracy. They aver that it is NOT a democracy, protestations to the contrary, notwithstanding. They cite as their warrant the numerous internal contradictions plaguing our political “jangolova” – a kind of political merry-go-round onto which political jobbers hop to despoil our commonweal, dispense the choicest positions to their toadies, lackeys and cronies at the expense of national development and the improvement of the quality of life of the longsuffering and pauperised masses.
Sam Omatseye once wrote an article which he captioned “When Silence Means Contempt”. This piece is companion to his and to Nosa Igiebor’s “The Sad Chronicles of a “failed” Messiah”, published in Tell only recently. As earlier stressed, the president’s coterie of mouthpieces has tried its best to normalise the politics of presidential silence and imperial standoffishness, in the face of raging national crises. These paid pipers have tried but failed serially and woefully to explain away all the troubles in our land, the insurgencies, the banditry, the killings and maiming. It is not working. Sadly, the president usually talks or “speaks” only when he travels abroad. A few instances will suffice: the now-famous Nigerian catch-phrase “the other room” (a most offensive ultra-conservative and patriarchal denigration of womanhood) and the infamous put-down “Nigerian youths are lazy” were uttered in Europe. It was also overseas where PMB tried to put a lie to the rumours about his doppelganger, i.e., whether or not he is what he says he is. It was in Egypt he made a policy statement that anybody could enter Nigeria without a visa, and this. right at the height of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Now look at what Nigeria has become – a Somalia-in-waiting. Now, whenever PMB travels abroad, Nigerians panic expecting yet another clanger, another wedge to be driven into our fractured body politic. The happiest people on earth are now the saddest. Formerly Africa’s giant is now a ninny of a rogue state, craven and timorous behind South Africa, Egypt, Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana, Mauritius, etc. The worst fallout under the present predicament is the sowing of the seed of mutual ethnic animus and resentment, mainly between the core North and the whole of the South.
Perhaps, it would have been better if Mr. President had remained true to his nature as recent developments have made most rue their vociferous insistence that he must speak! The Twitter storm raging at present, created by his alleged threat of military action against southeasters and the people destroying government property, especially INEC facilities, has made Nigerians appreciate PMB’s policy of stony silence. (Read also Wole Soyinka’s article “Off to ‘Shock’ and ‘Awe’”). What is apparent in all of this is that PMB is having a hard time coming to grips with the finer ingredients of participatory and citizen-centred democracy. The old warrior is still very much alive in spite of the mellowing and tempering effect of age. The choice before Nigerians is: should the president speak and things then fall apart or remain silent and all shall be well?
Chris Anyokwu, PhD, writes from University of Lagos.