Yar'Adua's emerging style
By Reuben Abati
TO say that a new leader's style and/or persona is different from that of his predecessor may amount to a statement of the obvious. But in Nigeria, style in this context acquires a significance that is instructive beyond what may seem to be given. And in attempting a preliminary assessment of President Umaru Yar'Adua, what is emerging is the realization, now generally acknowledged that his style is so far a radical and refreshing departure from what Nigerians experienced under former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Already, Nigerians are breathing a sigh of relief, as Yar'Adua, in the past two months, has now begun gradually and certainly to show that he is his own man. The style is the man. What defines the man, conditions what he does, or says, or how the public responds to him. If there is any concrete change in the Presidency that we can speak of, for now, it is the change in Presidential style.
President Olusegun Obasnajo was an authoritarian leader who left no one in doubt that he was in charge. For him, every occasion provided an opportunity to advertise the supremacy of his office. Even when this was absolutely unnecessary, he went out of his way to behave in an imperial manner. It was as if the then President needed to reassure himself of his achievement and pre-eminence at every hour, every minute and every second. Discussions with him often ended up, it was said, as a monologue in which he alone was the wise one. Any sign of independence, or expression of an alternative view point, was shot down from the imperial throne. There were many demonstrations of this style in the public arena. Obasanjo once asked a Christian cleric, a high-ranking official of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) to shut up. On another occasion, he threatened top flog someone who disagreed with him publicly. At a meeting in London he also reportedly threatened to slap a fellow for asking a question that he considered rude.
Journalists who took part in "The President Speaks" media encounters suffered terribly in his hands. He bullied them, booed them or asked them to sit down, stand up or get out. This the leader-knows-it-all tendency and style soon became a key factor in that government's policy processes. The Presidency became the nation's centre of gravity. It overruled the courts of the land, obeying the courts only when it was convenient to do so. Special advisers were advised to keep their ideas to themselves. Political appointees were constantly reminded that they were at the mercy of the President. One other Nigerian leader had been described severally as being Machiavellian but I suppose no other leader in Nigerian history has been more Machiavellian than Obasanjo. Between 1999 and 2007, he was in many ways, the archetypal Prince.
One major advantage of his style though is that Obasanjo provoked civil society into action and expression. By pushing his own views and choices so vigorously without any care in the world, about whose ox was gored, about the popularity or otherwise of his actions, Obasanjo energized the rest of us to challenge him, to counter him, to knock him heavily in a battle of ideas and wills. We were invariably playing his own game, but the gain was the creativity that his style unleashed in the public arena, with the more progressive camp insisting on the right of the people to know, to be heard, to choose, and to live in an open and good society under the rule of law. Our protest against the Obasanjo style was tiring as the man was unyielding till the last moment.
This curious leader-people dynamic was further complicated by the emergence of mini-Obasanjos in the corridors of power. A group of Ministers and Advisers, hidden economic hit-men, self-promoting patriots, the know-it-all gang which also thought that the best way to serve the people was to bully them. Their arrogance was insufferable and infuriating. They were poor imitators; for they differed from Obasanjo in an essential respect: they lacked Obasanjo's common touch, his wit and humour, his predictability, naturalness and native intelligence, which often won him the admiration of even his most ardent critics. Obasanjo's style may have been ambivalent, his methods may have been vague, but for the most part, the people knew where they stood with him. There wasn't much that he did that surprised the average Nigerian.
With President Yar'Adua, there appears to be some form of clarity and simplicity and the public appears to be somewhat excited. The new President may not be a fantastic campaigner on the political platform; he may not make quotable statements that would be transported from lips to lips for weeks on end. He may not be able to break out in an expansive dance in response to the rhythms of drum and song; he certainly may not have great stories to tell about the past and the future of Nigeria. But we can conclude that this is not a President who will threaten to slap, flog or frog-march people. He does not look like the kind of President, and he is not behaving like one, who will walk people out of his office. Or ask people to shut up, sit down, or stand up as if these were the nicest words in the English dictionary. His manners are mild. In close to 60 days in office, no one can trace any act of viciousness, or word of antagonism to him. President Obasanjo had hardly settled down in office when he told everyone who supported his election campaigns not to expect any favours from him! Umaru Yar'Adua does not even hug the limelight. He is so self-effacing, so soft-spoken, you may be tempted to sympathise with him.
He had assumed office on May 29 with the promise that he will be a servant-leader. He seems to be working hard at this aspiration. His body-language is according to his early admirers, pleasant. You could miss him in a crowd of his assistants. Nobody could ever miss Obasanjo's swagger, imposing presence and power-grunts. It is perhaps a function of Yar'Adua's style that in two months he has been able to handle a number of controversial incidents, including the quiet dismantling of Obasanjo's spheres of influence without attracting much attention to himself, or his likely long-term motives. After what seemed like an initial bout of stage-fright, he reversed the increases in the pump prices of petroleum products and VAT.
The sale of the Kaduna and Port Harcourt refineries had also raised much dust. Without making the powerful owners of Bluestar Consortium lose face, Yar'Adua provided them a soft landing by allowing them to withdraw their purchase of the refineries with a threat that they were giving the NNPC one year to turn around the refineries "or else". But or else what? Quietly also, Yar'Adua managed to put an end to the face-off between government and ASUU. When the Supreme Court gave a ruling which rendered the April 2007 Gubernatorial elections in Anambra state null and void, the Yar'Adua Presidency made no attempt to stand in the way of the apex court. Under Obasanjo, either the Presidency, or the ruling party could have overruled the Supreme Court. Yar'Adua has also ordered the release of the remaining part of the withheld funds due to local councils in Lagos state. He has also named Lagos one of the two Presidential retreats that will be used by his government. This is the same Lagos that President Obasanjo dismissed as a "jungle" and turned into a victim of partisan politics.
It should not be too difficult indeed to see why President Umaru Yar'Adua appears to be winning in the style department. But style is not enough. What matters is substance: in terms of performance and quality of service delivery. If the Obasanjo government had succeeded in delivering the much demanded "dividends of democracy", not many people would have complained about style; they would have been satisfied with a trade-off. Mild manners and simplicity may make a leader attractive, but that is no guarantee of quality performance in office. In the First Republic, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa was a simple and modest man. But under his watch, Nigeria imploded. In the Second Republic, President Shehu Shagari was a man of few words and excellent manners. But his government, right before his eyes, was hijacked by a profligate and influential cabal.
General Buhari as Head of State was reticent, his second-in-command Tunde Idiagbon did more of the talking, and yet the rule of law suffered under his government. When General Babangida first showed up, his toothy smile endeared him to Nigerians, but his government ended up mortgaging Nigeria's future. General Sani Abacha was so taciturn, everyone considered him the dumb General. But he soon showed Nigerians that no one should judge a book by its cover. Human history is full of so many leaders who started their careers as men of style and decorum, but who ended up as terrible rulers. Are we not trusting President Yar'Adua too early, too soon? President Obasanjo had in fact foresee the comparison that is now being attempted when he declaimed as follows: "Umoru does not talk. His style will be different. But he will react."
President Yar'Adua's style, as defined, is actually a reaction to his environment, his circumstances, and the grandeur of his office. Could it be that he is treading softly, knowing that there are cases in court, which still have to be determined before he can sit confidently as Nigeria's President? Is he so gentle and so self-effacing because he is still having stage-fright? He is carrying out the most important assignment of his life. He is now on the big stage. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and everything that he ever did in his life came to him on platter of gold.
He inherited houses from his father and his brother. He went to school as a privileged child; he was made a state commissioner even when he did not want it. He became Governor of Katsina state for eight years without any hassles, and his brother's friend decided to make him President of Nigeria. Is it not possible that what is being termed style is actually the case of a man still trying to adjust to his new surroundings? Running Nigeria is such a complex assignment that can bring forth hitherto uncharted depths of a man's character. Yar'Adua is a leader we still need to watch closely, lest his style sways us and we abandon our role as sentinel.