Performing Leadership: Jonathan needs a new royal language

So Goodluck Jonathan gave a presidential media chat on Sunday– judging from the response on twitter, his performance was largely judged unsatisfactory, though some commentators were ready to defend the president’s performance. Nigeria’s president is one of the most powerful of executive leaeder’s on the African continent, being head not only of civil, but also the military government. His role is akin to that of a king. Maybe it is to royal behavior that Jonathan should turn now to learn how to respond to this crisis. Indeed, his behavior as a leader may be unconsciously conditioned by older, African cultural performances of leadership. In many of our pre-colonial societies, the power and presence of the king was so sacred that he or she did not appear in public and they certainly did not speak. This is certainly so for the Asantehene of Ghana, who has a special interlocutor, and is true perhaps of a few of the kings of the Yoruba as well. The Kings of Dahomey were identified not by their person but by hybrid human-animal representations that signified their mystic and royal power. So perhaps these values of not presenting yourself is what has conditioned our president to be so absent whilst there was a ferment of emotion building up for the return of up to 234 young girls abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Or perhaps, the government has just been trying to find the girls and announce their rescue triumphantly to an accompanying haze of media glory. Whatever the case, the performance of leadership has been misjudged and portrays a leadership operating below par, as so eloquently decried by Chimamanda Adichie.

Humility is often the greatest response we wish to see in people struck by grief, and Nigeria, perhaps in spite of itself, is grieving for these poor girls. At the very least, the president’s advisors should have told him that as Head of State he needed to be the person visiting and commiserating with the families of those who had lost children, and be seen as the mourner in chief. Secondly, he should have deftly, but authoritatively spoken to Nigeria, as a nation, and the world, as an audience, about the tragedy and it’s meaning for Nigeria.

He should have clarified that the girls abducted were just like his daughter, worthy of life, and deserving of respect. He should have told us in brief but bold terms what the army and his administration were doing to rescue the girls. And he could have addressed Boko Haram itself directly – in Hausa, the language in which its leader, at least communicates; not necessarily himself, but that would be better – even if, his pronunciation would be halting, or even rehearsed. Perhaps, if this was done it would assert two things – a national resolve to crush this movement, and a reclamation of the north as part of Nigeria, and it would speak directly to many both in the north and south who somehow believe this is an insurgency happening in a different country. Lastly, the President should have made it emphatically clear that Boko Haram is not a northern problem, a Christian problem or a Muslim problem – but a Nigerian problem. And he should have done all this directly – himself, on national television.

We are used to leaders on the global stage in moments of tragedy, seizing the moment to address their nations, and provide a unifying focus for grief and purpose. It seems our leaders do not understand this – but what does not bend must break. Only a decade ago, the British monarchy received a shock to its system from the emotional response of the UK and international public to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The stiff and formal model of stoic leadership emphasized by Elizabeth II, and the house of Windsor was forced to bend to a new culture of emotion, and the performance of grief.

The tragedy of the Chibok Girls, and the rage that has produced #BringBackOurGirls is also a demand for a leadership that publicly performs its connection to the public that ostensibly elected it. That is what Goodluck Jonathan missed in his Presidential media chat – he may have said sensible things, but his performance was three weeks too late, and billions of light years away from the mood of the nation.


Follow me @delemeiji

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