Muhammadu Buhari made world history yesterday when he probably became the first elected President in the world in modern times to be inaugurated into office without giving an inaugural speech. He gave no reason why he did not deliver an in inaugural speech. Buhari was sworn into a second term in office by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad in a low key ceremony which kept to time and ended by 11:22 am.
In the USA (from where we borrowed much of our current democratic practice), every American President has given an inaugural address both for his first term and second term in office (if the resident is re-elected) since April 30 1789 when the country’s first President George Washington gave the first inaugural address to the nation. I cannot think of any elected President anywhere in the world (in modern times at least) who has skipped that tradition set by the USA. In fact presidential inaugural speeches are so much expected of elected Presidents that they are often very carefully written, resulting in many of such speeches producing great quotable quotes. Some of the remarkable quotable quotes from inaugural speeches in the USA included:
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America” (from the first inaugural address of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the USA, in 2009).
“Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned. We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics” (from the second inaugural speech of Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President’s second inaugural in 1937).
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America” (from the first inaugural address of Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the USA in 1993)
“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” (from the first inaugural address of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the USA in 1961).
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations” ( from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the USA in 1865).
The great Nelson Mandela, in his inaugural speech as President of South Africa on May 4 1994, Mandela used the speech to indicate that the key objective of his presidency would be to unite all South Africans, irrespective of race, creed or past sin. As he put it:
“The struggle for democracy has never been a matter pursued by one race, class, religious community or gender among South Africans. In honouring those who fought to see this day arrive, we honour the best sons and daughters of all our people. We can count amongst them Africans, Coloureds, Whites, Indians, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews – all of them united by a common vision of a better life for the people of this country.”
Even Buhari’s 2015 inaugural quote of “I belong to everyone and to no one” qualifies as a classic quote.
The tradition is for Presidents to use such inaugural speeches to make profound policy pronouncements, a sort of vision and mission statements that will give good indications of the government’s political and economic roadmaps. Such inaugural speeches are also usually used to make key political appointments (especially those that will not need confirmation by the Senate in our own case) that will also help decipher the policy direction the government intends to go.
Given that inaugural speeches are routinized political tradition in democratic countries, how do we then interpret Buhari’s decision not to give any at his inauguration?
Some have opined that Buhari need not make any policy pronouncement because he has been making policy pronouncements throughout his first term in office. This line of reasoning is honestly lame excuse. The point is that inauguration symbolizes the beginning of a new era and people, including investors, eagerly look for clues of what to expect in the new era of any government. Not to offer such clues, and not to give any explanation on why such clues are not offered, opens up the possibility of various interpretations, including by conspiracy theorists. This is not good enough, in my opinion, and we should not whitewash it.
For some people, Buhari’s failure to give an inaugural speech is a red flag that the President pretty much wants to continue as he did during his first term in office, which includes ignoring or appearing to be insensitive to the public mood and expectations. For some of Buhari’s supporters, the President probably decided not to give an inaugural speech because he did not want to be bullied by public expectations or pressure. He wants to do things his own way and at his own time, they say. I am not sure if this is the best approach to governance by an elected President.
If we buy the argument that Buhari wants to do things his own way – and that he does not to be ‘bullied’ by public expectations, then we may conclude that Buhari in his second term in office is also likely miss out on the virtues managing optics in politics. Essentially, the way people perceive a leader constitutes their social reality, and it is this social reality that conditions how they relate with the ‘objective reality’ of the government. Buhari does not seem to pay sufficient attention optics in governance and I believe it has only won him more critics than he deserves. We have seen this in his responses to allegations that he overwhelmingly favours Northerners in critical and strategic political appointments. He just does not seem to bother.
Again, just a few days after Obasanjo accused the government of ‘Islamization and Fulanization’ plans, the government announced plans to set up a Radio station that would broadcast exclusively in fulfude language. However altruistic the government’s intention may be here, how will it not know that it will come under heavy criticisms by other ethnic nationalities in the country? How will the government not know that such will undermine the course of nation-building? How will Buhari not know that it will accentuate the allegations of clannishness routinely brandished against him by his critics?
Based on the above, I believe that the inauguration of the President for a second term in office was a missed opportunity. From the time he was declared President elect more than two months ago, the President had ample time to assemble a cabinet, get a policy direction and prepare a robust inauguration speech – if he wanted to. The idea that the inaugural address will come on June 12 is neither here nor there. An opportunity has been lost and the President has now to struggle to convince many people that his second term in office will be manifestly different from his first term. Given this missed opportunity, some of us will not be surprised if most of the Ministers regarded as round pegs in square holes will also be re-appointed during his second term. If this happens, it will be the more things change, the more things remain the same.
Someone said that a positive takeaway from yesterday’s inauguration was that the event started and ended on time – as scheduled and that it could be an indication that Buhari’s second term will be characterized by discipline. Critics however counter that it will amount to paying more attention to forms than processes.
While I was very disappointed that the President did not make any inaugural speech (and fear what this may portend for his second term), I am keeping up a little hope that the President may choose to surprise us with major policy pronouncements, including nominees for key members of his cabinet and appointment of a substantial number of those that do not require Senate confirmation). My feeling is that more Nigerians will give up on the possibility of meaningful change in style and substance of Buhari’s second term in office if such announcements do not come within one week of his inauguration.