Who did Buhari offend?
Why the President's parting apologies do not satisfy the four Rs of effective and functional ways of saying sorry.
On 21 April 2023, President Muhammadu Buhari did what politicians all over the world rarely do. He apologised. Buhari asked Nigerians whom he may have hurt during his presidency to forgive him. His audience were some members of the Muslim community in Abuja, including Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Mohammed Bello, who paid the president the traditional Sallah homage during the Eid al-Fitr celebration.
Buhari did not mention the aggrieved individuals he was referring to. Perhaps, he believed the gist of his message was not lost on his audience. Still, a few questions are bound to arise reading through the widely reported apology. Was the president making a formal acknowledgment of personal error? Was he pondering the potential judgement of history as he neared the end of his two elected terms, which terminate on May 29 this year?
The reports showed Buhari as a man full of gratitude for his personal accomplishments, having been a governor, minister, and military head of state. He extolled democracy, which gave him the incredible opportunity of being a second-term incumbent president. He had previously lost three elections in 2003, 2007, and 2011. But democracy and its popular sovereignty prevailed. Thank God, Buhari said, adding that he got all he asked for. He sounded eager to retire to his hometown in Daura, Katsina State.
The fourth president of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic used the Sallah occasion to also thank the citizens for tolerating him, asking those who felt wronged to absolve him. "There is no doubt I hurt some people and I wish you would pardon me," Buhari said. This was essentially the president's acknowledgement of any kind of wrongdoing. If he felt Nigerians deserved an apology, none could be more impersonal.
Indeed, Buhari has apologised a few times before during his presidency. In September 2016, he apologised after it was reported that a speech he gave while launching his “Change Begins with Me” campaign plagiarised the 2008 victory speech of former U.S. President, Barack Obama. He also apologised in March 2022 for the inconvenience Nigerians were facing due to "prolonged shortage of petroleum products" and blackouts caused by the collapse of the power grid. Then, in March 2023, Buhari said he was sorry for the economic hardship the chaotic banknotes redesign policy of the government had brought on the people.
Seeing a former military ruler express regrets over his actions should be laudable, except that these are non-apology apologies. In other words, none of his attempts at showing regret effectively addressed the issues in any fundamental way. Moreover, his apologies failed to satisfy what scholars, David Glasgow and Kenji Yoshino, call the four Rs of apology: recognition, responsibility, remorse, and redress.
Applying the Four Rs
According to Glasgow, an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law, and his colleague, Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law, an apology needs to meet the requirements of the four Rs for it to be effective and functional. And only then, can the recipients of an apology truly feel its impact.
The perceived genuineness of Buhari's expressions of regret can be assessed using the four Rs. This is simply to look at the weight of his apologies in light of the magnitude of some of the issues Nigerians have faced during his presidency.
Recognition: Glasgow and Yoshino, who are co-authors of “Say the Right Thing,” wrote that in order to give an authentic apology, you must recognise the harm you have caused. By saying "There is no doubt I hurt some people," and "those that think that I have hurt them so much," Buhari showed no understanding, empathy, or validation of the hurt felt by millions of Nigerians who are suffering from varying degrees of deprivation and loss.
Evidently, his apology during the Sallah celebration was a footnote, one added as if hurting people was merely a hazard or an incidental result of being Nigeria's president. What he said was as though he might or might not have hurt anyone. Although he asked Nigerians to "pardon" him, he did not state specifically the people from whom he sought forgiveness.
Responsibility: According to the legal and communication experts, the second R is about accepting the harm you have caused. Buhari could not state what he was apologising for, much less take responsibility for the harm caused. Even in previous instances when he apologised for specific complaints by Nigerians, he either justified his actions or shifted the blame.
In the plagiarism case, Buhari took no personal responsibility for it. Presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, said the "overzealous staff" who took Obama's expressions and gave them to Buhari as if they were the president's own would be punished. The president blamed marketers for the petrol scarcity. As for the power outages, they were due to technical issues, he said. According to him, the withdrawal of the old naira notes from circulation "was done to boost the economy of the country, not to cause hardship.”
Remorse: This third R requires showing genuine contrition for causing harm, says the experts. What was widely reported on 21 April was not much of an apology. Buhari was congratulating himself on his personal achievements. The fact that the country is in a dire state of socio-economic emergency barely featured. Other experts, apart from Glasgow and Yoshino, say lack of genuine contrition when giving an apology can even worsen the plight of the person who has been offended.
Redress: This requirement for genuine apology entails taking action to correct the harm caused. Rather than seek reform and redress regarding many of the issues Nigerians are facing, Buhari was announcing his plans to go back into political hibernation – the state he often remains in when he is out of office and in-between elections.
One of the biggest issues Nigerians are unhappy about today is the outcome of the 2023 presidential election. This was an election a record number of Nigerians registered for, and the vast majority collected their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) to participate in. However, the Independent National Electoral Commission's (INEC) failed to electronically transmit results from polling units (PUs) to its central online portal on 25 February. There were reports of voter intimidation and other irregularities, inevitably resulting in an election outcome that is being disputed.
While lawyers are at work seeking justice for their clients at the Election Petition Tribunal, Buhari can still allay the concerns of people who felt their popular sovereignty was denied. The president also needs to seriously investigate the conduct of the election by INEC.
In the instance of Buhari's apology over the scarcity of fuel and banknotes, no swift actions were taken. None of the ministers or heads of relevant parastatals was fired for ineffective implementation of government policies. The government continued its claims of having enough petroleum products in stock, while several parts of the country experienced varying degrees of shortages. In places like Abuja and its environs, the scarcity lasted for over one year, eventually easing after the March 2023 gubernatorial election.
When the products became available, queues remained in some petrol stations because of the unavailability of cash. Most transactions are now done via electronic banking channels that have become acutely erratic and unreliable in the last few months.
As far as the president is concerned, he has done his best for the country. He said as much back in December 2022. For him, the country's extant challenges are not his responsibility.
Admitting error is difficult for most people, more so for leaders who may consider it a sign of weakness. Political leaders around the world have gotten a lot of flak from citizens for non-apologies or issuing insincere apologies. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton infamously denied his affair with Monica Lewinsky during his presidency. But in August 1998, seven months after his denial, Clinton admitted to having a relationship with the former White House intern in a televised address to the country. He said he deeply regretted the affair and was wrong for lying to people, including his wife.
In a November 2013 interview with NBC News, Obama apologised to Americans who were losing their health plans due to one of his biggest legislative accomplishments, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He had promised the people that no one would need to give up a health plan of their choice. "I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me," Obama said, taking responsibility. He added that "We've got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them." As of December 2022, the uninsured rates for low-income individuals and people under 65 had reportedly dropped to record lows.
"Public apologies may carry an incredible amount of weight if they are perceived to be genuine and heartfelt," Daniella Stoltz and Beth Van Schaack wrote in a March 2021 article on sovereign apologies, published in the online publication, Just Security. Unfortunately, the apology of former British Prime Minister, Liz Truss, was not deemed genuine enough.
Truss had apologised for the government's controversial mini-budget, one that included unfunded tax cuts and huge government borrowing. But global financial markets reacted negatively to the fiscal plan, and she lost public confidence. She resigned three days after issuing her apology.
There have also been state-issued apologies offered by some world leaders on behalf of their nations. Such sovereign apologies are usually designed to make amends for human rights abuses perpetrated by past governments against their own citizens or citizens of another nations. Two key examples are, first, the apologies issued in 1992 by former South African President Frederik W. de Klerk, the last white South African leader. He expressed public regret for apartheid, the policy of racial segregation that existed in the country for 46 years. De Klerk later issued more apologies during and after his presidency for the injustices against blacks.
The second national apology was issued by Japanese Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, who, on his last day in office in 1993, took responsibility for Japan’s wartime atrocities. During the Second World War, the Japanese military reportedly committed acts of sexual slavery, which the Association of Asian Studies refers to as the “largest case of government-sponsored human trafficking” in modern history. An estimated 200,000 women, many of them Korean, were victims of the sexual exploitation.
Buhari made forceful pledges to crush terrorism, restore security, fight corruption, and revamp the economy. While he recorded some achievements in office, he also needs to admit in his public utterances that he could not deliver on much of the mandate on which he was elected. To be fully accountable, a good leader needs to accept personal or corporate responsibility for unsatisfactory performance.
Buhari cannot just hightail it to Daura without, at the very least, showing remorse for the stagflationary economy he is leaving behind. Average annual GDP growth rate from 2016 to 2022 was 1.14%, far below the targets of any of his economic blueprints. Inflation rate reached 22.04% in March 2023, a seventeen-and-a-half-year peak. A combination of the factors already mentioned – as well as high unemployment and dwindling government revenue – shrunk Nigeria's GDP by 10.6%, dropping from $493 billion in 2015 to $441 billion in 2021.
A slower rate of economic growth, together with 2.5% average population growth rate, has left the country with a -1.36% per capita GDP growth rate during Buhari's presidency. The contractions in aggregate and per person economic outputs ultimately means a decrease in the average standard of living of Nigerians.
The World Bank says Nigeria's economic growth rate will slow to 2.8% in 2023, from 3.3% last year. A March 2023 analysis by Cadre Harmonisé (CH), an early warning tool for analysing food insecurity situations in vulnerable areas, shows at least 28.4 million in 26 states and Abuja will face severe crises between June and August this year as a result of the scarcity of petrol and naira, which are major drivers of “rising price of food commodities and agricultural inputs."
While it was never Buhari's intention to bequeath a poorer economy to the next government, what is striking is his inability to acknowledge the myriad disparities between the administration's policy intents and implementation, often resulting in sub-optimal performance. Somehow, the rhetorics never matched the actions and policy outcomes.
As the curtain falls on the Buhari administration, Nigerians are still being terrorised and kidnapped by different armed groups. Apart from the lives that have been lost, about 3.3 million Nigerians have been displaced due to insecurity in different parts of the country, according to Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Economists, Abdulkarim Yusuf and Saidatulakmal Mohd, both of the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), articulate the economic consequences of insecurity in an April 2022 paper published in the European Journal of Development Research. They said insecurity in the country resulted in the loss of "over N1.4 billion to N1.6 billion in business and commercial assets between 2015 and 2018, as well as a decline in daily oil production from 2.2 million to 1.5 million barrels per day in 2018."
Another report, the 2022 Global Peace Index, puts the economic cost of violence at $101.7 billion or 9% of GDP. The report, which designates Nigeria as a state with low level of peace, ranks the country 143 out of 163 independent states and territories based on their level of peacefulness. Produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report says Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Niger, and Iran are more peaceful than Nigeria.
Buhari also needs to speak out and clear the air as regards the allegations of corruption his administration is being accused of, particularly the billions of naira worth of contracts that were awarded by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) on 19 April, barely 40 days to the end of the administration. The contracts are for a new aircraft for the Nigeria Customs Service (NSC) and the controversial plan to automate the NCS. Funds were also approved for road projects to be executed by the Minister of Works and Housing. All major newspapers published very telling headlines for this news story, emphasising "40 days" and leaving it to readers to take their meaning.
A better approach
An understanding of democratic ideals like respect for the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms is crucial in delivering effective and people-centred governance. These attributes have to be understood by leaders to enable them to make sincere and effective political apologies. But understanding these principles alone is not enough. They also need to be judiciously applied. Buhari clearly understands the rule of law. He swore to uphold it.
However, there have been several instances of his administration's refusal to abide by court orders, including the Supreme Court's interim suspension order on the implementation of the new banknotes policy. These actions incurred him the harsh reproof of the court, which described the president as a violator of the rule of law.
Buhari’s masterclass in non-apology apology is emblematic of a major failing in the Nigerian society. At different levels of our society, philosophical underpinnings of leadership – namely, ideas and virtues like empathy, wisdom, justice, fairness, compassion, honesty, courage, among others – are sorely lacking. These virtues are necessary for visionary, progressive, and inclusive leadership. They are important in guiding decision-making in a country as endowed and diverse as Nigeria. A strong commitment by our leaders to treating people in an equitable manner, irrespective of their biases, ought to be a critical foundation of the Nigerian political system.
Martins Hile, a Financial Nigeria Contributor, is a sustainability strategist and editorial consultant.
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