It is in this light I read the latest article on President Muhammadu Buhari by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, entitled, “Buhari: Beyond the Iron and Steel.”
Adesina attempts to portray a Buhari that is “human and humane” and to achieve this, reached for parts of the President that starkly contrast his public image of a tough, resolute and almost impenetrable leader. He sketches a picture of a Buhari with a sense of humour by chronicling his relationship with him. He shows the President as a man of like passions, one who can be tickled just like the rest of us mortals. Like Jesus Christ who wept because his humanity burst through his divinity, Adesina gives us a Buhari that laughs because he is human (or is humanised by his sense of humour).
There are a number of reasons the article interested me enough to warrant this response. One is due to the simultaneous political subjectivities that are expressible through laughter. There are many reasons people laugh. Laughter is variously inflected by multiple valences of human actions and that is why all forms of laughter are not the same. People laugh, not merely out of mirth or gaiety, but in some instances to express solidarity and even to hide dissent.
There are other reasons people laugh too and in the cases inventoried by Adesina, I found myself questioning whether those who laughed at the President’s jokes did so because they found him genuinely funny or because they were expected to laugh because a big man was cracking jokes. Let me quickly digress to say I got interested in how people laugh in the presence of power during Dr. Goodluck Jonathan’s time as President. From certain photographs, I observed that a known person tends to “over-laugh” on each occasion. It was as if his laughter was not about the joke being shared, but as an expression of a made in Nigeria I-remain-loyal brand of sycophancy. When people like that laugh at jokes by their superiors, they may be registering camaraderie. That means it is unlikely they will reflect on the story and the politics of the telling.
Adesina gave an instance of Buhari using an anecdote about a German sentry to express his relative powerlessness in fighting corruption in a democratic setting. He said the President and his guests laughed heartily. Beyond the “hearty” laughter, did they ponder his telling of the story as gesturing towards at an underlying truth? That contrary to what he thinks, Buhari’s anti-corruption is not necessarily impeded by the inbuilt devices of checks and balances of democracy? That the fight against corruption will greatly profit if Buhari – and I must add, his supporters – stop romancing his dictatorship past. From the anecdote Buhari shared with his guests and his added commentary, the man of iron and steel we are invited to see unsettlingly carbon-dates to his own first coming in the ‘80s. Also, it seems his past is some kind of glorious machine he regularly polishes with the oil of nostalgia.
In a sense, it is understandable why he would be self-righteously stuck with his old methods; even Nigeria itself has barely progressed and an objective assessment of our social evolution will show that we have actually regressed as a people. Nothing says that a society is more stagnated than a former military ruler in a civilian rule who talks about his abusive and repressive past, not to denounce it with a firm conviction of “never again!” but pits it against the relative tameness of democracy. Democracy may have its own demerits but the brutal and unjustifiable tactics Buhari executed as the head of state, clamping people to jail and forcing the populace to attain a level of discipline was a useless method of nation building. Viewed against the bigger picture of developing a national ethos or guiding philosophy, and molding a sense of citizenship, his first coming added nothing to us.
There are some of Buhari’s followers who still romanticise this period and some go to the extent of openly lamenting the constitutional constraints that prohibit a return to this past. This call for regression to barbarism is worrisome. Adesina himself stated about this period that Nigeria was being “whipped into line.” He probably imagines Nigerians as circus animals that need whips to get them to act. If there is any possibility that if Buhari’s WAI had managed to instil a military kind of discipline in people, Nigeria would have functioned better, it would have been evident in the structure of the Nigerian Army itself that was charged with enforcing the so-called discipline. The military officers themselves lacked the discipline and decorum that suggested their ideas had any intrinsic worth beyond sheer cruelty. This internal instability was evident in the way they toppled themselves in coups and counter-coups.
The logic of the idea of forced discipline was curious for even its own time; so, why have they not let it go since? The endless resort to bringing up Buhari’s dictatorship past as some kind of nirvana – that was Adesina’s language- while lamenting the impossibility of re-enacting the same due to democratic constraints is nothing but a crave for sadomasochistic pleasure. In what universe would a government that practised some of the inhuman acts Adesina himself called a “nirvana”? Which brings me to wondering how – with all the spin and rationalisations one gets to hear these days – this period will be archived and narrated sometime in future by historians.
Will the future historians of this period overlook the various policies of the past one year that have been raising inflation and causing tremendous woes for Nigerians? Will they acknowledge that this administration’s anti-corruption fight is a triumph of an extravaganza of public trials over the sobriety such a process requires? Will they properly inventory the litany of failed promises and the various setbacks the nation has experienced under a leadership that did not adequately prepare for power or will they rewrite history by surreptitiously denying people’s reality?
Adesina’s piece is interesting in other ways too. He says Buhari reads the satire Nigerians pen about him and he laughs at them. I find that funny too but for its irony. There is a reason politically disempowered people use laughter as a weapon of resistance against their leaders. The instruments of laughter range from memes to satiric social media updates, age-old cartooning, and witty captioning of moments, all of which are calculated to tell the emperor he is buck naked. But imagine the Emperor laughing back at the people even as he prances on horseback, still naked? The joke will be on the people and their laughter will awkwardly cease.
Adesina says when Nigerians criticised Buhari’s frequent travels, he read them and laughed since he understands that there was a point to the travelling. For me, that attitude is one that needs to be addressed. If Nigerians do not see the point of the President’s “wakaabout”, it implies a failure of communication on the government’s part. The paternalistic condescension of Adesina and Buhari’s counter laughter over the lacuna they created suggest they do not even see any issue to it. That is frankly troubling, not funny.