It has become fashionable for Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant (Media and Publicity) to President Muhammadu Buhari to abuse anyone who criticises the President. He cannot resist the temptation to attack critics of Buhari and the government he leads. That persistent low-level behaviour says a lot about the moral character of Shehu than the people he insults. Using abusive language to shut down critics of the government signifies lack of sophistication and inability to engage in informed debate.
In our current environment, people who draw attention to Buhari’s undistinguished performance, particularly his inattentiveness to widespread insecurity across the country, are demonized, ridiculed, and threatened. This consistent use of inappropriate language to defend Buhari will serve the Presidency no good. The situation requires application of wisdom rather than angry and incoherent response.
Shehu has a habit of uttering provocative and insensitive comments, as well as throwing insults at people at will. He recently made a gross comment about the way killings were being reported by the media. While speaking on Channels TV’s Politics Today programme, Shehu said killings across the country were being reported in a way that tended to suggest that they had never happened in Nigeria before now. He said killings had always occurred and that President Buhari was being targeted by the way the killings were being reported.
That remark drew immediate rebuke from various groups because it was senseless, grubby, vulgar, thoughtless, callous, inappropriate and an inaccurate representation of media reports on killings and kidnappings in the country. If the objective of the comment was to protect or defend Buhari from continuing criticisms, the strategy failed completely.
Shehu was appointed to serve the President but that appointment is never a licence for him to batter people. His position does not authorise him to belittle ordinary and high-profile citizens or assume that Nigerians can be fooled so easily that they cannot differentiate between poor performance by the President and exaggerated claims of the President’s achievements. The perquisites of office in Aso Rock must be so overwhelming that the President’s spokesperson has lost the essence of his appointment.
Deliberative democracy is about tolerance of all shades of opinion. In a marketplace of ideas, some views might be weighted highly and others accorded low significance. No one should interfere in the process of debate or use their office to shoot down viewpoints they do not like. This is what Shehu has been doing since his appointment. Most recently, he took aim at Father Ejike Mbaka by trying to represent the man as duplicitous and untrustworthy. Father Mbaka had outraged the Presidency when he suggested that Buhari must resign immediately owing to worsening state of insecurity across the country. Mbaka said if Buhari did not resign, the President could expect to be impeached sooner than later.
That was not the first time Mbaka would make critical comments directed at a President or state governor. He once reproached former Anambra State Governor Peter Obi publicly at an event that Obi attended. It was embarrassing and uncomfortable for Obi to stand and watch Father Mbaka humiliate him publicly.
Surely, Mbaka has developed an uncanny reputation for the arbitrary way he endorses and withdraws his endorsement of dodgy governors and Presidents. However, in the latest case of his run-in with the Presidency, public opinion suggests that Shehu went too far to throw mud at Father Mbaka’s face. That was not surprising. Sometimes, Shehu finds it difficult to manage his tempestuous persona. Silence by Shehu and other defenders of Buhari should have been enough response to Mbaka.
In Nigeria, there is a tradition of media assistants to the President being used as attack dogs to insult people who disagree with any President or the style of leadership. Some years ago, when Nigeria’s literary icon Chinua Achebe rejected a national award and outlined reasons for his decision, the Presidency assaulted Achebe with abusive language.
Achebe had explained that it was inappropriate for him to accept a national award when senior government officials, including then President Olusegun Obasanjo, assisted rather than tried to stop the siege on Anambra State (Achebe’s state of origin) by political thugs well known to Aso Rock. Rather than address the reasons for Achebe’s refusal to accept a national award, Obasanjo’s media assistants surged on Achebe and tried unsuccessfully to sully Achebe’s international profile.
In various parts of the world, people appointed to serve as the spokesperson for a President or Prime Minister are expected to demonstrate a higher sense of responsibility, ability to tolerate alternative viewpoints, and respect for critics of the government. It is not a cardinal sin or hanging offence for citizens to criticise an elected President who has failed to deliver on the promises made during election campaigns. Criticisms nourish rather than weaken democracy. Nigerian citizens who criticise Buhari’s uninspiring performance have as much interest (and stake) in the socioeconomic development of Nigeria as those who are elected to govern, including those who are appointed to serve the government.
When people argue that Shehu ought to have been sanctioned officially for his vituperations, it seems to me they lack knowledge of how the Presidency operates. Shehu has not been disciplined and is unlikely to be chastised because to do so would imply official reprimand also for Buhari for his apathy toward insecurity that is spiralling out of control.
What Shehu’s outbursts reveal is the policy of a Federal Government that continues to be indifferent to calls by civil society for the government to tighten and enhance the apparatus of national security. So far, that has not happened. The government has ignored everybody because we have officials who think they have the divine right to govern anyway they like. Outrageously, they believe they know what is best for all of us while the institutions of our national security continue to disintegrate.
Presidential assistants often operate in a culture in which they believe they are entitled to shield the President by any means possible, including using offensive words and disrespectful language. Sometimes, it is better to keep quiet. Alternatively, as in Father Mbaka’s case, it would have been better for the Presidency to list all of Buhari’s achievements over the past six years (if any) as a practical response to Father Mbaka’s criticism.
Nigeria is now like a circus or theatre guided by no laws. In that environment, anything goes. Members of one ethnic group are given the implicit message that they are free to go wherever they like, to do whatever they like, to commit crimes, to abduct people, to sexually assault women arbitrarily, to seize people’s property and community lands illegally, and to shoot at anyone who condemns their lawless behaviour. If that is not discriminatory style of governance, I do not know what constitutes discrimination in government.
How could citizens have faith in the government when public attempts to scrutinise the President and his government are dismissed angrily? When did Buhari last address the nation, even as various parts of the country are occupied illegally by terrorists and criminal groups? The President and his government cannot continue to ignore public requests for improvements in the security, welfare, and wellbeing of citizens.
There is an interconnection between life and power. In the end, nothing lasts forever. Everyone came into this world empty-handed and everyone shall depart empty-handed. Within that philosophy lies the message about the impermanence of life. That is a fact of life.