As the incumbent president of Nigeria, what he says and how he says them are important. After all, the claim is that there is no science that can tell what is on anybody’s mind other than his or her language use. No research can produce evidence of what is on somebody’s mind beyond brilliant guess works. If research could produce such results, then the world would have solved one of the most challenging threats to world security today – the security dilemma. Because there is yet no scientific way that can tell the ‘other mind’, security dilemma remains a key ‘existential uncertainty’ today.
As part of efforts to solve this puzzle, some mainly French thinkers have come up with the idea that language is just about the only way to read the other person’s mind. Language is able to do this because it is language that gives meaning to what happens in the world. So, an Adam Hodges uses the example of 9/11 to argue this. Although everyone saw the planes crash into buildings, a very, very real happening, the meaning was not immediately settled. Television footages showed the images and reporters talked endlessly about it but what did it mean? That was not to be until power spoke. US president at the time said it was an act of war, which immediately signified positioning the US to defend itself. That is the principle of self-defence in International Law. And that was what happened and it produced the war in Afghanistan which is still on.
So, Hodges says it is with language we create reality as can be seen from the case of 9/11. That is because, if, for any reasons, then President Bush had called 9/11 a criminal act, 9/11 would have been a matter for Interpol, a completely different reality from war. The conclusion is that it is with language we create meaning and to get at anybody’s mind, listen to what s/he says, who s/he names as protagonists, to whom what motives are associated.
In apparent confirmation of what may look esoteric to some people, we hear folks warning folks every other day to watch their language. It is not for nothing they say so.
In other words, what you think about President Buhari may be completely off the mark until you listen to him. This is with particular reference to his conception of Nigeria’s destiny and his next four years in power which the June 12, 2019 Democracy Day speech is supposed to capture powerfully. Additionally, Nigeria is in dire straits. There is a siege of permanent fear – fear of insecurity; fear of hunger; fear of unemployment and fear of falling sick because the medical establishment is quite stressed.
Nigeria has always been stressed except that the magnitude now has probably never been the case and the incumbent president has never been personally accused of complicity in generalized insecurity, parochialism and a diseased reaction time crisis. Above all, some of the most vocal elements pushing the allegations are those who are looked upon as certain to know what they are talking about. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Gen Theophilus Danjuma are two of such names. Not only did the two support and contributed to Buhari’s coming in 2015, they have occupied positions that gave them privileged access to observe Nigerian politics. TY Danjuma is not known for frivolousness. Obasanjo has pedigree of patriotism, whatever anyone may so. Yet, all two have said there is a Fulanisation agenda at a time the incumbent president is also of Fulani identity. What the president thinks about all these are bound to sneak into a 3133 word long national address as this.
But, what are yardsticks by which you make sense of what he says? That is simple. The idea is that meaning is in what is unsaid. That means if the president says he is not a parochial person that he is generally narrated to be, we must look for the meaning beyond him saying so. We look for the meaning rather in what might have happened to warrant him saying so. We search for the meaning in the voice that is ‘absent’ in that statement because there is a loud voice there which is that of the president. The implication is that there is a voice in that statement that is ‘silent’ or ‘absent’. To understand that denial, you need to find out the voice that is ‘absent’ because every language use is a rejection of something in preference for another.
What are some of the issues the president raised which we can decode the meaning by interpreting them along the above meaning-making technique? Each item mentioned from the address is responded to by an imaginary critic as a route to the meaning.
He appealed to the sentiment of 20 years of unbroken democracy at a time some scholars are saying that democracy in Nigeria has more about formalities than substance.
He absolves himself of any disregard for the independence of the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC), defending the fairness of recent election except what he calls pockets of unrest. The meaning of an expression such as ‘pockets of unrest’ can only lie in the eye of the beholder.
Paragraph 5, 6 and 7 can be summarised as simply the president insisting: I won. Well, but the case is in court, meaning it is still a contested victory and ‘I won’ could be read as a desire that no court case were hanging.
Terrorism is not unique to Nigeria, he says in the same manner he speaks of achievements of the first term. All of these are obvious reply to critics but also a way of confirming, depending on context of usage. In a case of contested rating on achievement, the meaning of denial is only a question of who is speaking.
I am a world man, the president could be heard responding to spoken and unspoken charges of nepotism and provincialism. He lists places he has dwelt in Nigeria to prove this: Kaduna, Abuja, Lagos, Abeokuta, Makurdi, Portharcourt, Maiduguri, Ibadan, Jos, adding the United Kingdom, India and the United States where he trained to bring the global dimension. In the next paragraph, he makes reference to having been in the struggle to keep Nigeria one. Someone would say meaning is not about facts but the power over interpretation of same. The same list will produce a different argument elsewhere.
He appeals too to Nigeria heading to being a global demographic power shortly. And lists Nigeria’s material endowment. It is not clear why the president put this. Endowment is no longer the issue in national prosperity but the grand strategy for utilizing it. It is by grand strategy that some countries which have neither land nor oil, (Japan for example) are performing better than some countries such as Nigeria that are caught up in the paradox of endowment. The president rightly recognized agriculture as the wonder strategy but he listed later in the address some impoverished mini-scale tactics of agricultural revolution. Certainly, not agriculture on a scale that would have welded northern Nigeria into an inseparable agrarian space since and, by implication, national unity since the north is home to all identities Instead, the president went into oil development, an inherently exclusionary, enclave economy in which only 5% will ever be involved. Yes, get the oil out of the soil but does it have to take precedence over agriculture which can employ millions in one year alone, take care of food insecurity in quantitative and qualitative terms and place the president firmly in history.
The president represents Nigeria as the global big brother and shock absorber. How great would it have been if the president could say Nigeria is today in a position or on the way to the economic and the military position to move in wherever Africans are either being humiliated or humiliating themselves in unproductive violence.
He brings pervasive corruption in, the second of the items he has assured he would crack down on those who cross the red line, the other one being on those who incite others to violence. That is what he should have done since except that the world would be watching how the government moves. If crackdown on incitement suffers the perceived selectivity in fighting corruption, then the next national address would be even more apologetic. Apologia comes from lack of moral high ground.
There are promises here and there, especially on anti-poverty and unemployment. The governmental imagination behind those promises in the language in which they were delivered doesn’t suggest a grasp of the magnitude of the problem at the highest level. Otherwise, the strategies would have been differently worded and more imaginative.
What summary can be written for the speech then?
There is still no clear presidential imagination of Nigeria. There are snippets here and there through references to China, India and Indonesia but there are no references to the framework by which to lift millions out of poverty. The closest to such reference is the word ‘will’ that the president mentioned. Uhm! Why wouldn’t the president seek to develop an imagination of Nigeria that can tie the different bits together and even be talked about many years after he would have left power?
Closely related to that is the absence of anything called a business model today. Unstructured statism is clashing with a patch-work of models of casino capitalism. The outcome is such a chaotic national scene beneficial to only schemers.
The president is interested in cracking down on those who he says incite others but by a government that has a reaction time crisis which normally leaves the public sphere without ringing governmental voice for a long time. A crackdown option in such circumstance is comparable to the approach of the Nigerian Traffic Wardens. Instead of standing and guiding motorists from committing traffic offence, they hide somewhere waiting for such an offence to be committed, completely betraying the institutional essence.
There was not a word on rebuilding Nigeria through party building. Yet, there are barely political parties in Nigeria, including the president’s party, considering the tussles Nigerians have seen there in the past two years.
The president had no specific words on the crisis of knowledge industry in Nigeria. The paragraph that mentioned something about primary, secondary and tertiary education is not speaking to the magnitude of the rot in the universities, Nigeria’s most strategic asset if the country is to make it.
So, what is the president’s mindset, based on the speech?. The president is operating at his own level of what he sees as the trouble with Nigeria. The elements of apologia here and there suggests he is worried that the national acclamation for him is no longer there but there is no evidence he has bought into any paradigm different from the one he is comfortable with. And this is at a time the president has become more of a franchise for governance, a brand usable by other ambitious actors close to him or posing as such.
The implication is that the idea of managing human beings with care is not on agenda in Nigeria today. What is worrisome for many is Nigeria’s capacity to absorb further rough handling . The president might be the quintessential noble man who has been 419ned in the same manner Ibrahim Tahir once said Obasanjo was 419ned in the management of power but he might leave the stage unhappy in terms of legacy if he is not careful. In this business, four years could be all over as if weeks!