By Farooq A. Kperogi
In this week’s column, I use Kashim Shettima’s trending speech delivered in Lagos on Thursday at the Yoruba Tennis Club to argue that his love for bombast may be Bola Tinubu’s worst PR nightmare yet:
I have never physically met APC Vice Presidential candidate Kashim Shettima, but I have communicated with him for extended periods over the past seven years. I’ve found him to be a man of vast and versatile erudition and a bibliophile who is enamored of his own rhetorical and expressive flourishes. It’s precisely this characteristic that may be his undoing in national politics.
Nowhere has this become more apparent than in his widely panned September 15 speech during the 96th anniversary celebration of the Yoruba Tennis Club in Ikoyi, Lagos, where he attributed to Bola Ahmed Tinubu praiseworthy qualities he isolated in past Nigerian presidents and heads of state.
The News Agency of Nigeria quoted Shettima as saying Nigeria needs a leader who has the “humility and generosity of spirit” of Yakubu Gowon, the “work ethic and broadmindedness” of Olusegun Obasanjo, the “situational pragmatism and…Maradonic skill” of Ibrahim Babangida, “the hospitality” of Sani Abacha, “the vision and sense of responsibility” of Abdulsalami Abubakar, and the “abnegation and commitment” of Muhammadu Buhari.
Shettima clarified in a September 16 tweet that he “never attributed hospitality to Abacha” in his speech. “I did a rundown of our past Presidents and played up ‘the taciturnity and a dose of ruthlessness of a Sani Abacha’ to show we need strongmen to deal with the nonstate actors who’ve turned Nigeria into a vast killing-field,” he tweeted.
Shettima’s speech was clearly a case of the sacrifice of substance on the altar of stylistic convenience. In other words, Shettima appeared to be more concerned with lyrical bravado than with meaning, more in love with verbal exuberance than with the correctness or appropriateness of the claims of his words.
But the general population isn’t as kind to him in their interpretive rendition of his speech as I am. And for good reason. Using the resources of basic logic and contemporary history, many—perhaps most— Nigerians understood his speech as a threat of existential annihilation to them should he and Tinubu get elected as vice president and president. Here’s why.
Yes, relative to other past presidents and heads of state, Obasanjo has an admirable work ethic and is broadminded. And, yes, Gowon is indisputably humble and generous in spirit. But it stretches credulity to the elastic limit to even remotely suggest that Tinubu embodies or shares these qualities. Like every human being Tinubu has his good qualities, but he is anything but humble and generous in spirit. And, in his current state, he is anything but a workaholic.
More crucially, though, the other qualities Shettima associated with other past presidents and heads of state are either demonstrably inaccurate or unworthy of celebration. Take, for example, the notion of Buhari’s “abnegation and commitment.” No claim can be more dishonest than that.
Abnegation means “renunciation of your own interests in favor of the interests of others.” There has been no more self-loving, self-interested, self-centered leader in the entire history of Nigeria than Muhammadu Buhari. He is a classic, unashamed, sadistic narcissist.
The first major project Buhari executed upon becoming president in 2015 was to build a multi-million-naira vanity helipad for his exclusive use in his hometown of Daura, which would be useless from May 2023. Not even Goodluck Jonathan who got a lot of hell from civil society groups for corruption built a helipad for himself in his hometown of Otueke.
Additionally, Buhari’s penchant for going to London to treat even his littlest illnesses (including an ear infection that had already been treated in Nigeria), his high-priced sartorial excesses, and his fondness for extortionately elaborate red-carpet ceremonies each time he leaves the country and returns to it do not square with the profile of a person who embodies “abnegation.”
Let’s not even talk of the presidential air fleet that needlessly and avoidably drains Nigeria’s national resources, which Buhari had promised to get rid of but on which he spends billions on maintenance.
And Buhari’s “commitment”? Seriously? What commitment? I have argued in several previous columns that Buhari’s inexplicably frenzied globetrotting even after his government proclaimed a new policy that reduced the frequency and duration of foreign travels by government officials reputedly as a “cost-saving measure” shows that his wanderlust is actuated by his resentment of Nigeria. A man who is committed to Nigeria won’t have an obsessive-compulsive impulse to desert the country at the slightest opportunity.
To suggest that Tinubu personifies Buhari’s “abnegation and commitment” is to unintentionally demarket Tinubu and threaten Nigerians.
But it gets worse. The quality of “situational pragmatism and…Maradonic skill” that Shettima associated with Babangida— and implied Tinubu possesses— is a negative trait. Situational pragmatism is no more than a sophisticated euphemism for opportunism, and when people called Babangida “Maradona” or “Maradonic” in the Lagos press in the 1990s, they did so with an unmistakable tone of disapproval.
Maradona was notorious for his intricate dribbling and for his occasional, dishonest, sleight-of-hand goals such as his infamous 1986 FIFA World Cup “the-hand-of-God” goal against England where he illegally used his hand to score but evaded the sanction of the referee because he wasn’t caught—or his illegal interception of a shot from the former USSR during the 1990 World Cup with “the hand of God” without the referee seeing him.
So, Maradona and “Maradonic” symbolize elaborate deception and Machiavellianism. Babangida dribbled the nation, like Maradona, through his dizzyingly never-ending transition to nowhere, his interminable banning and unbanning of politicians, his “settlement” of critics, and ultimately scored a sleight-of-hand goal against politicians—and Nigeria—when he invalidated the results of the June 12, 1993, election that MKO Abiola was poised to win.
People are entitled to be alarmed if this is the quality Shettima admires in Babangida and says Tinubu exemplifies.
Perhaps even more worrying is that Shettima thinks Sani Abacha’s “taciturnity” and “ruthlessness” are virtues to be cherished, celebrated, and expected in a president in 2023. Being communicative is a central attribute of successful democratic leaders. Taciturnity, that is, being uncommunicative is an abhorrent vice in a democracy, and we see it in Buhari who habitually ignores Nigerians.
Given that Tinubu has started to avoid the media limelight that he had once jealously hugged—apparently to conceal his all-too-obvious mental and physical infirmities—Shettima’s embrace of taciturnity as a quality we should expect in a president sounds to me like a threat to continue with the lusterlessness that has defined Buhari’s leadership in the past seven years.
And “ruthlessness” in a democracy? What was Shettima thinking? I get that the outlaws that have made life in Nigeria precarious and brutish deserve to be crushed with ruthless force. But you don’t need to embody the ruthlessness of Abacha to do that. You only need to be a decisive leader who cares for the people—unlike Buhari—to tackle and tame the insecurity that plagues Nigeria. Ruthlessness isn’t a quality a democratic leader should possess.
Given what I know of Shettima, I am certain that he didn’t intend to unsell or undersell his boss. He appears to just love the show of erudition and bibliophilia that comes from his exhibitionistic verbal swagger. It may excite his admirers and may even be cherished by Nigerian rhetorical scholars, but it’s a treacherous political minefield.
Farooq A. Kperogi