Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mr President, What is Your Message?

When Senator Chuba Okadigbo complained some years ago that three years of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration had yielded “no quotable quotes,” he was lamenting the inspiration deficit of Nigerian leaders. Listening to President Goodluck Jonathan’s inaugural speech, I was struck yet again by how abjectly bereft of inspirational powers most of Nigeria’s top politicians are. An inaugural speech is traditionally a defining proclamation of a president’s agenda. What we heard on inauguration day was a drab, colourless, soporific recital unworthy of recall. It left no memorable fragments to warm the heart or quicken the spirit. It was forgettable and I would wager that few if any Nigerians can recall any part of that address.

President Jonathan’s oratorical challenges have long been obvious. He was not the most eloquent of the four main contenders for the presidency. (In fairness, his closest rival in the election is possibly an even worse speaker). Jonathan’s predecessors, the grumpy, gravelly-voiced Obasanjo and the dour Umar Yar’Adua were far from stellar public speakers. The problem goes beyond eloquence. It speaks to the inability of leaders to inspire Nigerians with their words.

In fact, this is a contradiction of our political traditions. The nationalists of yore considered rhetorical sophistication an essential part of their political arsenal. In our indigenous cultures, the art of eloquence and the spoken word was a key part of education for public life. The nostrums of our culture were orally transmitted. The creative and destructive power of words is recognized in African moral traditions. “Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten,” Chinua Achebe wrote. His axiom conveyed the truth that in African culture, the spoken word was a form of spiritual and mental nourishment. Accordingly, the nationalists practised oratory as the dispensation of soul food. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Aminu Kano, Kingsley Mbadiwe, Mbonu Ojike, Adegoke Adelabu, Mokwugo Okoye, Raji Abdallah among others were renowned for their fluency. Our first Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was acclaimed as “the golden voice of Africa.”    

I believe that military intervention which ruptured the liberal tradition and inseminated Nigerian history with a lineage of soldiers more accustomed to barking commands and decrees than winning hearts and minds through the power of persuasion is partly to blame. Even so, among the soldiers, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Murtala Mohammed were notably fiery speakers. Simply wearing khaki does not impede eloquence.

The oratorical limitation of our leading politicians also has a great deal to do with the context of elite selection. The nationalists had to rally multitudes to their cause in order to gain political significance, whereas political leadership today does not depend so much on inspiring multitudes as on buying the favours of godfathers. It is less about persuading the electorate than placating special interests. The absence of a real public debate before the polls between the leading presidential contenders denied Nigerians the opportunity of seeing them match wits against each other. Instead of watching the aspirants to the most significant office in the black world arguing their respective cases for leadership, we had to settle for a dire presidential monologue. If you never have to make a case for your leadership before the people, then your ability to inspire their confidence at any other time will be nil.

It is significant that many of the most powerful public speakers in Nigeria today are either pastors or imams. Their leadership, being devoid of any coercive sanction, rests entirely on their ability to persuade, to inspire voluntary loyalty. If they cannot speak to the inner consciousness, they rapidly lose their audiences. There is a reason why the numbers that fill our crusade and prayer grounds have yet to be matched by any voluntary gathering for a party rally. Multitudes still drift towards the wells of inspiration and words fitly spoken still set hearts aflame. In these days of religious extremism, the president and many politicians are in a rhetorical contest for hearts and minds with charlatans who use their influence over the multitudes for evil.        

The ability to inspire people matters, especially since the task before us is mobilizing Nigerians with a sense of common purpose. It will take the right words to resurrect people from tribal tombs and raise them to a new level of national consciousness. It will take inspiration to pierce through the veils of cynicism and pessimism that separate the citizenry from the leadership. It takes rhetoric to build bridges of empathy to connect the powerless with the powerful. It will take rhetoric to motivate Nigeria’s teeming young population, many of whom are without jobs and see no prospects for the future.  

The power to inspire and influence is basically rooted in conviction. People are more likely to follow leaders who display passion. It has been a long time since a Nigerian leader displayed fervency. Murtala was not a rhetorician in the league of the nationalists but his fervour was undeniable. His ‘Africa Has Come of Age’ speech was memorable not just for its words but also for the passion with which he delivered it in 1976 at Addis Ababa. Nigerians remember his time in office as one of governmental resolve largely because of his ardour.

We have yet to decipher what Jonathan stands for and what ideas command his passions. He has no record of strongly-held positions, either oral or written, on any of our pressing national issues. Even his repudiation of the PDP’s zoning arrangement which some had hoped would be a springboard for asserting a new post-sectarian meritocracy in our politics has turned out to be opportunism with the president now reaffirming zoning. His inaugural address was replete with the usual clichés about “patriotism” and “resilience” and getting “Nigerians to dream again.” But presidential sermonizing on patriotism would be more compelling if it were delivered with conviction. There is as yet no message or big idea, no core value or principle around which the president can mobilize Nigerians.

In a presidential democracy, the centrality of the chief executive means that the president is the prime town-crier, the nation’s narrator and storyteller-in-chief. We look up to him to put our times in historical context, to instruct us as to where we are going as a nation and to create a dramatic symmetry between our collective past, present and future. When the president speaks, it should be with oracular gravity. As such, legitimate criticism may be leveled against the president’s speech writers. The inaugural speech failed to strike the right chords even when dealing with the historic significance of being the first Nigerian from an ethnic minority to assume the presidency. Sometimes, even when assailed by stilted and wooden delivery, the right words uttered at the right moment can do a profound work – but the president had no ammunition.

Of course, eloquence is not everything. For instance, it is not a substitute for character. Adolf Hitler was charismatic and eloquent. In the last elections, Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shekarau impressed many watchers as the most articulate of the main contenders. But his performance in Kano did not quite rise to the level of his rhetoric. There are some who might argue that the president can compensate for his oratorical limitations with his character and competence. That remains to be seen.

Still, a measure of eloquence matters. A dexterous public communicator can translate a crisis into an opportunity for national self-transcendence. In times of crisis, leaders come forth to give utterance to the groans of their people. Nigeria is in crisis and requires voices to articulate its yearnings. Some would say that it is asking too much for Nigerian politicians to sound like Barack Obama or Tony Blair. This view not only contains a derogatory insistence that we keep accepting the average, but misses the point. Azikiwe thought that leadership should be reserved for an aristocracy of intelligence and Obafemi Awolowo wrote that only those who possessed “mental magnitude” were fit to lead Nigeria. Alas, Nigerian leadership has plummeted from those lofty standards.  We can refer to the nationalists because there was a time when politics was about words and ideas not just cash, bags of rice or frivolous pageantry. The president has to raise his game.

The Nigerian presidency is not merely the leadership of a small West African country; it is the leadership of a quarter of the black race. There are more Nigerians on this planet than Britons, Germans or the French. A Nigerian president is well-positioned to champion Africa and the black world’s cause in the conclaves of the world’s most powerful nations. It is important therefore that we begin to raise our standards in terms of what we expect of our leaders. The quality of a nation’s leaders is directly connected to the public expectation and definition of leadership. The time for settling for the barely average and tempering merit with mediocrity is over. The 21st century will punish us harshly if we persist in doing so.     

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