When presidents attend global business forums, they typically focus on saying the kinds of things to attract investor interest and dollars. But, at the Commonwealth Business Forum yesterday (April 18), Nigeria’s president Buhari showed his compatriots why his communications team probably don’t like him having a microphone thrust in front of him..
Given a chance to highlight the prospects of Nigeria’s young population as a willing and able workforce for possible investors, president Buhari inexplicably painted a rather unflattering picture. “More than 60% of the population is below the age of 30,” Buhari said to a room of business and global leaders. “A lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria is an oil producing country, therefore, they should sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free.”
His comments have drawn ire from Nigerians on social media but it’s not the first time the president has made a major gaffe while speaking off the cuff during foreign trips. In London, two years ago, Buhari blamed Nigeria’s troubled global image on the high number of Nigerians in foreign prisons who “made it difficult” for Western countries to accept Nigerians. In Germany, standing next to Angela Merkel, the world’s most powerful woman, president Buhari said his wife, who had criticized him a few days before, “belongs” to the kitchen.
With an election just 10 months away, the president’s supporters are already in campaign mode and have jumped to his defense as being misunderstood or misinterpreted. That may very well be true. But it again raises the problem of his weak communication skills, an important component of leadership in a country with scores of hot button issues.
More than anything else, Buhari’s comments represent a missed opportunity to extol young Nigerians doing remarkable things, especially in the tech space—valued at $2 billion, Lagos has become Africa’s most valuable tech ecosystem. Ironically, Buhari’s dour comments came a day after vice-president Yemi Osinbajo went on a tour of promising startups in Lagos.
The president is right about one thing though: millions of young Nigerians do nothing and are jobless. In itself however, that’s an indictment on Buhari as, under his watch, Nigeria’s unemployment has nearly doubled. Given Nigeria’s young median age (18) and expected population increase—Nigeria’s population will pass the 300 million mark by 2050—it’s likely to be an enduring problem. A more convincing pitch to possible investors may have been the first of many steps to solving the critical jobs problem.