In political terms, last week was supposed to be a fair one for President Muhammadu Buhari. At his inauguration a year and five months ago, he had pledged to rescue more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents since mid-April 2014.
Last week, through a swap deal (and perhaps some cash payment), his administration secured the release of twenty-one of the young captives. It was a modest down payment on the president’s promissory note, but one that boosted the spirits both of Nigerians and sympathisers around the world.
President Buhari was on a state visit to Germany when the Chibok girls were released. If everything were equal, President Buhari might have taken a moment or two to bask in the limelight for what some reporters have characterised as a promising pathway to the release of the remaining victims of abduction. But last week was far from calm for the president.
His wife, Aisha Buhari, had granted an interview to the Hausa Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Her evaluation of her husband’s presidency was unsparing. And the direct, often acerbic language she used could have belonged to an opposition party spokesperson.
In one word, President Buhari was tossed about by a turbulence that bore the name Hurricane Aisha. For months, some politicians and pundits had claimed that a cabal had hijacked the Buhari administration. In late June 2016, Senate President Bukola Saraki personally signed a statement to that effect. “However, what has become clear is that there is now a government within the governmentof President Buhari who have seized the apparatus of Executive powers to pursue their nefarious agenda,” the senator asserted.
The president was apparently so miffed that his spokesman issued a sharp denial, accusing Mr. Saraki of trading in fiction. “This claim by Senator Saraki would have been more worth the while, if it had been backed with more information,” said the presidential response. It continued: “If he had proceeded to identify those who constitute the ‘government within the government,’ it would have taken the issue beyond the realm of fiction and mere conjecture. But as it stands, the allegation is not even worth the paper on which it was written, as anybody can wake from a troubled sleep, and say anything.”
It turns out that Mrs. Buhari views her husband’s administration from the same lens as Mr. Saraki – and every bit as unflatteringly. In the BBC interview, she spoke devastatingly about a president whose administration is divorced from the people who worked hardest for its success. She seemed to blame her husband’s political missteps as a function, in part, of his government’s abandonment of the politicians who went into the trenches for him. She had nothing but disdain for officials in Mr. Buhari’s administration who “are busy telling people that they are not politicians but they are occupying seats that were brought in by politicians.”
Taken in isolation, this particular grouse is the most troubling aspect of Mrs. Aisha’s assessment of her government. Politicians may well do most of the heavy lifting for a candidate’s election, but politicians are not always the most effective facilitators of a president’s agenda. Once elected into office, it was proper for Mr. Buhari to look beyond the field of politicians who supported his run to find the servants of his agenda.
Yet, Aisha Buhari’s point is that her husband—or, more appropriately, the cabal acting in his name—went about handing appointments to people with no sense of the ruling party’s priorities. In her words, “most of those that are occupying positions in agencies, nobody knows them and they themselves don’t know our party manifesto; what we campaigned for; they were not part of us completely. People were sitting down in their houses, folding their arms only for them to be called to come and head an agency or a ministerial position. They don’t have a mission or vision of our APC.” That’s nothing short of damning. And it is as eloquent a testimony to President Buhari’s loss of direction as can be found anywhere.
Aisha Buhari’s indictment of her husband’s statecraft is telling in other ways. Unlike her immediate predecessor, Patience Jonathan, Mrs. Buhari was not known for courting the limelight. Until her BBC interview, she had little or no reputation for providing the media with quotable lines. And then, in one interview, she achieved a stunning impact, her improbable words reported by newspapers and online sites around the world.
One is curious: Did Mrs. Buhari acceded to the interview with the intention of voicing her discontent with her husband’s administration, or was she caught off guard, ambushed by a clever reporter’s gift for drawing the subject out? I’d suggest that the former scenario was the case. After all, Mrs. Buhari told the BBC that, “after receiving complaints upon complaints, I decided to tell (President Buhari about the concerns with his government). But all the same, a lot of people have been coming on their own and also collectively to tell him that things are not going the way (they) should when it comes to putting people in certain positions.”
In the interview, Mrs. Buhari came across as one who knew that her words would resonate and reverberate and send shock waves within Nigeria and elsewhere. She seemed to have weighed all the consequences of her tough words, and decided that silence was not an option. To issue a public repudiation of her husband’s government was no child’s play. And she went further, serving notice of her reluctance to campaign for her husband’s reelection should the situation remain the same. “As a person, I have my right to say how I feel about something. If it continues like this, me I am not going to be part of any movement again, because I need to work with the people that we started the journey with collectively so that we can achieve what we want to achieve, so that he would leave a legacy.”
Aisha Buhari’s unforgettable interview spoilt one of her husband’s rare promising moments—Boko Haram’s release of twenty-one Chibok schoolgirls. From the president’s point of view, the timing of the interview could not have been more disastrous. Mr. Buhari was in Germany, being hosted by Chancellor Angela Markel, perhaps the world’s most politically powerful woman.
President Buhari’s response to his wife’s censure was painfully tactless. With Ms. Markel standing next to him, he told a press conference, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” In that graceless response—which the president’s handlers at first tried to pass off as witticism—President Buhari confirmed his wife’s depiction of a man who is so bewildered by the demands of his office that he has ceded control to others.
If you ask me, our president urgently needs to go to political school. And I’d recommend one run by Aisha Buhari.
Okey Ndibe is a novelist, political columnist, and essayist. He teaches fiction and African literature at Trinity College in Hartford, USA. He is the author of the novels, Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods Inc. He tweets from @okeyndibe.