By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
By all accounts, President Buhari not only had incredibly wondrous moments in America during his visit here, he also gave me and many Nigerians a cause to cheer and be proud.
While his American outing didn’t come close to Tafawa Balewa’s July 1961 visit in terms of grandeur and luster (read my April 7, 2012 article titled “Tafawa Balewa’s Electrifying 1961 American Visit”) Buhari was certainly everything that Goodluck Jonathan was not during his own April 2010 American visit.
Tafawa Balewa oozed infectious regal splendor, Buhari exuded supreme confidence and competence, but Jonathan, sadly, betrayed cringe-worthy timidity and ineptitude. (Read my April 16, 2010 article titled “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing!” in which I became the first person to call him “clueless”). But let’s leave the comparisons for another day.
From his polished, dignified comportment during meetings with Obama and other top American government officials at the White House, to his exceptionally well-written and brilliantly delivered speech at the United States Institute of Peace, to his dexterous and humorous responses to questions from audience members at the USIP, to his perfect poise and self-assured delivery at the American Chamber of Commerce dinner, to his witty, informative session with Nigerians in America, and to his interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, President Buhari shone like a star.
I am an almost compulsively fastidious person, but I found little to criticize in Buhari’s American visit. He understood the protocols and conventions of state visits, was superlatively self-confident, radiated warmth and ease, was admirably urbane, and was totally in control. I couldn’t ask for more.
I initially had anxieties about the thickness of his accent; I thought his American guests might find his accent unintelligible. But he spoke slowly and deliberately, and articulated his words clearly, carefully, wisely, and advisedly.
I frankly feel like a snob writing this (believe you me, I am the farthest person from a snob) because we are talking about a 73-year-old man who had been everything anybody would ever want to be— a governor, a minister, a head of state, name it. Plus, he went to school in America and is as familiar with Americans as anybody can be. So why am I gushing over his outing in America as if I didn’t expect him to be poised, well-spoken, and polished? Or am I guilty of what George W. Bush once called the “soft bigotry of low expectations”?
Of course not. As I wrote in my June 20, 2015 article titled “Criticizing Buhari over ‘President Michelle of Germany’ Gaffe is Ignorant,” President Buhari’s “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.”
All this is called for precisely because many young and not so young people who know Buhari only through the miasma of vile political campaigns tend to fit him in the mold of the stereotypical northern “know-nothing” who got to his present station through nepotistic northern patronage networks. And since the man is taciturn and chooses to let his critics stew in their own ignorance about him, the stereotype sticks. But Buhari is no “quota” know-nothing, his age-induced memory lapses notwithstanding.
For me, though, one aspect of President Buhari that came out in bold relief during his American visit was the richness and rightness of his sense of humor. It takes complex cognitive ability to be able to inject humor into one’s speech. It takes even more abilities to make the humor truly rib-tickling. But it’s best if the humor is simultaneously funny and self-deprecating.
For instance, during the Q and A portion of his appearance at the United States Institute of Peace, Buhari said, in response to a question, that in the past few weeks that he has been president, he has transmogrified from “Baba Buhari, which means father Buhari, to Baba Go-Slow!” When the moderator of the Q and A session wanted to stack up three questions before giving him a chance to respond, Buhari said he would rather answer the questions singly because “I am not too confident about my memory,” poking fun at his “senior moments” (such as his “President Michelle of Germany” gaffe and his misidentification of his political party as the “All Nigerian People’s Congress” during remarks at the White House). That’s self-deprecating humor at its best. Few people can tell jokes at their own expense.
Again, when the moderator asked how his experience as a former military head of state would impinge on his performance as an elected president— and another windy question I don’t recall now—Buhari prefaced his response by saying “thank you for your difficult questions!” The entire hall roared with laughter. It’s good to know that we have a leader who can laugh at himself.
I was initially secretly opposed to Buhari’s visit to America for reasons I have no space to enumerate here, but having closely observed every step of the visit, I think it was worth it.
After sending this column, I became aware of Buhari's impolitic statement that it was politically fair to favor parts of the country that voted for him, although he later corrected himself by saying he is constitutionally obligated to treat every Nigerian equally.