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13 Jul 2017

Aisha Buhari: Political Speech in the Age of Social Media

A Nigerian writer has penned a thought provoking and explosive piece on the recent happenings in the polity, the President's continued stay in London and statements by federal government officials in the social media space .
Aisha Buhari
In my imagination, the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, is ruing her lack of self-restraint for responding to Senator Shehu Sani’s post on Facebook. Earlier in the week, Sani had written a comment that made Nigeria out as an animal farm where animals prey on one another. Mrs. Buhari fired back, using the same indecorous metaphors Sani had employed and she ended up attracting some controversy to herself. While her retort attempted to raise some hope about her husband’s return and promised that some order would soon be restored to the nation, the truth is that Buhari’s government has been a Hobbesian jungle from the start.

Sani himself, whose comment precipitated the whole drama, is first, an instantiation of the moral cowardice of the Nigerian legislature. He could have spoken less ambiguously, not resorting to imageries that leave his comment open to multiple interpretations. As a senator, it should be beneath him to use a fable to analyse a national dilemma when the times call for valorous and forthright men and women to stand up for Nigeria. The President is ailing, and nobody outside his coterie seems to know the state of his health. In such a circumstance, one would have expected senators to rally themselves to confront the issue of the absentee President instead of pretending it does not matter. Just lately, a concerned Nigerian, one Toyin Dawodu, filed a lawsuit to compel the Senate to set up a medical panel to determine if, given his state of health, President Muhammadu Buhari is fit for office or he should be asked to go home with whatever is left of his dignity. These are not the times for people entrusted with the welfare of the well-being of the nation to cower under dodgy allegories to address issues.

There are many problems with Mrs. Buhari’s choice of words, but I doubt she intended to insult Nigerians or even construe Nigeria as her husband’s fiefdom. Her choice of language is revelatory, true, and it got me thinking about what one can learn about the innate character and the psyche of leaders when they speak to the public, unfettered. Nowadays, when leaders and politicians use the social media for political communication, the different modes of their engagement give them away. While, for instance, Senate President Bukola Saraki has maintained social media accounts mostly for official communication, the likes of Dino Melaye use the social media as their Narcissus mirror.

Typically, politicians have aides who prepare their speeches, school them on public communication, and make sure their body language offends almost no sensibility. Facing the public is, in short, an act through which they impersonate who the public imagines them to be. The social media, however, is changing all the dynamics of political speech. With its overwhelming ability to connect the world through personalised devices, the social media has changed the way we see and understand the character of our leaders. All over the world, leaders and their associates now maintain social media accounts, bypassing the orthodoxy of the traditional media and its gatekeeping role. From the time a former United States’ president, Barack Obama, began to use the social media in a more personable format, more and more politicians have seen the wisdom of direct access to the public through social media. In Nigeria 2010, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan used Facebook to announce his presidential bid taking the shine of his rivals who were scheduled to do the same earlier using the traditional media. As much as social media has done a lot of good, the direct access leaders now have to the people now helps us see their clay feet.

In the US at present, President Donald Trump has deprecated the essence of leadership through the impolitic tweets he sends out daily. His Twitter rants reveal him as undisciplined, unregulated, and unhinged. Who could ever imagine that a time would come that the president of the US would take to Twitter to directly comment on live TV shows or insult journalists using crude language? Even for third world leaders who do not pretend they have a lot of regard for their people, such direct attacks are a low-low. In Nigeria, at least our presidents have enough dignity to hire “attack dogs” who write “robust replies” to insult opponents.

A leader who can devote time and energy to playing the role of his own attack dog disproves his/her qualification for office. The show they are shorn of a sense of responsibility and utterly devoid of the moral authority of leadership. For those of us who grew up associating the US presidency with dignity and moral integrity, Trump has taught us that it is possible for a man never to be ennobled by the eminence of the office he holds. With his Twitter meltdowns, he keeps showing to the world that the office cannot make a man who will not let the nobility of leadership refashion him.

In Nigeria, the madness has not yet graduated to the point of the President picking up his mobile phone to exchange words with a private citizen, but that does not mean they do not do it by proxy. We have presidential aides like Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, who will have no qualms jumping into the mud with pigs to defend Buhari, his paymaster. Time and again, Shehu and his colleague, Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, have had to indulge in poorly processed thoughts they dispense on social media. Sometimes, one wonders if they remember at all that they are acting on the authority of the Presidency. If they did, and they take the position they represent as seriously, they would put their mobile phones down and work towards a well-thought-out and more diplomatic means of communicating with the public. There would be no spontaneous or knee-jerk reactions, no insults, or no “roforofo” fights no matter how their patience is tried. But no, they seem more invested in the rush they get from making snarky responses that circulate through the superficial highways of social media.

It is possible that Mrs. Buhari wished she had not generated a hullabaloo, or maybe she could care less about the whole furor. However, if she would be using the social media for public engagement, she may need to prioritise hiring professional communicators who will manage her social media pages with measured responses to public issues. Her “hyenas and jackals” comment is not the first instance of her poor choice of words when using the social media to engage her detractors. The other time, she lashed back at the Ekiti State Governor, Ayodele Fayose, and called him a “mad dog.” Even though the tweet was later deleted, it was never denied. For someone who comes across as self-restrained, getting into social media spats with her impolite zoophilous vocabulary is a journey that will denude her of all the dignity of her ladyship. Like most leaders who use social media have found out, the people who have unmoderated access to them are like the proverbial rain: they could care less about nobility.

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Written by: Abimbola Adelakun for Punch newspaper.

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