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After a needless display of vulnerable arrogance President Muhammadu Buhari has allowed his presidential feet to step on the blood-stained soil of Benue State. At the time of writing this piece on Sunday the government and people of Benue were making arrangements to welcome the President. Schoolchildren may line the streets to welcome the President. Traditional rulers will show up in their cultural finery. Top government officials will do their customary duty to pull off a hitch-free visit. But this is no ordinary visit. It is one that is supercharged with tension between the President on one hand and Governor Samuel Ortom and his people on the other.
Many Benue citizens have been killed in the past few months by some Fulani herdsmen. The Federal Government has been unable to stop their mad and murderous rampage. It has not also been able to bring the murderers to justice so far. Mr. Ortom has been afflicted by a creeping uneasiness and helplessness. As the killings continue almost on a weekly basis, the governor is gripped by an obsessive sense of everything going wrong around him. He has urged his people to defend themselves with whatever means possible. That statement is the most damning commentary on the failure of the Federal Government to protect the life and property of its citizens wherever they may be.
As 73 persons were buried in a mass grave a few weeks ago in Benue, the public had urged the President to visit the state and convey his condolences. He did not. The public pressure has now yielded some fruits as he has now accepted to do so. He also intends to visit other states where there have been killings. Besides, he has offered an explanation as to why he does not rush to scenes of disaster. He says: “People expect me to rush out to the fields to go and make noise. But I have my ways of gathering intelligence. I get to know what is happening without necessarily going to those areas.”
That is not the point. No President goes to a place of horror to gather information. Such visits are symbolic, they are meant for the leader to show his sympathy and empathy, to tell the people that he cares, that he feels what they feel, that he has come to comfort the wounded and the bereaved, that he would bind their wounds and he would bring them the balm of justice. It is one sure way of connecting with the people, of oiling the leader-led relationship wheel. Strangely, almost all our Presidents since 1999 had behaved the same way as Buhari is doing. This is an indication that we want to run democracy in our own image, not the way those we borrowed it from do it.
During President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure (1999 to 2007) many people were killed in Zaki Biam by his security forces. A whole town, Odi, was wiped out and scores of people murdered by his security men on the pretext that some hoodlums killed some security officers. The logic of wiping out a town from the face of the earth because of the rascality of a few hoodlums did not make much sense to most people. The rational thing would have been to fish out the perpetrators of the crime and bring them to justice. Having made those irresponsible killings in Odi and Zaki Biam because of the anger of the moment, the public expected the President to visit these places before his exit and make peace and restitution with the aggrieved communities. He did not. And when the Chibok schoolgirls were abducted in April 2014, most Nigerians thought that President Goodluck Jonathan would show his grief by visiting Chibok immediately. He did not. So it can be said without fear of any contradiction that ignoring the people in grief by our leaders has become a national ritual. It also shows the inability by our leaders to understand that leaders are expected to demonstrate true statesmanship during periods of national grief as a means of connecting with their people.
American leaders have learnt to do this effortlessly. In the thick of the Iraq war number two, President George Bush the son took the ultimate risk of visiting Iraq. He made himself a steward, dishing out food to American soldiers. He who sent them to battle was making a symbolic gesture of being with the soldiers in the thick of battle. For those warriors and the Americans back home, the President had shown that fighting in Iraq was a risk worth taking, that he was a man of valour. In the same manner, President Barack Obama had flown into Afghanistan when it was still risky to set foot on the soil that the Talibans had made more dangerous than dangerous. President Donald Trump who has a cynical style of governance has visited several trouble spots since he assumed office a few years ago. It has become not just an American tradition but actually part of the democratic ethos to connect with the people. On those occasions they pump the flesh and they make stirring speeches.
Our democracy is different because our leaders have decided to do it differently. Our leaders are generally stiff, cold, shrewd and bloodless. There is a certain remoteness about them like an impenetrable barrier. President Buhari is a perfect example of this spirit of remorseless remoteness in the management of our affairs. Two things underline this viewpoint most poignantly. (a) His reluctance to travel within the country except he can see some votes sticking out of the trip. (b) His aversion to “noise-making.” When he was criticized early in his presidency for not appointing his ministers he said that they were noise-makers and that the people who do the actual work are technocrats. Now he sees travelling to places of grief as a noise-making venture. But noise-making in a democracy is not a derogatory word. It means communication, conversation, the ability to connect with people and to let them see your humaneness, your like-them-ness as an abiding quality that you are bringing to the table. There must also be a connection between events and that connection must reflect what the leader wants his people to see.
One example will do. One hundred and ten young girls are abducted from their school by terrorists and taken away to an unknown destination. At the same period the President is attending a loud wedding ceremony in Kano with 22 other leaders of our nation. Juxtapose the two events and see whether such leaders are smelling like roses. The marriage was between two children of the Governors of Kano and Oyo states. It is a happy event for both the children and their parents but in the midst of a national calamity such as the Dapchi disaster common sense dictated that it should have been toned down considerably. The loudness of it was a repulsive and insensitive display of the arrogance of office. I am almost certain that the children who wedded would have wished that their marriage had been consummated without being brought into the national conversation in an unfavourable light. Children of governors are obviously privileged children but nothing should be done to indicate that the other children who were not born into privilege do not matter. But above all it is the insensitivity of the carnival that rankles.
Buhari is going to Benue with the niggling guilt of his government’s failure to do its duty to the people of Benue State. That guilt is in three parts (a) Failure to prevent the killings. (b) Failure to bring the perpetrators to justice. (c) Failure to visit them in their hour of grief. But he is doing so now. The people of Benue should find room in their hearts for forgiveness and Buhari must find the right string of soothing words to cool tempers. Buhari is likely to shift uneasily in his seat during the visit. The period will pass very slowly for him like a procession but he must take it in his stride. If he deals with the issues honestly and fairly, the uneasiness will begin to wither away. One of his problems is that he has a penchant for making unforced errors by what he says. In Taraba State, he said, rather incredulously, that the fatalities there were higher than they were in Benue. The implication of that is that more Fulani herdsmen were killed in Taraba than the people that herdsmen killed elsewhere. He was trying to establish a pecking order between a flea and a fly. That is presidential indiscretion, a boo-boo that should never be repeated.
Every life matters, whether it is the life of a Fulani herdsman or that of a Tiv farmer. For a President, what should matter most should be how these killings can be stopped, how the killers can be punished and how sanity can be brought back to our communities, especially since the President said he “belongs to everyone and to no one.”
And to Mr. Ortom, I say, “please, stop the mass burials. You have made the point eloquently and have scored some political points. Don’t do any burial of people whose identities are known in mass graves. That demeans the living and desecrates the dead. Give the corpses to their relations for decent burial in their localities. Mass burials may hurt Buhari but it will also show you as a politician who wants to reap political dividends from the grief of his people.”