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How not to defend Buhari by Prof. Moses Ochonu

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Is President Muhammadu Buhari listening at all?
Is Muhammadu Buhari listening at all?

There is a roving, seemingly ubiquitous army of Nigerians who have appointed themselves defenders of President Buhari. Unfortunately, by employing offensive and ineffective logics and tactics, these fanatical supporters of the president are doing more reputational harm than good to their hero, and turning away compatriots who would otherwise be willing to give the president a fair hearing on the mounting disappointments with his administration.

Yesterday, I saw an update on my Facebook timeline with the following words: “if Jonathan had won, the dollar would be exchanging for N1000.” This was apparently advanced to counter the criticism of the Naira’s current free fall under the confused monetary policy of this administration.

Where does one begin on this fanatically blind, impulsive defense of Buhari? First of all, that statement begins from a premise of absence, which is a no-no in logic. Jonathan did not win, so we do not and cannot know what would have happened to the Naira had he won. That belongs in the realm of known unknowns, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld.

Historians call this argument a counterfactual. And, by the way, since when did Jonathan become the baseline of comparison for the author(s) of this Facebook update?

Second, it is a defense that slyly attempts to divert our attention away from the current Forex reality, which is that under Buhari the Naira has lost about 40 percent of its value against the dollar in the parallel market. We can debate the extent to which this is the fault of the fiscal and monetary policies of the president, but that is a separate conversation.

Third, the defense is premised on a negative — that is, the fact that the dollar does NOT (yet) exchange for N1000, instead of on the fact that it DOES exchange for N360, which is about N150 more than it exchanged under Jonathan. In this warped reasoning, we should only start complaining about Buhari’s monetary policies when the dollar begins to exchange for more than N1000!

Finally, when people resort to what could have been had Jonathan won and start making illogical exculpatory arguments based on speculative counterfactuals and a denial of the present state of things, then you know that they are only interested in one thing: protecting Buhari against criticism.

They are not interested in the important matter of whether things are getting better or worse in the country, whether inflation is rising or falling. More critically, it tells you their location in the spectrum of the Buhari-APC universe. They are clearly located in the fanatical, irrational wing of the Buhari supporters camp.

This kind of “defense” only confirms and validates criticisms of the government’s primitive, unrealistic, and unsustainable monetary policies because it inadvertently accepts that things are really bad, only suggesting that things could have been worse had Jonathan won. It’s not a good defense.

The bag of rationales and excuses that Buharists have been dipping into is emptying rapidly. Alibis that appeared reasonable several months ago now sound silly, contrived, and bogus. Blaming and scapegoating, which seemed plausible and convincing earlier, now look hollow. Citizens who were once receptive to arguments about the many obstacles in Buhari’s way have now been rendered skeptical by the escapist and denialist attitude of some of Buhari’s supporters. These overzealous supporters are now the reason why many are reluctant to extend the benefit of the doubt earlier given to the president.

In the interest of productive public debate and robust engagement with the president and his agenda, here is a list of how not to defend Buhari because they have clearly become counterproductive and do the president more harm than good.

Do not instinctively deny the president’s mistakes. He is human, fallible, and thus capable or errors like all of us.

Do not assume that good intentions always produce good outcomes. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Intentions are only meaningful for citizens when they are translated into policies and actions that benefit the majority of citizens.

Do not defend the president by arguing a negative — that is, that that without Buhari’s ascendancy to the presidency, things would be a lot worse. We don’t know this for sure. Besides, it is a terrible thing that the only positive thing you have to say about your political hero is that he is merely a preserver of the status quo, someone who is merely preventing the country from regressing. He came to power fancifully on the promise of changing the country, not on that of simply keeping things from getting worse. It is an impossible task to argue a negative. Ask Obama, who will never get credit for saving the US economy from total collapse because we don’t know for sure what would have happened had McCain won and we don’t know for sure that the US economy, bad as it was, was heading for total collapse. There is no way to say definitely what would have happened had Obama not won, so he continues to struggle to get the credit for engineering a remarkable recovery.

Do not defend the president by repeatedly invoking Jonathan’s record. It is getting tiresome. Besides, it contradicts the foundation of Buhari’s political persona — that he is the ultimate anti-Jonathan. If we take him at his word, it would be insulting to compare him at every turn to Jonathan, and to celebrate him merely because “Jonathan did or would do worse.”

Do not question the patriotism of those who criticize Buhari. You are not more patriotic than them. Supporting Buhari is not the same as supporting Nigeria, and vice versa.

As a Buhari supporter, do not begin every attempt to complain about Buhari’s administration or to criticize his action or inaction by prefacing such a critique with hackneyed and increasingly boring attacks on Jonathanians or those who voted for Jonathan. That they voted for Jonathan does not take away their stakes in the nation, nor does it abrogate their right to hold the president of their country accountable. It is their duty to criticize their president, whether they are doing so sincerely or mischievously. Even if they opposed Buhari’s candidacy, they may have transitioned to responsible, critical citizens under his presidency. He is after all their president too.

Do not defend the president by blaming civil servants or political appointees for missteps by the government. The buck stops at the president’s desk. If a document goes out in the name of his administration or is presented to the national assembly by him, it is his document. He owns it. He should have read it or caused a thorough reading to be done by his aides. If the said document proves to be a harvest of scandalous provisions and allocations, his ineptitude and naivety in that particular circumstance are indefensible and cannot be fobbed off to aides or civil servants.

Do not defend the president by always assuming that people are out to get him. It is a paranoid mindset that will produce irrational, unconvincing, and in some cases deceptive defenses of the president’s actions.

Do not dismiss the groaning of those who complain that Buhari’s change has not reached them or is too slow to manifest. It is their suffering that is talking, and it is callous and mean-spirited to dismiss their anguish in order to protect Buhari.

Do not attribute the president’s failures to a systemic rot. This is a cop out. This is his second stint as the leader of the country. He knew what he was getting into and was intimately familiar with the system he was campaigning to superintend. It is not for you to cover him with the blanket of sympathy when he willfully and loudly proclaimed himself capable of wading through the systemic rot to implement a change agenda.

In conclusion, the best way to defend the president is to begin from a premise that the failures and disappointments for which he is being blamed and criticized are real. The next step is to help the president make amends and correct his course. Being too defensive will only increase the pressure on the president.

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