Even by his accustomed controversial standard, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Independence Day anniversary speech fell far short of the worst. It is bad enough that it was ever written; it is worse that it was read. If it was ever vetted for facts, logic and grammar, those responsible did a shoddy job. A columnist once noted that an American president’s speech was so bad that a certain kind of ghoulish grandeur crept into it. Nothing memorable, not to say valuable, crept into President Buhari’s October 1, 2020 speech. No speech is perfect, and even Shakespeare found ways to undermine the rules of grammar in some of his works. But the problem with the Buhari speech far outweighs any tool anyone could use to judge a text.
The national consensus is that the speech was poorly written. Even though some presidents write their speeches or make significant input, the Nigerian president is unlikely to attempt either. What went wrong such that those around him, those he employed to do a good job of giving him inspiring speeches, failed to rise to the task? The president may not be blamed for writing bad speeches, seeing that he has probably never been motivated to try his hands on scripting one, but as he has imbued himself with the uncharacteristic humility of now eagerly accepting blame for political shortcomings and electoral defeats, he must acknowledge that he has no speechwriter, never paid attention to that important aspect of his presidency, and now needs to urgently recruit a few. If the speechwriters will be given the free hand to come up with fine speeches, the president must also find the courage to deal with the stultifying influencers who lather his presidency and his speeches with staleness, obnoxious ideas and arguments.
It is no use conducting a detailed analysis of the speech. Every sentence — and this is no exaggeration — is incurably bad, both in logic and ideas. Much worse, virtually every attempt to inspire Nigerians negates what he believes and does. He talks of unity when he has acted divisively, and speaks of diversity when he has not indicated that he knows what it is all about. He speaks of “a strong indivisible nation, united in hope and equal in opportunity” when everything he has done in the last five years repudiates this aspiration. In his attempt to understand the fundamental cracks tearing the country apart, he thinks the reason “is our consistent harping on artificially contrived fault lines that we have harboured and allowed unnecessarily to fester.” To suggest the fault lines are artificially contrived, after conducting a proper reading of Nigerian history, is to embrace escapism and engage in dishonest analysis. The fault lines are real, while the independence constitution at least made a half-hearted attempt to ameliorate regional, cultural and religious divisions. Neither he nor his speechwriters, partly because of their underlying conservatism and reactionary politics, attempted to accurately identify the problem militating against unity and find comprehensive solutions.
President Buhari devotes paragraphs 17 to 25 of his speech to reflect on the subject of unity, which he thinks the country is capable of cobbling together if they put their minds to it. His analysis of the problem and his recommendations are simplistic. The answer to the divisions, which his presidency has done little to demote, is not as simple as simply focusing the mind. The divisions are real, and it was expected that he would explain why they have lasted, not to say why he does not think his actions and appointments have promoted the tragedy. Paragraphs 27 to 32 take pedestrian ratiocination to its nadir. He prides himself on being a believer of democracy and free and fair elections. He seems to have blotted out history from his mind, in particular, the history of the Kogi governorship election that made nonsense of what elections are designed to achieve. Instead he focuses almost exclusively on Edo where he had quibbled profusely and engaged in subterfuge. If he allowed the poll to be unfettered, as some have argued, it is simply because the undisguised aim of his government coincided with the desire to conduct a free poll.
Then he talks of how desperate politicians subvert the judiciary when his own presidency, through the instrumentality of the Justice ministry, has engaged in the most sustained and far-reaching subversion of the judiciary ever attempted in Nigeria under both elected and military governments. Nobody is fooled. The only explanation for the wide chasm between his government’s actions and policies on the one hand and the sentiments expressed in his October 1 speech is that the simple folks who scripted the speech ignored the political and judicial atrocities committed by the Buhari presidency in favour of their own private delusions. Indeed, who thought the day would come when President Buhari would say “It is necessary to, therefore, support the enthronement of the rule of law by avoiding actions which compromise the judiciary”, the same government that preaches the subordination of the rule of law to amorphous national security, the same government which abridged due process while sacking a chief justice and their party chairman?
By the time the speech rambled on to paragraphs 45 to the end, the self-delusions were complete. As the president puts it, “No government in the past did what we are doing with such scarce resources. We have managed to keep things going in spite of the disproportionate spending on security. Those in the previous Governments from 1999 2015 who presided over the near destruction of the country have now the impudence to attempt to criticize our efforts.” Not only has no government demonstrated as much impudence to borrow inordinately so much as the Buhari presidency has done, and to pass the buck relentlessly, it is inconceivable that he deigns to compare his self-willed and conflicted government with those of his predecessors. His government is not as frugal as he paints it, and its logic about fuel prices in Nigeria and elsewhere is offensive, deceitful and untenable.