By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
I have read people refer to President Buhari as “clueless”—and suchlike adjective of disesteem suggesting cognitive incapacity—for his recent reference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “President Michelle of West Germany.” That is ignorant. And I will explain why shortly.
There are many things to criticize about President Buhari, but cluelessness isn’t one of them. His thought-processes are clearly complex, sophisticated, and high-level. If in doubt, get hold of any of his off-the cuff remarks, go beyond the distractions of his accent, and you will see a man whose intellect is deep and whose understanding of governance and world politics is admirably advanced. I have interviewed him twice—first when I was a journalist in Nigeria and later from here in the US for the Nigerian Village Square website in 2010.
You’re probably wondering where I am going with this. How could someone call Germany “West Germany,” mangle its president’s name and official title, and I not only say he isn’t clueless but insist he is, in fact, intellectually deep?
OK, let me start by saying I am not some viscerally one-dimentional, unreflective Buhari apologist who is wedded to what I call the misguided philosophy of Buharist inerrancy, that is, the wrongheaded idea that Buhari can’t ever be wrong. Buhari is only human who is liable to errors and lapses of judgment. Many of us who criticized him, and will criticize him in future, do so not because we are better but because, as the saying goes, the onlookers, not the participants, see most of the game.
Now, when Buhari called German Chancellor Merkel “President Michelle of West Germany,” he was merely suffering from what Americans call a “senior moment,” which is the momentary lapse in memory occasioned by old age. As psychologists know only too well, as we age, the speed with which we retrieve information from our cognitive reservoir slows. Age-related memory lapses, experts tell us, can start as early as late 30s and get worse as we get older.
Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Eric Kandel and his colleagues published a well-received study in 2013 in the Journal of Science Translational Medicine where they, among other things, reveal that a “memory gene” in us appears to get weaker as our brain ages, causing us to forget easily, mix things up, and unable to easily recall information stored in our memory banks.
Buhari is not the only president who contends with age-related memory impairment. The late President Ronald Reagan, America’s oldest president who was elected at nearly 70 years in his first term, was famous for his bewildering senior moments. I will give only a few examples. Sometime in 1984, when he was 73 years old, during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, according to TIME magazine, President Reagan constantly referred to his own Vice President, George Bush, Sr. (father of George W. Bush), as "Prime Minister Bush." (Remember Buhari’s reference to Vice President Osinbajo as “Osunbade” during a campaign rally in Owerri?)
And, according to Tom Friedman’s 2006 book titled You Are Not Alone: 1,000 Unforgettable Senior Moments: Of Which We Could Remember Only 246, “President Ronald Reagan’s senior moments were legendary. He often forgot what foreign country he was in or the name of the dignitary he was meeting. When he visited Brazil, he referred to it as Bolivia. He greeted Princess Diana as ‘Princess David’; at a conference of mayors once introduced himself to Samuel Pierce, the only African-American member of his cabinet, who he thought was the mayor of some American city; and called President Samuel Doe of Liberia ‘Chairman Doe.’” (p. 85).
Have you seen any similarities yet? Well, another US president, Richard Nixon, had a senior moment when he went to France in 1974 to attend the funeral of French president Georges Pompidou. Nixon had a lapse of memory and totally forgot why he was in France, so he said, “This is a great day for France!”
There will be many more age-related memory lapses from President Buhari. Get used to it. It’s no big deal. It’s part of the normal process of aging, and has no impact whatsoever on cognitive ability or performance. In spite of his notoriety for embarrassing “senior moments,” President Reagan has often been ranked as one of America’s greatest presidents. In fact, a February 2011 Gallup poll placed him as America’s greatest president of all time—ahead of Abraham Lincoln.
Like Buhari, Reagan lost in a past presidential election, but went ahead to defeat a younger incumbent in 1980. He won reelection at nearly 74 years with the biggest Electoral College victory in American history. When he left office in 1989, Reagan had an approval rating of 68 percent, which is the highest rating for a departing president in America’s modern history. Only Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton rival this feat.
I am not implying that Buhari will be a Nigerian Ronald Reagan, but his age-induced cognitive impairments and slips should not cause us to dismiss him. When he recently said to Nigerians in South Africa “I wish I became Head of State when I was a governor, just a few years as a young man. Now at 72, there is a limit to what I can do,” he was referring to the inevitable impediments that age imposes on people. But senior moments don’t impair performance if the will to succeed is there, as the example of Ronald Reagan clearly shows.
Although I think it’s ignorant to hold up Buhari’s senior moments as evidence of cluelessness, it’s fair game to poke fun at them. That’s the nature of democracy. Even Reagan laughed at the humor his senior moments actuated. I hope Buhari—and his legion of zealous, humorless supporters—will learn to laugh at his senior moment jokes.