By Olusegun Adeniyi
Presidential spokesman, Mr Femi Adesina is a respected pastor of the Foursquare Gospel Church and that reflects in all his writings. His most popular, albeit controversial, piece to date is the one he wrote last year at a period his principal was in the United Kingdom on medical leave. Titled “President Muhammadu Buhari and the descendants of Shimei’’, Adesina likened the president to King David, easily one of the most important Bible characters; and his critics to “descendants of Shimei’’, a member of the family of the displaced King Saul who once publicly humiliated King David.
A famous quote from the piece reads: “President Buhari has tolerated people who have called him all sorts of names in the past two years. If he didn’t move against them directly, he could have allowed many Abishais to move against them, ‘and take off their heads.’ But not our President, a reformed democrat, a pious man, who has resolved to leave the people suffused by hatred unto God.’’
While many were critical of the ‘take off their heads’ allusion which spoke to intolerance, there were also Christians whose exceptions were anchored on the comparison between President Buhari and King David. But examined from a scholarly point of view, I also believe, like Adesina, that there are parallels to draw between the two.
One, before ascending power, both had followers who were ready to kill and die for them. For instance, while still in the wilderness, David expressed a longing for a drink from the ‘good water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem’ and three of his foot soldiers took it upon themselves to risk all to get him his wish. Of course David would not drink the water he knew was obtained at the cost of the blood of others so he poured it out in worship to his God. Coming back home, we can also remember the several lives that were lost in the course of the violent protest that followed Buhari’s defeat at the 2011 presidential poll.
Two, and most crucially, both King David and President Buhari also displaced incumbents. The former replaced King Saul while the latter defeated President Goodluck Jonathan.
Three, both also became indulgent the moment they came to power.
However, that is where the similarities end because President Buhari, to his supporters, is a god who can do no wrong. Meanwhile, King David had people who could call him to order and I am not talking about Shimei.
There was Prophet Nathan. And then there was Joab, his no-nonsense military commander. The Biblical account relevant to this intervention is in 2 Samuel Chapter 19 when, following the war with King David’s rebellious son, Absalom, the victorious troops returned home to be confronted by a Commander-in-Chief who was only concerned about the death of his son. I crave the indulgence of my non-Christian readers to take the text of what happened next from the Scriptures:
…Then Joab went into the house to the king and said, “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the LORD that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come on you from your youth till now.”
The pertinent question here is: Was it wrong for a father to grieve over a deceased son? Certainly not! So, the problem was not the mourning but rather that, as the leader, King David was expected to be sensitive to the mood of his people, even in his moment of loss. As one Bible commentator put it, “David’s immoderate grief for his rebellious son was imprudent and Joab’s firm and sensible reproof was necessary to arouse him to a sense of his duty to his people”. The converse is the same. A leader should not be seen rejoicing when his people are in grief.
The message Joab was sending to King David is that good leadership entails a keen awareness of the operating environment and the subtle but often unsaid shifts in perception to which those who occupy positions of trust must be sensitive. With that in mind, sending out a picture of a joyous President Buhari receiving his son (returning to the country after medical abroad) at a period more than a hundred parents were going through the trauma of having their own children abducted from school was most inappropriate. It becomes even more indefensible when someone also added the gratuitous insult that some ministers were on hand at the airport, apparently to carry Yusuf’s bags for him!
To compound the problem, a president who would not visit any part of the country where tragedies occur had the presence of mind to join a crowd of 22 Governors—described by former Governor (now Senator) Rabiu Kwankwaso as “less busy” people who “abandoned their duties”—to attend a wedding in Kano. Like most Nigerians, Pastor Tunde Bakare of Latter Rain Assembly, a friend of the president, could not understand such display of obscenity. “If any of them had lost a daughter in that captivity, would they celebrate that way? I know the Bible says rejoice with them that rejoice, but I do not know what the president of Nigeria was doing there,” said Bakare.
Following public pressure, President Buhari on Monday visited Taraba State in what is said to be a first stop in his tour of selected states where there has been violence in recent months. That is a positive development which shows that the man can still listen. Unfortunately, the president missed the point when he said in Taraba that he needed not visit any troubled state to prove that he was taking action. While it is true that such visits do not change the circumstances of those who lost loved ones, his mere presence in such communities can lift the spirits of people who are still hurting.
At the heart of what has eroded the credibility of this administration is a certain crisis of mission. Nigerians elected a president to lead them in a republic but Buhari and his handlers have manipulated the presidency into a monarchy. Ordinarily, the president of a republic sees himself in the least citizen; their joy is his upliftment; their sorrow is his personal anguish. In times of travail, he goes to places where people are hurting and empathises with them. His visit is not ceremonial; it is in the line of active duty. In a monarchy, the leader is king. He is above the people and sees gestures of empathy even in dire circumstances as condescension. Since, as rightly observed by Pastor Bakare, Nigeria is now at “a stage where our president has become a king and a monarch”, the fracture in the polity is somehow traceable to this very disconnect.
What President Buhari must therefore understand is that leaders whose first instinct is to ignore their own people in moments of grief cannot be said to care. And without empathy, it is difficult for a leader to build trust in his followers because, as Colleen Kettenhofen argued, “When you’re an empathetic leader, you are aware of how these feelings (whether you agree with them or can relate to them or not) impact the other person’s perception.”
It is gratifying that President Buhari finally got the message that Nigerians desire him to be their consoler in times of grief. But that is not enough and he should take a cue from the United States. One week after the recent deadly shooting at a Florida school, President Donald Trump held a “listening session” and, although it was not meant for camera, one could clearly see the talking points in the notepad he held. That means President Trump was prepared on what to say which is what serious leadership demands. So, going to Taraba to say the fatalities there were more than that of some other states, for me, was a wrong message and I hope the president would not commit the same gaffe when he visits other states.
Meanwhile, I am in agreement with Adesina that there are indeed many Shimeis who daily taunt his principal for no reason other than that he defeated their man at the 2015 poll. To those people, there is nothing the president can do that will be right. But there are also many Nigerians, including those who voted for Buhari in that same election, who now see a certain arrogance of power that is in conflict with what they saw of the man before he got to Aso Rock; that is aside feeling embarrassed by the president’s endless own-goals and serial bungling of basic tasks. That exactly is what the sharp rebuke by Pastor Bakare represents.
In case the president and his handlers have forgotten, let me remind them. Despite the fact that he proposed no set of values beyond a ‘body language’ that, on the face of recent developments, might have been wrongly interpreted by many Nigerians, Buhari was elected president to serve as a moral compass—a leader who would need no prompting before choosing between right and wrong in the conduct of public affairs. Unfortunately, that is not what has transpired in the past three years under his stewardship. And since moral authority, according to Ken Robinson, is intertwined with legitimacy, “once the confidence and trust in a leader’s moral authority is seriously questioned, once it becomes obvious that their moral compass is off, their ability to lead is undermined and challenged.”
Let me conclude by returning to the story with which I started this piece. While King David may have occasionally dropped the ball as any leader would at some points (a clear example being his wailing over Absalom for which he was harshly reprimanded by an insolent aide), he also had the humility to accept his mistakes and atone for them. And as powerful as he was, King David never considered himself infallible or put himself above the people. Can anybody, in all honesty, say the same of President Buhari today?
A word, as the common saying goes, is enough for the wise!