President Muhammadu Buhari is a likable human. The near-general consensus of those who have met him is that the man exudes a certain child-like atmosphere of innocence and simplicity that endears him to many people in informal conversations. That, for me, is quite perceptible even from the very few television interviews he has granted since 2015. But frankly, that is where it all ends.
For his legion of aides and supporters, it does not end there. The claim is that Mr Buhari is an amazingly funny man whose many jokes can make a mess of Trevor Noah’s legendary status in the comedy world, should there be a head-to-head appraisal of the duo’s comic outputs. So the president is very, very funny; or so goes the narrative.
But anyone who truly understands the basic elements of comedy would know that Mr Buhari is not quite funny. Rather, what we have always had in place of his numerous pseudo-comedic stunts are embarrassingly unpresidential gaffes too numerous to mention here.
To my mind, Mr Buhari has been fed with this “You are damn funny” compliment for so long that he believes himself to be a better version of my good friend, Kenny Blaq. But the foundation of this illusory belief in a phantom comic prowess is not difficult to locate. Shall we?
First, until 2014, the only picture of Mr Buhari in the head of an average Nigerian voter (especially people of my generation, the Under-30s, down South) was that of a no-nonsense, brutal, draconian, and unsmiling dictator. Of course, this is traceable to his first coming as military head of state in 1983, alongside Tunde Idiagbon. A tale that may after all be apocryphal even had it that Idiagbon only smiled once in a year! And although Idiagbon was largely considered the engine room of that dictatorial regime, Mr Buhari was the face.
Quite understandably, upon Mr Buhari’s resolve to return as a civilian president, first in 2003, there was this very urgent need to “humanize” the General: to make people see him less as a soul-less sadist whose only way of getting things done is through the agency of force. And, again, to show that he has blood flowing in his vein, that he is after all human; because this is a democracy. If Mr Buhari’s failure to get to power between 2003 and 2011 had anything to do with strategy, outside other failed political calculations, his publicists’ failure to actualize this “humanization” agenda would be a major (strategic) reason. It perhaps explains the huge resources expended on ‘re-branding’ the president in 2015.
Aside from the president’s dictatorial antecedent, one other phenomenon that fuels this “President Buhari is funny” narrative is the cringe-worthy activities of his fawning aides. I have read a number of essays describing in detail the soul-lifting effects of Mr Buhari’s numerous jokes. It is pointless re-imagining how much this would be said to the president himself on a per-second basis, especially when you watch how they all smile sheepishly at the Federal Executive Council meeting—-even on occasions when the president simply yawns.
In communication, the Status Conferral Theory works not exactly in this manner but all you need to situate it in this immediate context is a little dose of mischief: a president who effortlessly drops bland, humorless jokes surrounds himself with fawning aides who praise him for being Africa’s funniest president. So he is conferred with and acquires the status of a “comedian” and considers himself better than Ali Baba. Of course, to sustain this myth, the president must supply fresh “jokes” every other day.
The results, expectedly, are what we have today: gaffes, gaffes, gaffes…and more gaffes!
To be sure, that capacity for effortless humor helps in politics and leadership, as Volodymyr Zelensky has perhaps shown us recently in Ukraine. It is also not for nothing that a significant number of comedians who have run for US Senate are said to have been elected. In fact, the US has a rich history of presidents who have deployed wit and humour brilliantly in their engagement with the public.
Abraham Lincoln, who had to combat civil war and slavery, deployed that capacity in a way many found endearing. “No matter how much cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens,” was Lincoln’s response to the growing concerns around the fierce debates at the Congress and how they could affect political aspirations.
A veteran of the stage, Ronald Reagan was on his part comedy personified. He was even reported to have extended his comic hand to the revered Queen. Once, while on a horse ride with Queen Elizabeth through the English countryside, the queen’s horse farted violently and an embarrassed Queen quickly apologised. But Reagan, famous for returning drafts of speeches to his speechwriters after adding his jokes to it, fired back, putting the Queen on a more delicate edge: “I’m glad you told me, or I would have thought it was the horse.” Such hilarity!
There are contemporary examples too in the American presidential context and what’s perhaps dominant is the spontaneity of the jokes.
But again, the president does not necessarily need to be funny. US’ 24th president Grover Cleveland, according to a few historians, was one. Even here, the closest to “Comedian-In-Chief” we have had in this republic is Olusegun Obasanjo. Although he may not be a professional comedian, very few of his traducers would deny that Obasanjo indeed had capacity to make people laugh. Poor health would not make us really know the stuff Umaru Yar’adua was made of and Goodluck Jonathan, for all his flaws, never showed pretense in that area. But not for Mr Buhari.
When asked about the orgy of violence and death across Nigeria penultimate week, the president remarked that the IGP already loses weight and that shows he is working. Many felt it would have been funny if it was not unfortunate. That faux comedic outing showed clearly what was not really hidden about the president before now: that he is not funny. Who cracks a joke about weight loss when the nation burns and kidnapping becomes the default headline material in the media? In a way, that outing also exposed, yet again, a fundamental flaw: the president lacks empathy.
On a lighter note, has the president thought through the deeper implication of that “weight loss” remark? For, by that statement, the president may have shown that weight loss represents performance and is the ONLY criteria with which Nigeria’s “Next Level” ministers would be selected. Now, where is the place of pot-belly as an added accumulation in service in all this? Or, more importantly, the place of grey hair/aging as a sign of hard work and an undying resolve to illuminate Nigeria? Or what other criteria would speak for Nigeria’s hardworking minister of Works, Power, and Housing, Babatunde Fashola? Is that an automatic “Take a bow” verdict for someone like, say, Education Minister Adamu Adamu, an otherwise brilliant man whom not a few folks believe should be redeployed?
Again, if Mr Buhari goes ahead with the “weight loss” plan, I think my beloved Oyo State may be the worst hit in the next dispensation. As we say in local parlance, we may eventually be left in the lurch, in OYO (On Your Own). Why? Whether by actual performance or Mr Buhari’s new-found “weight loss” criterion, it is unlikely that our present representative in the federal cabinet (Adebayo Shittu) would return. Sadly, the man who suffered loss in the last elections and whom party stalwarts are pushing for the ministerial job (the Constituted Authority) goes about with a very, very, very robust midriff pot too. See? To avoid another ethnic bickering, Mr Buhari may have to shelve that “weight loss” idea.
Away from platitudes, one very point must be made clear: Mr Buhari isn’t quite as funny as being projected. It is ordinarily no crime not to be funny but that consciousness must be established, especially if in the position of leadership at a trying time like ours. And for the ordinary Nigerian who craves quality leadership, the president is not under any pressure to entertain us. He only needs to lead us well.
Finally, rather than failed attempts at inappropriate, humorless, cringe-worthy, and witless comedy, SATIRE SATURDAY would implore the president to channel the same energy toward showing empathy when it matters most. If he acts otherwise, he would have shown that he only considers the job of leading 200 million violently divided people a comic performance—and then Nigeria, with her numerous horrifying news, a huge comedy stage. Should that be the case, Nigeria’s story would not be comical. For now, one hopes that he would put a halt to this Macabre Dance because anything otherwise would be tragic. And his famed sense of humour notwithstanding, even the president would not find the result funny.
Oladeinde tweets via @Ola_deinde
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