The poet in President Buhari
“Now at seventy-two,
There is a limit to
What I can do.”
– President Muhammadu Buhari
WHEN I first read the news report in which President Muhammadu Buhari, speaking to his Nigerian audience in South Africa following the most recent meeting of the African Union (AU), said, “Now at 72, there is a limit to what I can do,” the poetry of the expression struck me like an epiphany.
First, I noted the end rhyme in the expression, in the form in which I have recast it in the above epigraph, merely changing the figure 72 to words. Secondly, I realised that, recast as in the epigraph, it becomes a tercet, a unit or group of three lines of verse which usually rhyme. Thirdly, I noticed that the tercet can be taken as a complete poem that makes full meaning and has a discernible though somewhat ambivalent message or interpretability.
Fourthly, I realised that, despite its brevity, its “touches of beauty” (evident from its uncomplicated physical charm and haiku-like pithy completeness) is not “half way, thereby making the reader breathless instead of content,” to quote one of John Keats’s axioms on poetry in his famous letter to John Taylor dated February 27, 1818, which are among my favourite thoughts in literary theory as it appertains to composing poems.
However, on the face of it, the poet in President Buhari could seem to have spoken against the interest of his host, with scant regard for the implications of his utterance for the latter’s reliability, especially in the light of his detractors having repeatedly raised questions about his capacity to shoulder the heavy responsibilities of governance considering his age and alleged poor health.
Interestingly, such critics are not dissuaded by the fact that Buhari is not the only democratically elected leader to have ruled a country in his 70s. Presidents Ronald Reagan of the United States, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe were leaders of their countries in their 70s and still held their own with mental acuity, delivering purposeful and effective leadership despite the possibility of geriatric problems.
Expectedly, the President’s critics, the Nigerian commentariat and news reporters generally, have interpreted the words of the poet in him as an admission that age will restrict his performance in office. And some of such critics barely fell short of asking him to resign for making what they saw as a demoralising confession for a man who ran his electioneering campaign under a banner of hope and change.
Perhaps the disappointment of such critics is best summarised by Okey Ndibe’s widely publicised description of the words of the poet in President Buhari, in his column entitled “Buhari’s Disappearing Presidency”, as constituting “a devastating confession, one that Nigerians had better reckon with as we re-calibrate our fantasies about the new president’s superhuman powers.”
Besides, the seemingly miscued words of the poet in President Buhari could seem to validate such negative interpretation when related to his having also reportedly said at the forum in South Africa: “How I wish I became Head of State when I was a governor or just a few years after, then as a young man.” Surely, these would incontrovertibly be devastating confessions if there were no other possible interpretations to the President’s remarks.
But to both remarks, there are other interpretations, and positive ones at that, which give entirely new meanings to President Buhari’s words, and which those who gave them the negative interpretation might not have realised. One interpretation, for the words by the poet in President Buhari, is that, at 72, its host has become so wise and experienced as to realise that, to provide effective leadership, he must limit himself to taking certain types of decisions and actions, impliedly positive ones, and so avoid the waste of time, energy and resources necessary to correct or reverse wrong actions and decisions.
The other interpretation, to the prose words of the host of that poet, is that if he were President in his younger days he would have utilised the wisdom and experience he has gained as an older individual to provide better leadership than he did then, and perhaps turn the trajectory of Nigeria’s existence away from the tortuous path of corruption and dysfunctionality that have left the country chronically underdeveloped, and forestall the truncation of his government by a coup d’état.
With the two sets of possible interpretations, the one negative, the other positive, it remains to ask which truly captures President Buhari’s intentions. Perhaps only he can clarify. But I think it is reasonable to say that it is the positive interpretations that truly capture the President’s intentions, given that a man who invested so many years seeking for office, and knowing how old he is, would not, on achieving that goal, utter words that suggest that he regrets having done so on account of his age or loss of youthful vigour.
And who does not know that poetry can be cryptic, and that sometimes we err by giving it the first interpretation that appeals to us, perhaps like the above lines of the poet in President Buhari?
• Oke, a poet and public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja.
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