They were called the unsmiling duo. In his first incarnation as Nigerian leader, the then Major General Muhammadu Buhari was paired with another top brass military officer, Babatunde Idiagbon, who was the number two man. Smile was alien to their lips, laughter a total stranger. They had a job to do, which was to rid the country of corruption, crime and indiscipline, and anybody who didn’t fall in line was liable to being dealt with. And summarily too. Laughter was, therefore, a distraction.
Buhari was reticent, Idiagbon, taciturn. A fearful and fearsome combination. Do the crime, serve the time was their motto. Manifest indiscipline, even in something as pressing as answering the call of nature, urinate by the roadside, and you can’t tell anybody it was the work and of the Devil. They would tell you the Devil does not pee. Vandalize public utilities? Twenty years in jail. Traffic in cocaine? Goodbye to the world. Nigeria was being whipped into line, and no mistake. But that nirvana lasted only 20 months, and forces of reaction struck. The regime was toppled.
Along the line, Idiagbon went the way of all flesh. But 30 years later, Providence brought Buhari back to the number one position. Did Nigerians who were of age forget the reticent, ramrod straight man from Daura? No. The mental image they had (and still have) of him, is a man of iron and steel, a new sheriff in town, who whips all malefactors into line. A forbidding man who rarely smiles, and who never enjoys the music of the soul; laughter. Such frivolities are for the flippant and unserious. True? Not so. Yes, there is iron and steel in President Buhari, which makes him able to set his face as flint against the corrupt, no matter who such person is. The iron makes him abhor indiscipline, the steel compels him to crave order and decorum at all times. But is the man all iron and steel? Follow me, as I let you into another vista, another side of the essential Buhari. The human sde, flesh and blood.
By Wednesday, June 1, it would be exactly a year that I started working with the President as his adviser on media and publicity. And I have seen him in many moods: sober, pensive, business-like, and light, yes, easy, jocular mood. This President enjoys good laughter, and, indeed, has a rich sense of humour.
On resumption day, I met the President at the Defence House, his temporary outpost, while the Aso Rock presidential villa was being renovated.
“Chief Adesina, welcome,” he said, as he extended his hand to me. We both burst out laughing. Of course, I was no chief. Simply Mr. And the President knew it. He was only pulling my legs.
Having waved me to a seat, the President gave me what can be called the rule of engagement, which would guide my service to him, and to the country.
“Tell me the truth always,” he declared. ” That is what I want from you. The truth. I may argue with you, you know I am a General, but please argue with me. If your argument is superior, I will bow to it.”
And the President has lived up to his word, one year down the road.
On his very first day at Aso Villa, I had approached the President, saying it was necessary for him to visit journalists covering the seat of power at the Press Gallery. He agreed, and strolled from his office a few minutes later. In his first coming, the then General Buhari was not known to be enamoured of the Press. He enacted Decree 4, which was meant to protect public officers against false accusation, and two journalists were actually jailed under the decree.
For President Buhari to then visit journalists in their gallery on the first day at the presidential villa was, therefore, historic. The true democrat was here. After his remarks, soliciting the support of the press men, he shook their hands one after the other, making witty remarks. When Juliana Taiwo Obalonye introduced herself as representing The Sun, the President said: “Warn your cartoonist. Warn your cartoonist. My chin is not as long as he usually draws it.” Loud guffaws from everyone.
He had one thing or the other to say about almost all the media houses present. It was an evening of conviviality.
There were two instances when the President exhibited good humour at what could potentially rile someone else. Following his many overseas trips, which have been unjustifiably criticised in the media, there was a cartoon in a newspaper, which said when a country elects a nomadic Fulani as President, how would they expect him to sit in one place? The President laughed and laughed. He even told the story to some people who visited him later in the day.
On another occasion, somebody wrote an opinion piece with the headline: “When will President Buhari visit Nigeria?” Rib cracking laughter was what it elicited in the President. The writer was insinuating that the President was more abroad than at home, and whenever he came back, it meant he was visiting Nigeria. But since the President knew the purpose behind his foreign trips, he rather laughed off the cheeky newspaper headline.
Have you heard the story of the German sentry? The President loves to tell it. The first occasion I heard him relate the story was when the Peace Committee headed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar visited him. Also in the team were people like the Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Sa’ad Abubakar 111, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, and many others. They had come to appeal that the anti-corruption war be waged within the ambit of the rule of law. The President listened patiently and then responded:
“In the military, there used to be this joke about the German sentry. When a sentry is on duty, and he heard any movement, particularly if it was dark, he barks out. ‘Who goes there? Advance to be recognized.’ With his gun at the ready, he interrogates the person, and if he tells an acceptable story, he waves the person on. But when the German sentry hears movement in the dark, he lets out a volley of shots, and then shouts: ‘Who went there?’ Of course, he knows he has killed the person.”
The President explained that when he came as a military ruler, he was like the German sentry. “I packed all the people who were suspected to be corrupt, and kept them in protective custody. And I told them they were corrupt, until they could prove themselves innocent.
“But now, under a democratic setting, I see corrupt people going around in Rolls Royce, but they remain innocent, until I can prove them guilty.”
Of course, the President and his guests laughed heartily.
From time to time, President Buhari grants interviews to television stations at home and abroad. And they have to fit their microphones on his dress. Whenever the interview is concluded, the President would fiddle with the microphone, which had been passed under his dress, and then exclaim:”Can somebody disarm me, please?” For a retired army officer, that is quite creative, and it causes people to laugh.
The President notices everything, even the seemingly insignificant. One day, I was in a Yoruba native dress, with a cap, which was rather big for my head, product of a tailor who was too generous with his fabric. When the President saw me, he said: “Adesina, this cap is too big.” I was surprised at his attention to details. Or talk of Bayo Omoboriowo, the President’s personal photographer. Typical of his young age, Bayo loves multi-coloured socks, which may, or may not rhyme with the colour of his clothing. And he would wear trousers that are several inches above his shoes, thus displaying Joseph’s coat of many colours, which his socks are. That has become his trademark. And then comes in Bayo one day, donning sober socks like people of my generation would wear. To our amazement, President Buhari said: “Bayo, you are not wearing multi-coloured socks today. What happened?” General laughter.
In 1985, while he was military head of state, Nigeria won its first Under 17 World Cup title. Thirty years later, under President Buhari, Nigeria won the same laurel again. The day the trophy was handed over to him, the President admired it, turned it from side to side, and then submitted: “Soccer loves me.” Really true.
Those who think President Buhari is all iron and steel and nothing else have not experienced what I did in 2013. My mum had passed on, aged 75. We planned a commendation service for her in Lagos and I had invited a number of people, General Buhari included. As I stayed with my siblings at the gate of the hall in Alausa, welcoming people, an SUV drove in. The door opened, and a man alighted. Who was he? “General, you are here !You came all the way from Kaduna!” I exclaimed. And he gave that smile that often makes him look like a child, without guile or trickery. Simple, trusting. He said it was his pleasure to come and he sat through the Christian service. Didn’t some people say he was a religious bigot? Bigotry sure needs to be redefined.
The same thing the President has done this week. Peter Claver Oparah is a dyed-in- the-wool Buhari supporter. His mother died and was buried just yesterday in Imo State. When I told President Buhari that one of his most ardent supporters had lost the mother, he sympathized, did the family a condolence letter, which he personally signed. How very human!
Last December, I told the President that it would be good if he made personal calls to some of his faithful supporters, to wish them a merry Christmas. He agreed. We compiled the names. Rev. Moses Iloh. Rev. Chris Okotie. Barrister Monday Ubani. Chief Duro Onabule. General Sam Momah (retd), and many others. The President spoke with them one after the other, laughing and making them laugh at the other end. Then, he told me to include Dr. Tunji Braithwaite in the list. I quickly called journalist and activist, Richard Akinnola, who gave me the man’s number. The President and Dr. Braithwaite talked for a very long time, and it was mirth all the way. They kept laughing. Unknown to the President, it was a valedictory call. When Braithwaite passed on about two months later, the President told me he was glad he had spoken to him that December night. It was their last conversation.
My sister, Prof. Foluke Ogunleye, died in an auto crash last December. The President read of the tragedy in the newspaper and placed a call to me. He was quite sympathetic. It pacified me a great deal, and reduced my status as a wailing wailer.
Give me a stern President. We need such. But also give me a human and humane President. We equally need such. All these are embodied in Muhammadu Buhari, the man whose footprints would be indellible in the sands of time in Nigeria. He would bring change, and the change would be enduring.
*Adesina is the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Muhammadu Buhari.