The democracy of letter writing

President Muhammadu Buahari

President Muhammadu Buhari

By Owei Lakemfa.

I was one of the Nigerians stunned on New Year Day 2020 when our quite busy President Muhammadu Buhari wrote us a letter. Yes, Nigerians, high and low, the powerful and the commoner, received a letter from their President and Commander-In-Chief.

The letter put a lie to widely held claims that President Buhari is ethnocentric, a religious fanatic and is nepotistic. No, his letter was not discriminatory. He simply wrote to tell us about his activities, hopes and that we all have a rosy future. Secondly, his letter punctures claims that he cannot write or has lost the coherence to communicate.

Thirdly, his love letter gives hope that the art of letter writing which the internet has destroyed with short hand-like messages, horribly poor grammatical construction and poor spellings, may be revived, at least in Nigeria.

In the colonial days, you take professional courses in letter writing, and on graduation, became a career letter writer. You could even rise to the position of the village letter writer and befriended by kings, chiefs and the powerful. The letter writer was quite influential because he could even write a petition on behalf of the poor to the Whiteman, the quite powerful Assistant District Officers or even to the courts thereby saving the commoner from paying fines or going to jail.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo, widely accepted as “the best President Nigeria never had” was variously, a lawyer, reporter, money-lender, produce buyer, transporter, food contractor, trade unionist and, professional letter writer. As a politician, he put his letter writing skills to such use, that they became part of our historical materials.
Awolowo’s letter to General Aguyi-Ironsi demanding his release from prison, is still widely read. When his famous March 25, 1943 letter to business mogul, Adeola Odutola asking for a loan, found its way into the internet, it went viral. It is not only his business and political letters that are popular, his love letter to his wife, Mrs. Hannah Dideolu Awolowo, is one of the most widely quoted especially where he described her as: “ my jewel of inestimable value”

In high school, we were taught the art of letter writing, and it could determine whether you passed or failed English language in the West African School Certificate. From the third year, we were taught that you wrote your address, and below it, the date on the right hand corner, move below, and write on the left hand corner, the addressee before beginning with an opening salutation which in formal letters was certainly ‘Dear Sir/Madam’

There was also the danger that if you copied the bombastic style of the barely literate Onitsha Market letter writers, you could be a bad letter writer. Such letters contained words like: ‘cataclysmic catastrophe’ ‘doxology’ ‘tintinnabulation’ and ‘camentum’ (until today, I don’t know what that means) . My friend, Honourable Patrick Obayagbon has made a career in politics returning to the use of such words and creatively inventing his own such as “paropoism” “big stouting’ “peppersouping” and “verbabodical dimosophy gyrations”

But before President Buhari, the man who put letter writing to the greatest use in governance, was the noted Editor, Prince Tony Momoh who as Information Minister in the Babangida regime, wrote a series titled: ‘ Letter to my Countrymen’ He might not have achieved much success or be so acknowledged because he wrote on behalf of a discredited military dictatorship.

In later years, Prince Momoh teamed up with retired General Muhammadu Buhari to found the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in which he was Chairman and Buhari, the Presidential Candidate. They felt so bitter about their loss in the 2011 elections, that both men declined to call their supporters to order when they took to the streets in quite violent protests. In fact, after that election, Buhari vowed never to run for office again. But when his anger subsided, he decided to run for just one term which he won in 2015. The rest, as they say, is history. It is not impossible that Momoh’s letter writing culture rubbed off on Buhari.

I must say, for historical purposes that Momoh had earned his letter writing place in history before former President Olusegun Obasanjo became the Letter-Writer-in-Chief of Nigeria. One of his most explosive was his January 24, 2018 letter to President Buhari asking him not to recontest in the 2019 Presidential Elections.

Although Buhari served under Obasanjo in the military and in government, the Buhari crowd felt the letter was insulting. Another general who served under Obasanjo, Alani Akinrinade, openly asked that his former boss stops writing public letters. To his credit, Obasanjo with at least two dozen books, is Nigeria’s most prolific former ruler.

Obasanjo’s letters were enough to irritate Buhari and make public letter writing offensive to him, but surprisingly, Buhari choose the medium to reach all fellow Nigerians. His love for Nigerians and letter writing was so much that whereas his 2019 New Year Address was a mere 602-word message, his 2020 letter contains 2,058 words. If in future, he chooses to write another letter to Nigerians, I am sure it would double this.

Ordinarily, if you were to respond to a letter, you acknowledge it and respond politely. Not the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) which responded angrily to Buhari’s letter particularly the part he wrote: “I will be standing down in 2023 and will not be available in any future elections.”
The PDP’s response is that: “President Buhari should stop presenting a picture as if he has the option to continue in office beyond 2023… it is not an issue of ‘standing down’ or not being ‘available’ for future election, but a decided and inevitable position as contained in our constitution that he must quit office after two terms which will end in 2023. Mr. President, therefore, does not have any other choice before the law.”

I disagree with this uncritical position; the issue in Nigeria has not been constitutionalism or rule of law, but power relations. In many instances, our constitution is raped, issues of federal character and fair representation tossed into the dustbin. As for court orders, some may not be worth the paper they are made. All the Presidency need do is proclaim that for security reasons, President Buhari would remain in office beyond his tenure. If it is the constitution, the President who commands all the military and paramilitary institutions, the central bank, our oil, and is de facto leader of the National Assembly and judiciary, can go for an amendment which rubber stamp state and national assemblies will pass.

The Yorubas say when a man is quite powerful, you beg him to tread softly in order not to destroy the land. He might be a bull in a chinaware shop.