Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, a former speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives and current governor of Sokoto state, mainstreamed the term “body language” into our national discourse. Presenting a paper during the international anti-corruption day 2014 roundtable organised by the Nigeria Bar Association, Tambuwal said, “The President’s (Dr. Goodluck Jonathan) body language seems to be encouraging corrupt practices in the country.”
Ever since this highly deliberated remark, public affairs analysts, commentators and the media seem to have allotted more resources to scrutinizing the body language of public officers. Their operatives including personal aides, chief executives of ministries, department and agencies and party apparatchiks are taking cue. So it appears.
President Muhammadu Buhari rode into office on a Pegasus — the man Buhari had the mystery of a mythical character and was packaged as a messiah. His entrance into office was nothing but triumphal. One incident comes to mind; the Nigerian Stock Exchange recorded the highest gain in the world following the victory of our dear president.
The serendipity of events attributed to this body language overtook the president’s early days in office; power generation was reported to have peaked at 4,600MW and Nigeria’s crocked petroleum refineries found springs in its steps. Allegedly corrupt persons were being hounded and tried immediately.
At this time there was neither a cabinet nor a plan, which became the albatross that shaped the coming events — a reversal of fortunes.
Nigerians are grieving again; businesses are groaning over abysmal levels of electricity supply with generation dipping to Zero megawatt more than once, and of course our refineries have collapsed again. What some found shocking was that the messiah’s body language was also tolerant of corruption — his cabinet secretary Babachir Lawal and chief of staff Abba Kyari have been exposed for allegedly committing graft without any repercussion.
Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, a Nigerian reformer conveyed her resentment for the so-called body language of Buhari so much that she attributed it to be the cause of the recession experienced by the country. How true.
In an unexpected plot twist, Mr. Buhari sought an extended medical vacation and delegated his powers to the vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo who acted in his stead.
Nigerians seemed to experience a light relief and everybody wanted President Buhari to stay put in London as the Naira gained over 12% against the dollar: trading at 420/$1 from 515/$1 prior. There was a sense of inclusion for the 5% (a famous term coined for the minority by Buhari to describe those who voted in favour of his opponent during the 2015 general elections.) Ag. President Osinbajo toured the Oil producing states in the Niger Delta and intimated the stakeholders of his government’s plans to engage with them.
Positive sentiment prevailed among the citizens but there was no fundamental change in terms of policy or personnel. It was another case of body language and emotions that include the sensory appeal we call optics, and devoid of substance. Osinbajo did not only travel to the polluted towns of the Niger Delta, he also visited the poorly maintained toilets at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos but it takes more than this to effect change and improve our business environment — the most visible of professor Osinbajo’s efforts and initiatives. It was reported in the news following the visit, that the directors at the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) got fired. Building institutions over the long run has proved to me more effect than this “policy of consequences” which finds root in the act of sending a body language signal that in this case, appears to be intolerant of mediocrity.
The importance of body language cannot be discounted but it must be matched by solid and sustainable measures if our country is serious about making change happen.
Upholding strong and independent institutions especially the judiciary, is one the most important ways to communicate change. A country that does not obey court orders cannot expect to attract serious long-term investors. During my return to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2016, I attended an Infrastructure Financing class and the faculty chair, Akash Deep who taught the course explained how the US energy rates are extremely loosely regulated, noting that the government does not enter fixed contracts with distributors. According to him, the main reason investors continue to invest majorly nonetheless is due to their confidence and trust in the country’s strong justice system.
This should serve as a lesson to Nigeria, both President Buhari and Osinbajo forsook court orders granting release to detained persons such as the leader of the Biafra separatist movement Nnamdi Kanu and former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki and others. The courts must be obeyed!
A number of persons are aware that the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria is taking cue from the president’s body language and regular utterances on trade and currency, and implementing to the letter. This raises concerns over the independence of this institution — another cause of concern for institutional investors.
Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that Nigeria could not obtain the second tranche of a budget support loan from the African Development Bank. A fresh borrowing request from the International Monetary Fund was stalled similarly, due to a lack of an economic management plan.
As Nigeria continues to grope in the dark, the need for sustainable national plans and policies is something we cannot take lightly.
Adewunmi Emoruwa is a Strategic Communications and Public Affairs professional with interest in using data and technology, advocacy and civic engagement to drive public policy and change. He is an alumni of the Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government.