by Sola Fasasi
Anyone who actually knows Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, knows that he is a very stubborn man, irritatingly stubborn, who will insist on his way even if he has absolutely no logic to back it up.
Ministers who speak off the record to journalists, villa staff who talk amongst themselves and to visitors, have countless war tales about a president who gives orders on things he hasn’t thought about, who makes decisions without reading briefing documents (which he disdains) and who will double down when criticized and woe betide anyone who approaches with a contrary view.
That’s exactly what has happened with his unfortunate #TheOtherRoom comments, where the 2016 president of an important nation actually said out loud in public that women belong in the kitchen and his wife’s only duty is to ‘take care of me’ as if he were a baby still unable bath himself.
The more immediate effect of this is the realization that our present is in fact a small, jaundiced man who has no idea about how the world has changed and left him behind. And the corollary to this is that he has validated the many bigots and chauvinists who lurk the length and breadth of our nation looking for women they might subjugate.
Unfortunately, this is not just a matter of a president’s psychological diminution. There is a much larger issue here. Behaviour like this, from the president of a nation, or the leader of an economic and social space, can have real consequences for his or her people.
In March of this year, a state in the United States of America, North Carolina finally passed a law, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, that stood at the centre of the nation’s cultural wars and the global progressive movement: in a nation where homosexuality is permitted by law, it ruled that transgenders had to use toilets of their original gender, and not their present identities.
This was immediately interpreted as discriminatory towards LGBTs, and led to a national outcry.
Whatever you think about homosexual rights, many North Carolina citizens were angry at this law: it unnecessarily caused a problem for the state by raising up a prejudice that it wasn’t necessary to raise up. After all, no children had been at risk in toilets by transgenders. What was the upside of expressing this controversial opinion and getting all that backlash for the state?
And backlash there was – globally. Apple, Disney and Google made it clear they opposed the law, and would be re-considering investments in the state if it weren’t repealed.
Then the economic sanctions followed. Other US states prohibiting worked from travelling to North Caroline on state business, high-profile entertainment acts including Bruce Springsteen and the popular Cirque de Soleil cancelling their shows, companies like PayPal and Deutsche suspending expansion plans in the state, the national college basketball body taking its tournament away, business conventions changing their locations, and fairs across the state losing up to 40 percent of attendance – all of which deeply affected the revenue of the state.
That in addition to its brand, severely damaged in the eyes of millions of Americans and the world, who suddenly looked and saw an unfriendly legal system that was too volatile to be worthy of investment and attention.
Social controversies, especially that caused by political leaders that target particular people, have real consequences for countries, and for communities. When people want to make decisions with their money, they have to decide: how do the people in that country think? How hostile are their leaders? Are they forward thinking or fundamentally messed up? Do they understand how the modern economy and modern society work? And they make decisions based on that.
When a powerful female spender Googles Nigeria, or asks for a due diligence report from Risk Analysis, and what she is confronted with is the profoundly ignorant statement about her gender from the president of Nigeria – a nation desperately in need of all the foreign dollars it can find – it affects the decisions that she makes. After all, investing in Nigeria is an option for most, not a necessity.
In a country so unattractive at the moment – Boko Haram ravaging communities in the North-East, presidential body language causing a foreign-exchange crisis, and a finance minister who cannot inspire confidence – it behoves its leaders to minimize wreckage; to avoid anything that can give people pause.
Yes, by all means, our president who has been locked away in his village so tightly for the last 30 years that he didn’t know West Germany was now just Germany, can be a bigot who wants to marry a woman that spoon-feeds him and rubs his belly before he sleeps, but he should have kept quiet about his bigotry and smiled and nodded when speaking with a global community.
Many Nigerians who know how to win have learnt to do this for the greater good. To build businesses and build relationships with people whose religion views and social norms we don’t agree with, because the balance of power belongs to those nations.
That’s not capitulation. That is smart power. That is not colonial encroachment. That’s an understanding of a global power brokerage – and exploiting it for the greater good of your people.
You don’t hear the Chinese or the Russians speaking out of their arse-s, even if in their countries, women are more seen than heard. Their presidents don’t wade into pointless global cultural wars when they have national agenda to push. Buhari certainly felt his manhood was being questioned, and so he needed to speak for himself and defend his ego – but what is the cost of that lack of self-control?
How does his narrow personal philosophy matter in the grander scheme of presenting Nigeria as a globally relevant, progressive brand – open for business from all legitimate people?
Anyone who pays close attention to Paul Kagame (a deeply progressive man whose cabinet is populated mostly by women) knows he is most probably anti-homosexual rights, and he is a man with strong opinions, who has dared everyone from France to America when it matters most.
But what did he do when he was asked about gay rights? This man who is relentlessly focused on economic prosperity for his people? He gave the best answer possible, calling homosexuality a “private matter, not a state concern.”
Because no one who desperately needs and has a serious plan to attract FDI wastes his or her time fighting battles that are more ego than sense. Little wonder Rwanda’s GDP keeps growing 8 percent, at minim every year since 2001, and the country has cut poverty by at least 14 per cent in the same period.
Nigeria’s leaders, sadly, don’t have much sense.
In 2013, while the now deposed David Mark was leading his legislators to pass the Anti-Gay Law, this ignorance was put on display once again. Asked about the consequences of this decision on our local economy, he arrogantly declared that the West could retrieve all their investment in our country, if they liked.
It was such a profoundly ignorant statement. Nigeria avoided an Ebola crisis, for instance, because of leadership from foreign countries and organisations, led by the West. Nigeria has avoided a HIV/AIDS crisis primarily because of the monumental investment in drugs and testing made courtesy of President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR initiative across African countries.
If those countries in fact pulled their support and funds from our country, many – millions, probably – will suffer.
But these leaders don’t know that. And certainly Buhari is blissfully unaware of this.
For him, ensuring that his wife cooks beans and dodo for him when he comes back from his travels abroad, just so that he can prove to himself that he is a man, are of more concern to his small mind than strategic thought and action that will build his country’s brand and help it begin a desperately-needed march forward.