Stories are the lenses through which we make sense of the world. Schapp, a German jurist, theorised that as human beings, we lack the autonomy to make decisions and instead, we are influenced by our entanglement in stories. This explains why we so often become slaves to narratives.
We need narratives because they have the ability to solidify our belief system. Sometimes, they validate our feelings; other times, they cause us to alter our thinking. For President Buhari, the power of narratives has been particularly evident; from his unprecedented election success in 2015 to the recent dramatic change in popular perception of the current administration.
Where it began
Last year, I sat in the audience at the Red Media Summit Gala as Rotimi Amaechi delivered his keynote address. Mr Amaechi, the Director General of President Buhari's campaign team, spoke charitably of the work done by Statecraft, a division of Red Media Group. The Group is run by Chude Jideonwo and Debola Williams, the consultants that managed Buhari's presidential media campaign. Amaechi said, "What they did [was] make us look like we were battling the PDP dollar for dollar. Meanwhile, we had no money."
He went further in saying, "They got the President to wear a suit. He told me he hadn't worn one in one million years. And he's not worn one since." A reference to the photo shoot where Buhari posed in a suit and the traditional outfits of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria.
Reflecting now, those pictures were a part of what shaped the belief that Buhari was indeed a new and modern man.
Ergo, the Buhari Narrative.
The Buhari campaign worked because it had a clear narrative: a former frugal leader seeking one last opportunity to clean up the excesses of the previous 16 years. Given this narrative to latch on to, large sections of society bought into his campaign. Since then, the Buhari administration has lost control of its original narrative, barely even containing the fake news around his death.
Knowing what we know now, it is fair to ask – what happened?
Losing the Plot
Looking back, it was a slow but painful process. The President's pace in naming his cabinet was the starting point. And during the campaign, there were suggestions that he would surround himself with some of the brightest minds in the country. His decision to opt for a team of career politicians felt like a missed opportunity to prove that the change he promised would manifest. Nearly halfway into his tenure, he is yet to reshuffle his Ministers nor replace one who passed away.
More recently, his inability to address grave economic concerns has led to a splintering of opinion on his tenure. This has given more room for various voices to chip away at the unified narrative that propelled him to the top job. Arguably, he has even actively countered his own election narrative. The current protectionist stance carries the hallmark of his first stint in power and his rigidity over policy has exacerbated an already traumatic recession. As the economic situation deteriorates, there has been no public affirmation of a new and divergent path.
The cherry on the cake? A public disagreement between the President and his wife. The First Lady's assertion that the President lacked control was the confirmation many needed to speak boldly. His cringeworthy response – while he stood next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel – drove a deeper wedge in the splintered narrative.
Post election, we now have a variety of narratives; poor economic management, a selective anti-corruption campaign, discriminatory bias in appointments, and failure to control his political party. Opponents may go further and point to the loss of control over his narrative as a microcosm of a loss of control over his general administration.
Take Back Control
This loss of control over the narrative may find its final resting place in the uneasy rumours of a change in government. It does not help that the President has developed a habit of speaking to the foreign press while remaining silent to local media. Journalists are key in framing narratives and courting them could do some good. The President's media men, Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina, are in a thankless position, being tasked with maintaining public confidence without any real words from the President.
For the Buhari administration to restore public confidence, it needs to take back control of its narrative. In doing so, the electorate can once again see the path the President seeks to travel – metaphorically, this time. The President needs to trust and utilise his spokespeople for constructive interaction with the people, not ambiguous tweets and empty words. In this sort of economic climate, people are looking for something, anything. They just want to believe. That being said, old tactics may not work as well. Actions must speak louder than words and pictures. Another suit will change nothing. Been there, done that. On to the next one.