Virtually all the leading newspapers in the country reported on February 14 that President Buhari spoke to Donald Trump the previous day “at the request of the American President”. Several of the reports quoted Senior Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity Mr Femi Adesina as saying that “President Trump encouraged President Buhari to keep the good work he is doing and also commended him for the efforts made in rescuing 24 of the Chibok girls and the strides being taken by the Nigerian military” (Punch, online February 14, 2017).
The story was naturally followed by scepticism – as had also been the case about the true health status of the President and the visit to him in London by two leaders of the All Progressives Congress, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and Chief Bisi Akande.
I had a robust conversation on the issue with some members of my sports club on February 14, 2017 after our morning workout: most people in the group were convinced that the report of the call was a dummy sold by Buhari’s media aides and supporters. I chose to play the devil’s advocate. I took the position that given Trump’s boast during the campaign to vigorously fight terrorism, it made sense to me that he would want to have telephone conversation with President Buhari since Boko Haram is regarded as one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.
Why was it necessary in the press release from Femi Adeshina to emphasize that the reported telephone discussion was at the instance of Donald Trump and that he praised Buhari for his “determined war against Boko Haram”? Why did the press release make it sound as if Trump regarded Buhari as such a great African leader that he needed to invite and fete him in Washington D.C. – when he had reportedly made jest of him during his campaign for the US presidency?
I argued that while it might be difficult to prove precisely what Trump said to Buhari during the reported phone conversation, ‘spin’ and ‘massaging’ the real contents of the reported conversation could not be ruled out because it is part of the job of his media aides to ensure that the President reaps maximum political mileage from such situations. In essence, I argued that even if Adesina massaged the story to make Buhari look especially good in the press release, he had committed no sin (provided the spin is within reasonable bounds) because such is expected of Presidential spokesmen anywhere in the world.
If Buhari was well enough to speak to Trump over the phone, why is he apparently unwilling to address the nation though telephone conferencing to quell the rumour about his health status once and for all? If Trump did indeed speak with Buhari, did that not amount to sidestepping protocol since Prof Yemi Osibanjo is the Acting President?
I countered that even if the President had appeared on television and spoken robustly, it would not have resolved the question of his health status “once and for all” because such would raise further doubts on whether it was indeed the President’s voice (or his voice makeover) or even whether the person that purported to be Buhari was indeed Buhari or his double.
On whether Trump breached protocol by sidestepping Acting President Osibanjo and speaking directly to Buhari, I argued that a distinction could be made between de facto authority (authority in fact) and de jure authority (authority in law). My position was that while Buhari had transmitted a letter empowering Vice President Osibanjo to act as President in his absence (de jure authority), he remains the President in fact (de facto authority) and thus the legitimacy of the office still resided with him, and not with Professor Osibanjo. I further argued that Osibanjo as a distinguished lawyer and wise leader has shown admiring sensitivity to the limits of his authority as Acting President - to the disappointment of those who are unable to appreciate the distinction between the two types of authority.
When I got home that day I decided to investigate further the issue of Trump’s reported telephone call to Buhari. I Googled ‘Trump speaks to Buhari’ and used several variants of the search string to see whether international media organisations had also reported of the phone call from Trump to Buhari. I was disappointed. The only one I found was captioned ‘Trump calls presidents of Nigeria, South Africa’. The story was dated February 13, 2017 and was written by one Stephanie Busari of CNN. Part of the story read: “According to Buhari's aide, Femi Adesina, Trump assured the Nigerian president that the US is ready to help obtain "a new deal in helping Nigeria in terms of military weapons to combat terrorism."’ My suspicion was aroused. Why would a major international organisation like the CNN use Femi Adeshina as the source of such a story when they have ready access to the Trump team? I suspected that the CNN website that reported the story was most likely a clone. I ‘googled’ CNN.com, selected its international edition and then searched for ‘Buhari.’ No story of Donald Trump’s call to Buhari came up on the website. My suspicion was further heightened by a report in the Daily Post of February 14 2017, which was entitled, ‘Trump silent on phone conversation with Buhari.’ The paper reported that Donald Trump had remained silent over the phone conversation he reportedly had with President Muhammadu Buhari. It also noted that the US government “has not reported the conversation on its website or mentioned it on any of its official social media accounts like @USAgov, @Whitehouse etc.”. I concluded at this stage that the reported telephone conversation between Trump and Buhari was fake.
As I began writing this piece (February 15, 2017), I decided to investigate further the said telephone conversation. I found that the Daily Post (an online paper I usually find reliable), of February 15, had the caption, ‘Trump confirms phone conversation with Buhari’. The paper reported that the White House Press Secretary and Communications Director, Sean Michael Spicer made the confirmation on Tuesday, February 14, 2017. I did a flurry of internet searches using different search strings and found that several respected national newspapers and at least one leading international media group, the Voice of America (VOA) had also confirmed the story. So why the hullaballoo over the phone conversation, I wondered?
I could think of several possible explanations:
One, scepticism, in measured dosage, is not necessarily a negative force. For one, it encourages critical thinking, which is both the bedrock of rationality and a key ingredient for maintaining the vibrancy of a marketplace of ideas that sustains democracy. Since scepticism is also inherently opposed to groupthink, it could also be used as a measure of citizens’ engagement with the political process.
Two, though scepticism is not necessarily a negative force, its wide prevalence is also one of the symptoms of low trust societies. In low trust societies everyone distrusts everyone else. It is not just that the citizens distrust the government; the government equally distrusts the citizens, which partly explains why government officials are unlikely to yield to the sort of transparency in the report of the President’s health status as some are calling for.
Three, the aphorism ‘the messenger is often the message’ tells us that the bearers of certain forms of messages could taint the integrity of such messages. The job of being media aides to any government could be regarded as poisoned chalice since such aides have to defend policies or situations they do not agree with or are even kept in the dark of. Femi Adesina who signed the press release is not generally seen as a modicum of credibility. Would there have been such a controversy over the reported phone call if the source of the story was from the likes of General Abdusalami Abubakar, Chief Emeka Anyaoku or Cardinal Onaiyekan? Garba Shehu did not help matters when he was quoted as saying that President Buhari was homesick and was no longer “enjoying his stay’’ outside the country. Critics replied that if the President was feeling that home sick and was hale and hearty as claimed, what prevented him from hopping into any of the presidential jets and returning to the country even if only for a few hours? After all the UK is only six hours’ flight away!
Four, the controversy over the President’s telephone conversation with Donald Trump – as indeed controversies over his health status and visit by Bola Tinubu and Bisi Akande - are also symptomatic of the crisis in the country’s nation-building process. With several groups and individuals de-linking from the Nigerian state into primordial identities and regarding the state as their enemy, those who symbolize state power are prone to being victims of misplaced aggression from both de-Nigerianized and de-Nigerianizing Nigerians.