By Lolu Elegbe
There’s a saying that, “politics is perception and perception is reality”. This means as a politician, no matter how much you’re doing, if the public can’t see it – either because you’re not communicating it well enough or because you don’t think the public should know – then the perception will be, at best, you’re not doing enough and at worst, you’re not doing anything.
I believe one of the major (perhaps unexplored) reasons, why President Jonathan (GEJ) lost the 2015 election, was his failure to understand the power of perception – something President Buhari (PMB) has also failed to understand. I’m referring specifically to how they both handled the most critical security challenges of their Presidencies.
I, along with most Nigerians and really the rest of the of the world, watched with alarm, as Boko Haram swept its way (killed its way really) through many towns in Northern Nigeria for most of 2013 and 2014 – usually with little or no resistance from the Nigerian military. We even read reports of troops laying down their often more inferior arms and running away. Historically, the Nigerian military has been one of the most respected in Africa, so it was inexplicable to most people that a group of radical young men with no real military training, could win so many battles against them. We can only speculate as to the number of innocent Nigerians and gallant troops that lost their lives in those years.
Most Nigerians, especially in Northern Nigeria (the epicentre of the Boko Haram carnage) believed the reason this group suddenly became so powerful was because the GEJ-led Federal Government, wasn’t interested in stopping them, since in the words of some commentators, “it was sponsored by Northern interests who wanted GEJ out of power” – and so they allowed the carnage to continue. Let me be absolutely clear, I’m not saying this was President Jonathan’s mindset or strategy – in fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. But the problem he never seemed to grasp, was that, this was the perception of most Nigerians. And because he never really understood that, he did little or nothing to disabuse the public of that notion. This perception then took firm root, when the election was postponed with just a week to the polls. We all remember the reasons given – to allow more time for collection of PVCs and to give the military more time to complete a major offensive against Boko Haram (the military had just taken delivery of a new cache of arms), which would guarantee election day security in the region. And it worked – in those 6 weeks, the military routed the group in a way we hadn’t seen in years. Meaning more was achieved in 6 weeks than in any of the years before, since the conflict began.
We were all happy that the military was now doing what we knew it could do – but even in the euphoria, the inevitable question was, “If the military could do this in 6 weeks, what have they been doing all these years? Why did so many Nigerians have to suffer and die, if our military had this kind of capacity?” Unfortunately, the explanation from the Government made things worse – they said the process to secure the required arms was long and complicated, especially since the US refused to sell arms to the Government. I’m sure the process is complicated, but the timing of the arrival of the arms and the major offensive, seemed very convenient. Certainly, most people I spoke to during that time – even GEJ supporters – kept saying, “Yeah right, the weapons just happened to arrive just in time to postpone the elections to let the military make progress”. Again, this might actually have been a coincidence. But the perception that it was timed, didn’t help the President’s case for re-election (Of course there were other reasons).
Unfortunately, PMB is making the same mistake, also in one of the major security challenges of his Presidency – the herdsmen attacks. I’ll use one example.
A few weeks ago, 73 people were killed in Benue by suspected herdsmen. This crime was serious enough to have prompted at the very least, a Presidential address to the nation – especially since these kinds of attacks (and reprisals), were (and are still) happening with increased frequency. Surely, the victims and their families deserved more than the obligatory, almost impersonal condolence statements from the Presidency. Can you imagine what it would have done for national healing, had the President visited the affected communities, even if just for the symbolic value of saying, “I’m grieving with you”. Or better still, hold the national address from one of the communities. None of that happened – in fact, until recently, all statements I’ve read and heard on this issue, came from aides, ministers, the military, the police, etc. And even most of those statements, even when coherent enough, have been laced with inexplicable insensitivity and shameful rationalisations. But it’s only in the past week or so, that the President now seems to be speaking publicly about this issue.
The first one I read about, was during a meeting with APC officials a couple of weeks ago when he talked about how much he was doing to resolve the crisis. The second one was yesterday, where he’s supposed to have said (among other things), “Herdsmen, bandits, will not be tolerated. I appeal to all Nigerians to refrain from reprisal attacks. The security agencies have standing order to arrest and prosecute any and all persons found with illegal arms”.
While that is the right tone coming from the President, the question most Nigerians are asking is, why now? These killings have been going on far too long, too many Nigerians have died needlessly – why does he now sound more forceful than he’s ever done on this issue? And as much as reprisal attacks are to be avoided at all cost since they only perpetuate the cycle of violence, why do Government statements always seem more prepared to deal with reprisals, than with preparing to thwart the preceding attacks – surely, anything that threatens the life of any Nigerian should be treated in the same way.
The President doesn’t seem to understand that the perception out there is that he’s not dealing decisively with the herdsmen because they come from his tribe. Don’t get me wrong, PMB doesn’t strike me as someone who condones murder and like I said on another platform, the irony is that he might actually be doing a lot to stop this madness. But the problem is that, by his hitherto public silence on the issue, the failure of the police to arrest the perpetrators, plus comparatively – the military crackdown on IPOB, he’s almost going out of his way to feed the perception that he’s reluctant to unleash the full force of the law on the herdsmen. Even the timing of his now public comments, are eliciting the same, “Yeah right – convenient timing” responses from the public, as they did in those 6 weeks after the elections were postponed under President Jonathan. It’s too little too late, because anything he says or does right now, will be perceived (rightly in my opinion), as targeted at voters, rather than the victims and the general public.
One President has already lost his seat, in large part, due to a failure to understand the power of perception. Another hasn’t lost the election yet, but he has certainly lost a lot of the credibility, support and goodwill he had coming in. I was a vocal PMB supporter in 2015, but in 2019………….