In September 2019 in New York, Nigeria ruler Muhammadu Buhari was asked: “Nigeria has a very young population; perhaps you might highlight what a pathway for a resilient future looks like?”
On the calendar, it was the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, and General Buhari was participating in the Climate Action Summit. That embarrassing multilateral moment saw everyone exchanging glances as the panel moderator asked the question.
Buhari did not answer the question, could not meet the moment. Instead, he reached into his file and began to read the entirety of a general prepared text on climate change.
“Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I share the sentiment expressed by the secretary-general that the world is on the verge of climate catastrophe. Undeniably, climate change is a human-induced phenomenon.
“It is now imperative that we must step up our collective climate action in line with the request of the secretary-general. It is in this regard that I wish to reiterate Nigeria’s commitment…”
Last Thursday, Buhari was scheduled to be at another global climate change event: the two-day virtual summit convened by US President Mr. Joe Biden. The American leader pledged that the US would cut its emissions by about half by 2030. The US would also substantially increase the amount of money offered to developing countries to address climate change, a point that was sure to be of great interest to Nigeria under Buhari.
The virtual format was perfect for Buhari, if he spoke at all, as he was expected to say all the right things. He often does that when he reads, as he does not have to demonstrate any understanding of procedure or subject.
In Nigeria on Thursday, he was not reading someone’s words: someone was reading his mind for the world on the most vexing question of cabinet Minister Isa Pantami.
Dr. Pantami, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, has been credibly unveiled as harbouring extremist Islamic views and being sympathetic to such groups as al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.
As his odious track record has emerged in the past couple of weeks, revealing a man of extreme religious views, outraged Nigerians demanded he be relieved of his appointment.
Several documents, including audios and videos, have emerged profiling a man of violence and bigotry. One such document shows the minister as having chaired a July 2010 of the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), in which he plotted with other Muslim leaders to violently wipe away Christians from the northern parts of Nigeria.
That meeting also featured a plot to kill Patrick Yakowa, the then-Christian governor of Kaduna State for simply being a Christian leading a state in the Muslim-dominated North. Dr. Yakowa subsequently died in a mysterious helicopter crash in 2012, one year after he won a substantive term in office.
On Thursday, Buhari ignored pleas to remove Pantami from the cabinet. In a press statement signed by spokesman Garba Shehu, the presidency claimed that Pantami made the statements when he was “young” and has apologised for them.
“The views were absolutely unacceptable then, and would be equally unacceptable today, were he to repeat them,” it said. “But he will not repeat them – for he has publicly and permanently condemned his earlier utterances as wrong.
“In the 2000s, the minister was a man in his twenties; next year he will be 50. Time has passed, and people and their opinions – often rightly – change.”
The presidency then went after those calling for Pantami to be sacked. As always, it retreated to the US to copy a concept which would capture what it could not: the “cancel culture.”
“They do not really care what he may or may not have said some 20 years ago: that is merely the instrument they are using to attempt to “cancel” him,” Shehu said. “But they will profit should he be stopped from making decisions that improve the lives of everyday Nigerians.
If anyone were looking for a demonstration of what has made Buhari such an embarrassing failure as a leader, here is it, simplified. It is that every time in the past six years history has presented him with a choice, one of which would have granted him the benefit of the doubt and dignity and respect, he has chosen the other one.
It is that every time history has presented him with a choice, one of which would have granted him the image of a thoughtful ruler with an eye on history, he has chosen the other.
It is that every time he has had it in his hands to choose what to be—a statesman or another—he has chosen the other.
Perhaps this is because Buhari is a big man, a really, big man. A culture in which a big man is one who gets others to do everything for him.
In this culture, if you are big enough, others cook and clean for you. I mean, you do have to pray in public so that people will think you are pious and God-fearing, but they must do everything else. They drive you. They read for you. They write for you. They exercise for you. They even think for you.
Otherwise, in the case of Pantami, it might have been obvious that the argument as to whether a 34-year-old man is too immature to be held responsible for his incendiary words against his country and its peoples is itself immature.
Think about it: if a 34-year-old man had killed the child of President Buhari 20 years ago, every Nigerian knows that he would not pronounce that man innocent no matter how many mountains he now declares his apologies or his youth at that time.
Sadly, Buhari thinks that this is about Pantami. But it is about Buhari, and it illuminates and strengthens the Nigeria ruler’s long record of contradiction, prevarication, and duplicity before the entire world. Few are the world leaders who think that using the government to defend a minister of such an abhorrent character is good policy.
Only last week, we were talking about what Twitter’s location of its Africa Headquarters in Ghana means. But let us go back to the earlier days when nations were falling over each other following Buhari’s election, in the belief he was a true leader.
At the US Institute for Peace in July 2015 during his official visit, Buhari was asked: “There is so much goodwill (for Nigeria) not just in the US but all over the world to have you succeed…how are you going to coordinate all of the offers and the resources so that they don’t end up operating at cross purposes and you are able to leverage them in a way that is responsive to [Nigeria’s] needs?”
“I intend to sustain this goodwill by performance,” Buhari answered. “I will work very hard, and I believe I will succeed.”
Sadly, by his “performance”, which includes his embrace of people such as Pantami, Buhari has squandered all that goodwill, and thrown away the resources Nigeria was offered.
All that is left, as they laugh at another African sideshow, are palace ego-massagers. By implication, it is Buhari who is now on the international watchlist.
[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials.]