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The Speech that Left The Nation Speechless, By Feyisitan Ijimakinwa

Feyisitan Ijimakinwa

Crises are regular and constant features of human relationships and engagements. In the same vein, crisis management is a strategic element of leadership. This is because conflicts and crises are inevitable, especially as they concern human beings. That is the reason why crisis management is one of the most important subjects in leadership trainings. In the history of humanity, the ability to effectively manage crisis has earned men and women lofty places of honour. These are individuals gave profound leadership and direction in times of crisis. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Samora Machel and Martin Luther King (Jnr) are some of world leaders who, at different times, bore the burden of leadership responsibilities and expectations, and creditably managed diverse crises. Since crisis is normal in human to human engagement, it is therefore expected of anyone in leadership, regardless of the field, to develop necessary crisis management skills. In spite of this necessity, many people in positions of leadership are undone by crisis owing to the absence of effective crisis management skills. 

The #EndSARS protests that held in many parts of the country, in recent weeks, have again showed the managerial ineptitude of some of our leaders in this part of the world. The protests started on a unique note of orderliness (a departure from violence attended protests that we are used to). It did not register quickly with many people. But, their effective deployment of social media soon brought them into people’s consciousness, and by the time the protests had entered the second week, many more people had begun to identify with them, even though not many people gave them any chance of holding their own. Respected Public Policy expert, Professor Tunji Olaopa stoked my interest when he remarked that voting and protests are two fundamental elements of democracy. The young people who chose to protest against police brutality and bad governance in Nigeria were only exercising a fundamental necessity of democracy. 

However, the remarkably peaceful protests of the Soro Soke (Speak up) generation soon experienced the inexplicable Nigerian factor. After different attempts to intimidate the protesters, infiltrate their ranks, divide them and castigate them, many including those in power shamefacedly admitted that this was ‘Protest Unusual’. On Tuesday, 20th October, 2020 as the day surrendered itself to dusk, nature got a helping hand as the installed lights at the Lekki Toll Gate went out, and the protest ground was thrown into pitch darkness. Not long after this, sparks of light from the barrels of the assault rifles of the soldiers lit up the night and fell many defenceless and unarmed protesters. From that moment, the night receded and the nation, as a people, has not slept ever since. 

The next 24 hours following the Lekki shooting were shocking and unbelievable. From Lagos to Edo, Delta to Ekiti, Ondo to Anambra, there were extensive looting, burning, killing and carnage. Within 48 hours after the Lekki incident, not less than four states of the federation had imposed curfews. Suddenly, the focus of the entire world was on Nigeria. With the problem spreading rapidly, and no word from Aso Rock, there were urgent and passionate calls, from home and abroad for President Muhammadu Buhari to address the nation, as a way of forestalling escalation of the crisis. Eventually, after 72 hours of brigandage in many parts of the country, and following the urging by different personalities from across the globe, a press release was put out in the afternoon of 23rd October, that President Muhammadu Buhari would be addressing the nation later that evening.

In a very long time and for as long as I can remember, if my memory serves me well, the address scheduled for 7:00 pm was probably one of the most anticipated address by any Nigerian leader, in recent times. What made it more interesting was because the President had remained detached, unperturbed and silent all through the last 72 hours of vandalism and violence, which came in the wake of the shooting of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate – one of the two prime locations of the #EndSARS protests in Lagos. At some point, questions were asked, in different gatherings and circles, about the presence of President Buhari because of the portentous and deafening silence from Aso Rock. The only semblance of assurance of his being alive came with a picture of his meeting with security chiefs and the Inspector General of Police, earlier in the day. 

 

When President Buhari eventually addressed the nation at 7:00pm, it turned out an unemotional anti-climax. The 13 minutes speech by the President will probably go down as one of the worst and wrongest addresses by any Nigerian leader. In a speech that says tonnes about President Buhari’s perception of Nigerian youths, social peace and well-being of Nigerians, he did not make any reference to the event at Lekki. This was more glaring as Governor Babjide Sanwo-Olu had repeatedly stated that he did not invite men of the Nigeria Army to the protest ground. As the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigeria Armed Forces, the world waited to hear what President Buhari would say. Instead, the speech read like Lekki never happened. He spoke about the vandalisation and looting of the palace of the Oba of Lagos but no mention of protesters that were shot at and killed (with clear evidence) by soldiers.

The President then went into self- adulation as he reeled out a long list of his administration’s socio-economic interventions and programmes. Although many people still struggle to know the beneficiaries of these overtly politicized programmes. The government has not been able to clear the air on the allegations of political patronage as a necessary conditionality before benefitting from the programmes. Whether Trader-Moni, Agri-Moni, Small and Medium Enterprise Support Scheme and many others, Nigerians wonder who gets these benefits and the conditions attached. President Buhari spoke for 13 minutes and left many citizens speechless and despondent. He talked about police stations that were burnt. He praised policemen and reiterated that their welfare is top priority for his government. Curiously, this is one of the demands of the protesters. The protesters had reasoned that the poor welfare/salary of the Police is a sure cause of corruption and absence of motivation amongst this category of essential service workers. In what even sounded like a diplomatic tiff, President Buhari warned foreign countries to mind their businesses and not interfere in Nigeria’s internal affairs.

In all, as far as President Buhari was concerned, the youths who were killed at Lekki did not count for anything. The soldiers that opened live fire on unharmed and orderly protesters did not do anything wrong. In fact, it was as if they were never there. In the few hours that followed the President’s address, the subjects of ‘Relocation away from Nigeria,’  ‘It is over’ (despondency) and ‘International passport’ were top trends on social media. These were young people’s reactions to the dashed expectations that arose from the speech. Social media memes, emojis, stickers and posts talking about leaving the country via serious means of pursuing scholarship, jobs and trainings flowed freely after the address. There were even funny ones like leaving the country via arranged marriages, illegal migration and adoption. One post said “If you have a brother abroad who wants a wife, I am a 100 yards wife material and I will give you good children and take care of you. Some even said they were ready to trek to Ghana.  While one may wave these off as light-hearted jokes, the import must not be lost on anyone, as all these resonate with disappointment and despondency that arose from the President’s speech especially against the backdrop of the killing at Lekki.

President Buhari read an address but failed to seize the moment to assuage the pain and grief of the nation. He squandered an opportunity to soothe the youths. President Buhari showed that he lacked emotional intelligence as he failed to be the Father of the nation, at such an important time. He failed in the face of crisis, probably the most defining of his presidency. The world begged President Buhari to address Nigerians and his speech showed that he was not interested in speaking. The President address lasted 13 minutes. It was 13 minutes of shallow nothingness that left the nation speechless, not because of its brilliance or profoundness, but because it was full of nothingness. Like someone said on Twitter “Nigerians asked the President to speak to them but the President’s speech left the nation speechless”

 

Feyisitan Ijimakinwa writes from the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan

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