A few days ago, it was widely reported that a gang of terrorists waylaid a passenger train with more than 350 innocent Nigerians traveling from Abuja to Kaduna and subjected them to the most barbaric and inhumane torture and death one can ever imagine. The Federal Government was slow to issue a statement, and as it seems, Mr. President didn’t really consider it is a national calamity that deserves his empathy. Probably, if we were to ask him or any of his aides why he didn’t visit the site of the incident or visit victims undergoing medical attention in various hospitals across Kaduna, their explanation might be that the president is or was busy overseeing other very ‘important’ national matters.
Two questions arise from this affair. First, why would anyone think an empty gesture like visiting the scene of the incident or even visiting the hospitals to commiserate with the victims, bereaved families, and the Kaduna state government – no matter how many were injured, killed, abducted, or the way and manner the act was carried out – to be important? Perhaps Mr. President ought to be doing something productive. Second, why did he give orders to the military high command in the first place as if he had any compassion? Exactly what was it about the incident that he should be concerned about? As usual, he has continued to face what seemed to be unreasonable condemnation and which undoubtedly his aides have been responding to with a preposterous justification.
But it is the first question that I want to discuss in this piece because it raises another, more important question: that of leadership.
The simple answer to the first question is that President Buhari ought to have visited the site of the incident because that’s what leaders do in times of crisis. Leaders engage in gestures, and whatever they may privately feel or not feel, they show themselves to be grieving with those affected. Probably, Muhammad Buhari doesn’t understand or know that as president, he represents the country at moments such as these, and his responsibility is to convey to the country the gravity of the sad event, the sorrow he feels, and that the country – personified by him – is not indifferent to the calamity that befell the more than 350 Nigerian citizens on the train.
Even if the grief is posed, there is value in it. The philosopher La Rochefoucauld wrote that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. It seems to me that Mr. President is incapable of feeling the emotion he ought to feel. The reason is that, in some way, he is not empathic. But in pretending to be, he is validating virtue.
As a leader, President Buhari is supposed to represent the best of us. He is not the head bureaucrat; he is a political leader, and the exercise of leadership is meant to display the virtues the nation ought to have. This is so important that Nigeria has only one such leader – the president – who is required to show what is appropriate and what the country feels, even if he doesn’t himself feel it. Our president failed to realize that as a political leader, he is expected to lead, and in leading, gain the authority to make proclamations or give orders. The fact that he can make proclamations, but remain indifferent to the basic task of leadership means he is a failure. Making proclamations or giving orders is easy; however, leadership is hard.
This is the purpose of leadership. I believe that our president doesn’t understand what is necessary. He also doesn’t understand that governing, properly done, is a work of art. He has been unable to paint a picture of who he is by what he says, by the gestures he makes, and by framing an abiding concern for the country. It is a concern that ought to be natural to him as a president. This is no doubt a crime of inauthenticity. As La Rochefoucauld would say, it is far harder to appear to be caring when you are not than it is to feel the things you ought to. But as a ‘leader’, President Buhari ought to know what is right and needed in spite of his nature and how some Nigeria perceive him. He must learn to do what is expected of him, and not what he is inclined to do. And he must do it in such a way that Nigerians would believe in his virtue, and through him, in their own.
I believe that a country that does not feel as virtuous is wounded in its soul. When there is no leader who even goes to the trouble of appearing to understand what the virtue of leadership is, then the country itself loses its sense of virtue. To be frank, it seems like Mr. President cannot imagine leadership ‘beyond talking tough’, and sees the role of leadership as a trivial task. I am not surprised that Nigeria, and indeed Nigerians are in equal trouble. Nigerians will continue to lose the aesthetic sense of themselves If the work of art crafted by the President seems not to be working for them. It is this work of art that defines citizens’ sense of self, and without that sense, they rise and fall in a very squalid place. Unfortunately, he is failing to craft a picture of who Nigerians are and why they should be proud of their country. Therefore, it is not unfair to say Nigerians are lost – by all factions of our polity – and nothing worth having has replaced it. Nigeria is no doubt a great country, but one with a troubled and hungry soul.
I began this piece with the sad train attack incident that occurred a few days ago, where Mr. President didn’t present himself, nor did he show the nation that it is proper to grieve. Most probably, he had no time to go because he was busy managing things – giving orders to the military and security high command. He doesn’t know that management is not the task of the president – at least not until after he leads. And if he leads, management becomes easier.