In the early months of President Buhari’s tenure, there was a pervasive feeling that Nigeria was on the rebound. Lagosians commended the improvement in electricity supply, a growing consensus emerged that the battle in North-east was nearly won, and it was believed that corruption was being decisively dealt with.
Despite these apparent changes, political participants were unable to point to any administrative steps that had wrought these events. Instead, the spin doctors, not willing to let the opportunity slip, coined a new phrase for this change. Rather than new government policy or a hangover from the previous administration, they attributed the progress to an ill understood, flexibly defined and probably non-existent factor - the President’s body language. In one fell swoop, this masterstroke led Nigerians to analyse, criticise and laud this unknown political concept as singularly responsible for the change they were promised.
Conceptually, body language refers to the unconscious or conscious non-verbal movements that aid communication and help decipher a person's true intentions. In politics and public speaking, body language complements but does not substitute. To attribute fundamental national problems which have plagued previous governments in electricity, security and the economy to 'body language' is not just a glimpse of the power of the Buhari narrative, it is a reflection of a collective misunderstanding of public policy and governance.
Fortunately, reality of 2017 has settled in.
Today, one of the most enduring criticisms of the Buhari administration is the lack of clear policy direction on many electoral issues. Rightly so. We cannot excuse this administration's penchant for silence as a form of body language. Silence is silence. Policy is policy.
When President Buhari has spoken, his unguarded statements on the international stage have sometimes been interpreted as entrenched in unorthodox and outdated economic plans - a factor many concluded has accelerated our economic decline.
Admittedly not the primary cause, there is still a case to be made regarding the impact that such perceptions can have on business sentiment. If anything, this belies the body language that was so greatly lauded as the solution to our problems. At a time when businesses need clear sectoral policies to boost investor confidence, the silence which our spin masters call body language earned Buhari the moniker: Baba Go Slow. The delivery of a 2016 budget roughly six months late, a persistent recession, initial silence on killings in the Middle Belt, and the initial stance against floating the naira – absent clear economic reasons, is silence we should be wary of, not the kind that should be romanticised.
Where to now?
The aides and advisers to the government surely now understand that we cannot replace the communication of sound policy with body language. It has become clear that at the time, the phrase was a mask for an uncertain plan of action. The body language sham should be seen as just that – a sham, and for the present administration to maintain the goodwill of the Nigerian citizens, the presidency should clearly and consistently communicate a strong and effective roadmap for Nigeria's future.
At the same time, citizens must recognise that Government is not one man, and as such, we should not be distracted by the President and his body language. We need to reassess how we hold government to account. The other arms of government must not be given a free pass. Rather than the disproportionate focus on President Buhari’s body language, we must demand answers from the Senate, State Governors, Ministers, members of House of Representatives, Local government chairmen and State Assemblies on what they have done to address immediate challenges, why important bills have failed to become acts of parliament and what role they play in promoting effective governance.
It is unjustifiable that career politicians and recycled leaders, now newly elected, have joined in to criticise an administration they have contributed very little to improving. But it is just as much the responsibility of the polity to understand their government as it is for the government to understand its people. Political participation is built on an interaction between the two, neither being superior to the other. The lazy acceptance of the concept of body language as a valid political answer reminds us that the polity is not paying attention. Instead, it is blindly following the rhetoric presented by opposition politicians or mass media.
For many, it is all too easy to call out the government for its shortcomings; many were never supporters in the first place, and it is easy to preach to the converted. The real message should go to those who adamantly hold on to unsubstantiated notions of effectiveness from this administration. This should be resisted. More attention should be paid to statements and justifications from the Office of the President. Government action should not have to be deduced or inferred. It should be crystal clear.