Buhari goes AWOL from Nigeria’s Coronavirus battlefield

If crisis is an acid test of leadership, the ravaging Coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic is a real test of crisis leadership. And, all over the world, presidents and prime ministers are being judged by their handling of the crisis. Are they actively communicating with their citizens in an open, transparent and honest manner? For as someone said, “faced with the global pandemic, people are looking to their leaders for information, reassurance and guidance”.

So, how well is President Buhari doing in handling the Covid-19 crisis? Has he, so far, passed the crisis leadership test? Sadly, the answer is no! Instead of leading from the front, instead of providing visible leadership, Buhari is leading by self-isolation and distancing – no, not caused by Covid-19 infection but by his personal style!

For more than four weeks after the Coronavirus pandemic broke out in Nigeria, with more and more Nigerians contracting the virus, President Buhari was incommunicado, holed up in the gilded opulence of the Presidential Villa. Then, suddenly, last week, on 29 March, he emerged from hibernation but only to put Nigeria in lockdown, ordering “all citizens to stay at their homes” and directing “the cessation of all movements”. As Professor Wole Soyinka rightly said, President Buhari apparently “woke up after a prolonged siesta and began to issue orders”. Buhari went AWOL – absent without leave – from the Covid-19 battlefront.

It seems churlish to associate AWOL, a pejorative military term, with General Buhari. After all, he was a battle-hardened soldier, who led battalions during the Nigerian civil war and commanded the infantry, mechanised and armoured divisions of the Nigerian Army after the war, not to mention that he later became the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Yet, the truth is that General Buhari may have been battle-tested in conventional wars, he is a complete no-hoper in unconventional ones, such as fighting insurgency, terrorism and pandemics. For instance, although Buhari successfully led battalions during the civil war, he has utterly failed to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency or to tackle the widespread insecurity in Nigeria. And, now, with the invisible insurgency called Coronavirus, Buhari has failed to inspire confidence that he is in control of the situation to make Nigerians secure.

Few were reassured by President Buhari’s belated address that his government can deal with the health, economic and social calamities the pandemic is unleashing. He said his government’s approach to the pandemic is “to protect the lives of our fellow Nigerians and residents living here” and  “to preserve the livelihoods of workers and business owners to ensure their families get through this very difficult time in dignity and with hope and peace of minds”. But these are perfunctory statements that ignore the potential scale of the pandemic vis-à-vis Nigeria’s acute lack of capacity. Think of the government’s embarrassing plea on Tweeter to the US billionaire Elon Musk to support Nigeria “with 100 to 500 ventilators to assist with Covid-19 cases rising ever day in Nigeria”. The government later apologised for the Tweet, but the incidence exposed the utter falsity of any claim that Nigeria could cope with a serious outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That’s, however, not my focus here. Rather, it’s on visible and communicative leadership, because this is not the time for leadership by committees or proxies; it’s the time for visible and engaging leadership from the top. That is exactly what’s happening elsewhere: national leaders are leading from the front.

For instance, despite his initial cynicism about the Coronavirus, President Trump personally addresses a daily press conference on the pandemic, taking questions from journalists. Similarly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a daily press conference, flanked by Britain’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, to explain to his people how his government is handling the pandemic and what they must do to stop the virus spreading. Neither President Trump nor Prime Minister Johnson hid away from the public only emerging to impose a draconian Coronavirus lockdown on their people.

But that’s what President Buhari did. He disappeared from the public glare for weeks, despite the clear and present danger of Covid-19, and the fear gripping Nigerians. And when he eventually emerged, it was to give his quarantine orders; and even then, he did so through a pre-recorded broadcast. The address raised many unanswered questions that a live press conference would have allowed journalists to ask on behalf of Nigerians.

For instance, the World Health Organisation says that while lockdowns are important for social distancing, it would be ineffective without testing. Thus, the WHO’s mantra is “Test, Test, Test” on the basis that without Antigen test to check for the presence of the Coronavirus in the body, you won’t know the prevalence of the virus in your country. Yet, the National Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, said it would only test those who have Covid-19 symptoms, and apparently tests fewer than 1,000 people a day throughout Nigeria, while South Africa is testing 30,000 a day. We are told that about 190 people have now contracted the virus in Nigeria, but, really, how do you know without widespread testing? In any case, does Nigeria have the capacity for such widespread testing? Does it have enough personnel, equipment and other resources? And if not, what does the government intend to do if, God forbid, Coronavirus hits Nigeria in full force?

These are not just technical questions for the NCDC, but also political ones for the president. They are not even questions solely for the so-called Presidential Task Force, which President Buhari is seemingly hiding behind to avoid engaging directly with Nigerians. But the truth is that if the president only speaks to Nigerians through pre-recorded broadcasts or press statements or uses the PTF or any committee as a proxy for his leadership, he won’t inspire confidence in Nigerians and the international community that he is in control of the problem. The vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, said Nigerians are not sensitised about the seriousness of the pandemic. But who will sensitise them? As elsewhere, the president must be the public face of the campaign.

Sadly, President Buhari is not providing that visible leadership. Even sadder, we are told that’s his deliberate choice. In a recent interview, Femi Adesina, the president’s spokesman, said that Buhari’s refusal to address Nigerians on Covid-19 was a matter of style. “Not addressing Nigerians on coronavirus is a matter of style”, he said, adding: “Everybody is at liberty to adopt a style that suits them”. Really? A matter of style to be incommunicado when a global pandemic is threatening your country? Beyond belief!

But Adesina was right. Covid-19 simply amplifies Buhari’s pre-existing traits. He’s both reclusive and taciturn; yet, effective leadership requires visibility and communication. Last year, a Chatham House report described Buhari as “an aloof and disengaged leader, walled off from Nigerians”. That’s a perfect description of the president. But an aloof, disengaged and distant leader can’t provide visible and effective leadership during a national crisis like the Coronavirus outbreak.

As if that isn’t bad enough, President Buhari suspended the weekly meeting of the Federal Executive Council “until further notice”. The FEC is Nigeria’s highest policy-making body, required by constitutionally to meet “regularly” for the purposes of “determining the general direction of domestic and foreign policies.” Cabinets are meeting around the world, if necessary, via video-conferences, to determine national responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. So, while suspend Nigeria’s cabinet at this critical time? Unfortunately, it’s not only the cabinet that’s been tranquilised, the National Assembly is lulled, unable to hold the executive to account on its handling of the pandemic.

But the buck stops with President Buhari. Sadly, once a battle-hardened soldier, he has gone AWOL from Nigeria’s Coronavirus battlefield. He must return to the Covid-19 warfront and lead the battle!


Olu Fasan

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