I recently saw some photos of President Muhammadu Buhari dressed in the traditional Igbo ‘isi agu’ jumper (the jumper with tiger’s heads on it), with the Igbo red cap and beads to match. I felt there was something not quite right with this second attempt to re-invent Buhari by his campaign strategists: just because the first attempt to rebrand him in the run-up to the 2015 election by making him pose for photos in the traditional dress of different ethnic groups was a huge success does not mean the same strategy can be successfully replicated this time around. It would seem that the strategists behind this second uncreative replication have a lot to learn about branding and why corporations and individuals sometimes feel a need to rebrand.
As a marketing strategy, an established brand may decide to adopt a new name, logo, symbols, designs (or a combination of these) either as a way of creating a new identity or to distance itself from certain negative connotations from the previous brand. Companies can also rebrand to hide real or alleged malpractices of the past which it feels are hurtful to its image. In fact concern over external perceptions of an organization is a key impetus to rebrand. As it is for corporations so it is for individuals, including politically exposed persons.
In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, Buhari was successfully re-branded. There were photos of him everywhere adorning traditional attires from the different ethnic groups, (and at least one in which he wore a suit and looked every inch like a disciplinarian school principal!). The aim was to symbolically counteract the prevailing perceptions of him in many parts of the South as either a ‘Northern irredentist’ or a ‘religious bigot’. I feel that those photos boosted Buhari’s national image and acceptance as they symbolically addressed those suspicions about Buhari as either wrong or that he had changed.
I actually wrote an article at that time arguing that even if Buhari lost the election; he had already won an important victory. For a man who was viewed with extreme suspicion and rightly or wrongly labelled as an ethnic chauvinist and religious bigot in many parts of the South, it must have been heart-warming for him to be given a hero’s welcome in several parts of the country that had hitherto viewed him with suspicion, if not veiled animosity. He was successfully rebranded as a statesman.
I was disappointed that after the 2015 election that Buhari never bothered to wear any of those ethnic dresses again. His initial appointments of members of his kitchen cabinet largely negated the supposedly ‘new Buhari’. He also simply retreated back into his comfort zone of ‘babariga’. This makes the second rebranding – using the symbolisms of the first branding (wearing the attires of other ethnic groups) actually counterproductive and hurtful to his image. Apart from the fact that the ethnic group he tries now to adorn their traditional attire may feel disrespected and residually resentful (“oh he only remembers our traditional dresses during elections, does he think we are fools?”), such uncreative rebranding will also unwittingly make him come across as a hypocrite – a negation of his biggest marketing point among his supporters – his integrity. By definition integrity and hypocrisy ought to be strange bed fellows.
By the way I do not believe anyone needs to adorn the traditional attire of any ethnic group or even speak their language to prove that he or she respects such people or that he/she is cosmopolitan. A hood, says the cliché, does not make a monk. It is remarkable that many of the Nigerians we regard as being truly cosmopolitan (or ‘de-tribalized’ in Nigerian-speak) – Obasanjo, Babangida, Atiku, Emeka Anyaoku etc.- rarely adorn clothes from other ethnic groups for photo-ops. Just like your Nigerian identity needs not be in competition with your primordial identities, the fact that one feels comfortable only in dresses from one’s ethnic or cultural homeland does not say anything about one’s cosmopolitanism or lack of it. So what precisely does the second rebranding of Buhari aim to accomplish when his first term in office seems to have reinforced rather than negated the pre-first rebranding perceptions of him in many parts of the South?
One would expect that the second rebranding would have focused on showing that Buhari has actually become a democrat (or trying to become one since there remains a lingering suspicion that he has not fully delinked from his brutally authoritarian past). To be fair to Buhari, though there are still human rights issues in his government (such as the continued detention of Dasuki Sambo and El-Zakzaky despite court orders granting them bail) I believe that he has not been as dictatorial as feared – compared to Obasanjo’s garrison commander style of democracy. I also feel that perceptions of him as parochial, while largely true, are exaggerated.
Unfortunately it is either that Buhari does not understand this lingering suspicion of his democratic credentials or simply does not care. Otherwise why should his government resort to using an Executive Order (Executive Order 6) to put some 50 Nigerians facing various corruption charges under surveillance and prevent them from travelling out of the country when the courts handling those cases could have been persuaded to compel the affected people to deposit their international passports with the courts? Sometimes the Buhari government seems incapable of resisting the temptation of handing ammunition to its critics.
I was also surprised that the second rebranding of Buhari does not try to include the government’s greatest asset – Professor Yemi Osinbajo – who complements Buhari in more ways than one. While Osinbajo is the master communicator, Buhari brings his force of personality and provides the political cover. A rebranding showing that the two are a team and tend to remain so if re-elected would have been more believable than trying to make him what he is not.
Peter Obi and the intra-class struggle in Igboland
It did not come as a surprise that Peter Obi’s selection as running mate to Atiku Abubakar generated some ill-feelings among some individuals in Obi’s home base. A faction of the Igbo political elite complained they were not consulted. Such feelings are natural. It was just the manner of expression that riled many people. But some non-Igbos misunderstood a ‘natural’ intra-elite struggle to conclude it is a sign of lack of unity in Igboland.
Let me mention that largely because the Igbo society did not pass through the feudal phase of development, their attitude to authority is different from what you see in the North and the South-west. Unlike in these areas, the Igbo rallies more around values than around individuals (do Americans rally around individuals or around values?). Also the Igbo notion of leadership is situational rather than static- for instance because you are successful and a leader in one profession, say business, does not mean your leadership can be transferred and accepted in other realms of life. It is probably more difficult for a very wealthy Igbo person to win an election in Igboland than elsewhere – despite Igbos’ reputed love for money
That Igbos rally around values rather than individuals can explain some of the apparent contradictions in their society – they are simultaneously individualistic (or Republican) and communalistic (most of the developments in any Igbo society are through communal efforts), the Igbo billionaire or strong man still kowtows to his/her town union etc. So the grouse from the Governor Umahi and Ekweremadu group was merely an expression of the intra-class struggles among the Igbo faction of the political elites rather than an expression of lack of unity in Igboland.
The same phenomenon exists in other parts of the country – even if they are expressed differently: for instance when Jonathan was chosen as the running mate to Yaradua in the run-up to the 2007 presidential election, his country home was set on fire (perhaps to give the impression he was not liked) and when Namadi Sambo was chosen as the Vice President by Jonathan in 2010, the Northern faction of the political elite resisted that on many grounds, including that it could pave way for a Christian to become the Governor of Kaduna State. Similarly, despite the presence and influence of Osinbajo in Buhari’s government, the APC was unable to score decisive electoral victory in either the Osun or Ekiti election. It is therefore natural for members of the same faction of the political elite to show ‘bad belle’ when one of their rivals is suddenly elevated above them.
In fact the decisive manner Atiku did the selection and announcement ensured that the misgivings from Obi’s peers and rivals were less acrimonious than they would have been if Atiku had dithered and embarked on a long consultation. The challenge before Peter Obi is to make genuine efforts to reconcile with as many members of his former political opponents as he can.