Jonathan Vs Buhari : When A Public Mistake Requires an Old Fashioned Apology

The title of this article is adapted from a piece by Ron Ashkenas, managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organisation which was published in Harvard Business Report (HBR) that l received 8/1/20l5.  

Some salient points in the article struck a chord in me as l was ruminating over the imminent February 14th presidential election in Nigeria which is now a two-horse race between the incumbent, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) and former military head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari (GMB).

As an active subscriber and an avid reader of HBR publications, Cambridge University, London School of Economics, LSE and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (my alma mate) bulletin as well as other intellectual journals, my commentary on issues and events in Nigeria is usually not drawn only from local dynamics but equally considered from the prism of global experiences which l try to bring to bear in my analysis.

It is based on the foregoing that the HBR article ‘When A Public Mistake Requires An Old Fashioned Apology’ is very poignant and relevant to our current situation in Nigeria as it discusses public mistakes by leaders and how they can control the damage to regain respect.

Incidentally, both Jonathan and Buhari have had the rare opportunity of ruling Nigeria at different times — Buhari as military head of state some 30 years ago and Jonathan as the siting democratic president. In the course of leading Nigeria, both men must have made mistakes, which are obviously hunting them especially in this period of campaign for election as president.

Without equivocation, the issues being thrown up by both campaign teams are a sort of referendum on both the incumbent and challenger’s time in the exalted office of the president and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Do Nigerians require apologies from the two contenders for their past mistakes in governance before they can seek for and probably receive our mandate to lead us? Before going into the dialectics, I would like to first of all crave your indulgence to consider the interesting perspective from the business world in the HBR article by Ron Ashkenas as reproduced below:

“Everyone makes mistakes. We make bad decisions and insensitive statements, we speak before we think, and we let our emotions get the best of us.  But since we hold very senior executives to a higher standard, when they mess up, it often becomes a public spectacle.”

Consider the case of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong. On August 9, 2013 — a time of disappointing quarterly results — he held an all-hands conference call with 1,000 Patch (AOL’s hyper-local news division) employees. During the meeting, which was called to announce layoffs and site closings, Armstrong publicly fired Patch’s creative director for apparently recording the meeting.

This ‘brutal’ firing created a firestorm of negative publicity both for AOL and for Armstrong. Several days later, Armstrong issued an apology to all AOL employees, in which he admitted that he has “acted too quickly…(and) learned a tremendous lesson…”

Six months later, Armstrong was forced to apologise for another incident. In announcing his plans to delay retirement contributions, he mentioned the high cost of health care benefits and cited two individual cases, which the company paid $1 million to care for “distressed babies”.

Not only were his remarks callous, they also violated the privacy of the employees involved. After another round of disastrous publicity, Armstrong again issued a statement saying “l made a mistake and l apologise for my comments.” He also reversed his decision to delay retirement contributions (notice the similarities to President Jonathan’s reversal of his initial removal of petroleum pump price after a public outcry).

Of course Armstrong is not the first, last, or only senior executive who has made troublesome public remarks. Tony Hayward, the former CEO of British Petroleum, famously complained that he “wanted his life back” in the midst of the 2010 oil spill.  (He later apologised to the families of the workers who had died in the tragedy, as well as the thousands of people whose lives were totally disrupted.) 

Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had to apologise in 2005 for his contention that “innate differences” between men and some accounted for the under-representation of women in the sciences. Senior advertising executive Justine Sacco was fired for posting an insensitive and racist tweet about AIDS in Africa.

And more recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella apologised for suggesting that women should not speak up about pay inequities. The question then becomes how to recover from one of these moments. A written and public apology is a good first step, particularly if you’ve offended thousands of people.

The next step is to proactively seek out the few people who have been most affected and talk to them privately. Public apologies are impersonal. People who have been hurt need something more human. They want a genuine, direct apology…

The third step in the recovery process is to find out whether the poor behaviour was a one time slip, or part of a recurring pattern. Occasional mistakes can be forgiven, but if the same behaviour occurs a number of times, an apology will ring hollow.  (Buhari’s retroactive decree no 20 that resulted in the judicial murder of three alleged drug dealers and decree no 4 which led to the jailing of journalists for writing the truth plus kidnapping, drugging and putting into crate of Umaru Dikko for illegal deportation to Nigeria qualifies as reoccurrence of same behaviour).

The real key to moving forward is to accept that you’re not perfect, and that future mistakes are probably inevitable. Without this mindset, executives can easily convince themselves that they were actually “misunderstood” or there was poor communication — that it wasn’t really their fault.

But without taking true accountability, executives won’t learn from their mistakes, and the next public gaffe isn’t far away. When executives do admit their flaws, they are better able to fix their mistakes and reclaim respect.

As the author posited, human beings crave apologies, which is a humbling way of earning the sympathy of people. Accountability is also a critical factor for apologies to be effective.

Most public mistakes are not confined to the business world, which the author focused on but even required more in the political space. Take for instance the case of Senator Hilary Clinton, the wife of former USA President Bill Clinton who stood stoically by her husband during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal that rocked Clinton’s presidency with the potential of having similar catastrophic consequences as the June 17, 1972 breaking in at the DNC headquarters at Watergate, Washington DC famously referred to as the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Mrs. Clinton’s apparent detachment from the indignation expressed by American women towards her husband’s apparent philandering, made her look inhuman and haunted her when she was contesting against President Barack Obama for the ‘primaries’ for  the Democratic Party ticket.

 Realising that the American female voters were not queuing up behind her as they should, she broke down and cried during one of her campaign activities and that emotional vulnerability turned the tide. Women switched their support to her but it was too late as the ‘Obama for president’ train, as it were had already left the station.

Coming back home to Africa, it may be recalled that the late Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa (1994-1999), instituted the Truth and Reconciliation Committee which enabled ex presidents and apartheid apostles, Iain Smith, Fredrick De Clerk, and a host of other ethnic supremacists to apologise to their black victims thereby bringing to a closure the evil ordeal for people like Bishop Desmond Tutu, who wept during one of such occasions. 

In Nigeria, how can we not remember clearly how the tears of late Sam Mbakwe, the then governor of Imo State (1979-1983), who was nicknamed the weeping governor, generated goodwill for him and his people. Also, Ernest Attah, the immediate past governor of Akwa Ibom State (1999-2007), who broke down in tears during the agitation for resource control and Supreme Court judgment on the onshore offshore oil dichotomy is a more recent reminder.

While not advocating that Jonathan or Buhari should break down in tears during campaigns, in my view, they owe Nigerians a huge debt of apology for the following mistakes:

GEJ for attempting to remove fuel subsidy and thus increase fuel pump price by 100% with the potential for exacerbating poverty in the country and for waiting till the visit of child rights advocate, Malala Yusufzai, before inviting parents of the kidnapped Chibok girls to Abuja to commiserate with them amongst others. 

GMB on his part has to apologise for the judicial murder of the three Nigerian youths accused of drug trafficking who were sentenced to death with decree no  20, a law that was enacted after the alleged offence was committed which is retroactive justice.

The jailing of The Guardian newspaper journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka lrabor, for reporting the truth with decree no 4 which is a retroactive law similar to decree 20 in his bid to muzzle the press and the barbaric kidnaping, drugging and putting in a crate in the UK of ex transport  minister, Umaru Dikko, in 1984, in an attempt to forcibly and illegally bring Dikko back to Nigeria to answer corruption charges.

For sure, my list of public mistakes requiring apologies from the two contenders for Nigeria’s presidency in 2015 may not be exhaustive but it remains to be seen if any of the two presidential hopefuls think Nigerians deserve such nicety.

Nevertheless, whether Jonathan or Buhari chose the path of honour to apologise to long suffering Nigerians for their mistakes that have hurt them or not, the fact remains that with the murk so far raked up in the ongoing campaign, leaders will, going forward, think twice before formulating policies or making decisions that would hurt rather than help their fellow compatriots. That would be a positive and beneficial lesson to be gained from election 2015.

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