By Moses E. Ochonu
Post-decision dissonance. It is a condition in psychology in which people regret a decision or worry that the decision they took may not be the right one and continue to entertain or express doubt about the decision and to seek validation from people about the rightness of that decision even as the doubt persists.
Post-decision cognitive dissonance (PDCD) is a related condition in which people not only worry that they may have been wrong or that the wisdom of their decision is being challenged by unfolding events but also begin to act and say things contrary to the unease they feel inside. They do this in order to mask and compensate for the feeling that they may have been wrong or that the outcome of their decision has not borne out the expectations and convictions that informed the decision.
A variant of post-decision cognitive dissonance entails not only acting contrary to the worry that you may have been wrong, in order to save face, but also, 1) lashing out at those who took the opposite decision so that they don’t tell you “we told you so,” and 2) irrationally defending the decision and its disappointing aftermaths while inwardly praying that it is eventually vindicated, proved right.
A friend of mine was the first to suggest that we apply this concept to the behavior of some Buhari supporters, who cannot bring themselves to even admit that the president is human, fallible, and capable of errors of judgment and errors of policy — supporters who irrationally defend the decisions and indecision of the present administration even when they, the defenders, are disproportionately victimized by these actions/inaction.
I do not think that the appropriate response to a disappointing decisional outcome is denial, defense, and deflection. I do admit, however, that it is not easy to watch the person that one enthusiastically supported and upon whom one has invested much hope morph into a seemingly different person. There are reasons for those who supported Buhari to be embarrassed by the some of the things he has done or failed to do, by some of his scandalous retreat from his campaign promises.
The president campaigned on a platform of ending waste and profligacy in government, a program of restoring probity, efficiency, and transparency in governance. There were several low-hanging symbolic and substantive fruits for him to exploit and reiterate this platform, easy measures he could have used to put some points in the reputational bank. He had promised to sell off some of the aircraft in the 11 aircraft presidential fleet. Upon coming to power, he audaciously walked away from the promise and still keeps the bloated fleet. That seemingly trivial self-reversal proved seminal, for it authorized more brazen disregard for the atmospherics of governance.
For a president whose calling card was transparency and personal integrity, Buhari’s failed attempt to abandon his promise to publicly declare his asset within his first hundred days in office was as perplexing as it was self-injurious. After his media team made itself a laughing stock trying to disavow, dilute, and postpone the promise and sustained public pressure forced the president to fulfill his promise. But it was a summary of his assets, not the promised declaration form, that was released.
The accompanying promise to release the actual form submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau when the bureau’s verification was completed remains unfulfilled, a needless prolonging of a straightforward matter of fulfilling a promise made willfully to Nigerians. His supporters were left wondering why he did not simply release the summary earlier without all the evasive fuss put up by his team and why he has yet to release the promised form, a failure that keeps the matter alive and feeds a growing perception that the president is insincere and hypocritical.
When bureaucrats and his own kitchen cabinet conspired to craft a budget choked full of scandalous allocations to the presidency, allocations such as hundreds of millions of Naira for Aso Rock’s zoo, billions of Naira for the Aso Rock clinic, and a vice presidential library budget estimate larger than the library budget of all federal polytechnics put together, among other offensively wasteful items, Buhari fumed and threatened to punish those who he claimed had “padded” the budget.
Curiously, the presidency’s spokespeople, presumably with the backing of the president, defended the indefensibly inflated and unnecessary estimates. Not only that, his promised punitive action never materialized. In the end, a few senior civil servants were redeployed, and the final budget signed by the president contained many if not most of the earlier disavowed and widely criticized allocations. If redeployment is the only price of budgetary corruption and anticipatory “padding” then it is actually an incentive for recidivism.
The president was recently presented with two opportunities to demonstrate his commitment to the ideals on which he ran for the presidency in 2015. Two illegal recruitment scandals have unfolded in tragically quick succession at the Central Bank and the FIRS, the state revenue agency, with prominent APC figures and government officials implicated in a scheme that saw them using their positions and influence to secure coveted positions for their wards in these state institutions without due process. In the CBN case, the president’s own nephew was among the beneficiaries; in the FIRS case, a leaked sponsorship list contained several names designated as having emanated with “Baba” and “Mama,” which the muckraking news website, Saharareporters, speculate to be references to the president and his wife. The events have unfolded over the last couple of months but so far the presidency has neither made any pronouncement on them nor reversed the illegal, fraudulent recruitment. It has not even bordered to deny or confirm the speculation that the president, the vice president, and several high-ranking government officials “sponsored” candidates for the illegal recruitment.
These scandals and the failure of the presidency to respond to them have significantly eroded the goodwill of the administration and the president’s reputation for integrity.
Meanwhile, other negative developments have wrought further damage on the trust that Nigerians have in the government. The president’s chief of staff, Abba Kyari, his most trusted confidant, stands accused, along with other prominent officials of the government, of blocking investigations into the fraudulent affairs of Sahara Energy, a local oil company reported to have connived with officials of the previous government to skim off billions of dollars of Nigeria’s oil revenues, using some of those funds to purchase political influence and protection from some of the accused actors in the current government.
The drip-drip of scandal, inexplicable inaction, and broken promises has emboldened the accusatory voices of the president’s detractors and rendered many of his supporters disappointed, disillusioned, or incredulous. The president’s transformation from an empathetic, caring, paternal candidate, who cried about the plight of Nigerians during one of his three previous presidential runs, to a president who seems aloof and who exhibits irritation when asked to reconcile his prior positions with his current policies has sown shock among many of his supporters.
Nowadays, the president seems fenced off from the people who propelled him to power, the people whose plight caused him to cry publicly. The president’s current disposition is a study in the intoxication of power, in the ways in which power transforms, desensitizes, and imprisons. The president now seems captive to power and its perks, incapable of mitigating or comprehending the suffering caused by his policies, and content to simply enjoy the aura of the presidency.
Nothing epitomizes this transformation than the two biggest broken promises of this administration so far. During the campaigns, the president promised in interviews and in campaign documents to never raise the price of petrol, to revamp Nigeria’s domestic crude oil refining capacity, and to reduce the pump price of fuel, an item upon which the price of everything else hinges in our petrol-driven economy. He also promised never to devalue the naira, upending and thumping his nose at pragmatic economic counsel that the value of the naira cannot be artificially propped up at a time when Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings had dwindled and put enormous pressure on the local currency.
The president has since broken both promises, raising the price of petrol from 85 Naira a liter to 145 Naira. Inflation, which had already eclipsed all projected baselines due to the government’s primitive restrictions on foreign exchange and its draconian import restrictions, has soared in the wake of the fuel price hike.
The president has since followed this unfeeling renunciation of his “no price hike” covenant with Nigerians by devaluing the Naira. The question his detractors and supporters alike have been asking is: why did Nigerians have to go through a year of painful economic restrictions, a year of economic stagnation and runaway inflation in consumer prices, and an unprecedented slate of hardships, only for the government to embrace the path of devaluation it earlier rejected, the pragmatic path earlier dictated by Nigeria’s dire revenue situation? Why subject Nigerians to an entire year of economic blight only to uneventfully and unapologetically do exactly what you claimed would further imperil the economy. It gives off a vibe of confusion, indecision, and wicked, inhumane experimentation on the part of the government. Nigeria seems to have become one giant economic laboratory where Buhari and his economic managers are lurching awkwardly from one idea to another in the hope that one of them will work — all at the expense of a Nigerian people increasingly impoverished and economically squeezed by an environment of policy confusion and outmoded economic restrictions.
As a candidate for the presidency, Buhari was renowned for his ascetic lifestyle and austere simplicity. As president, he is unrecognizable in this domain of taste, carriage, and sartorial comportment. He recently spent, his spokespeople confirmed to the nation, six million pounds of Nigeria’s money at a time of revenue squeeze to treat an ear infection in London. From the moral heights of modesty, Buhari has descended into vulgar self-indulgence and now resembles the most ostentatious incarnation of the stereotypical caricature of the self-absorbed African autocrat. Nowadays, when he returns from his overseas trips, he is welcomed back to the country with elaborate and expensive airport re-entry ceremonies complete with military parades, Scottish kilts, and bagpipes that remind one of Idi Amin’s outlandish neo-imperial ceremonial buffoonery. No one thought that we would be seeing this in 2016 let alone that we’d be seeing it displayed by an African president with a reputation for being a simple man of the masses.
Supporters have watched this aspect of the president’s evolution from a candidate groveling and begging to serve the people to a president seemingly cocooned from their plight and lives. When the Nigerian army massacred hundreds of Shiites in Zaria, the president, a man whose primary responsibility is the protection of citizens’ lives, waxed belligerent, almost gloating as he blamed the Shiites for irritating the army and bringing calamity upon themselves. There was no iota of sympathy or empathy for hundreds of lives of Nigerian citizens ended most callously by an army he commands as C-in-C.
It took a president who used to enjoy a paternal reverence among Nigerians several weeks after the Agatu massacre before he issued, through his media team, a tepid, officious statement devoid of any paternal compassion. And his only response to date on the massacre of unarmed IPOB agitators by the armed forces is to cavalierly dismiss their agitation, without even a word about the impropriety of confronting unarmed demonstrators like you would armed insurgents.
Before the Niger Delta militants defied a military occupation to demonstrate their sophisticated and seemingly intractable ability to surreptitiously destroy surface, subterranean, and underwater oil pipelines, the president was threatening a scorched earth response and ordering a military invasion of communities suspected to be harboring the militants.
The president’s law-and-order, take-no-prisoner approach to all problems, even those requiring tact and negotiating acumen, contrasts sharply with his conciliatory, even self-deprecatory, demeanor during his campaign for the presidency. His blustery, self-righteous anger is a radical detour from the image of a genteel, avuncular, chastened, and wiser public servant he projected in the run-up to the 2015 elections. At the time, he was a sympathetic figure. Today, this recipient of public sympathy in the face of unfair portrayals of him by his political adversaries lacks sympathy for those who stood with him, and seems eager to confirm those portrayals.
In the face of these disappointing turn of events, the president’s most loyal supporters, especially those who had been quite vocal in the Nigerian public sphere about their support, have struggled to reconcile the candidate they campaigned for and the president who is now superintending the affairs of the country.
While some supporters have transitioned from election mode to a patriotic civic mode, examining the president’s actions and inactions and highlighting dramatic departures from his advertised election platforms, others have persisted in publicly defending the president while inwardly nursing their disappointment at some of his actions. It is as though they are at war with themselves as their two contradictory impulses wrestle for attention and expression. Publicly, they support everything the president does. They do not want to be seen as disowning a president they fervently worked to get elected, but they cannot shut off the mounting evidence of broken promises, of sensible roads not taken, and of self-inflicted injuries reminiscent of the tone-deafness of the Jonathan era.
Most of these uncritical supporters and defenders of the president suffer from post-decision cognitive dissonance. They hold two mutually exclusive positions (inner doubt about the outcome of the decision to support and venerate Buhari on the one hand, and vigorous public defense of the president as infallible on the other).
They should know that this is a self-created problem. There is absolutely no need to trap oneself in this condition. Decisions are not articles of faith that command unconditional fidelity unmoored to evolving realities. Decisions are made in the moment, given the information available, in the context of the choices on offer, and without the ability to discern the outcomes of those decisions.
In March 2015, the correct decision was to elect Buhari to replace a failed Jonathan administration whose profligacy threatened the very survival of the country. That decision does not immunize Buhari from critical engagement. It does not call for regret or counterproductive, face-saving posturing. Even those who voted in the other direction could not have predicted how things would unfold. The decision should therefore not induce regret, especially if the regret dulls one’s vigilance and capacity to critique those one voted into power.
Regarding that decision as some sort of binding sacred obligation not to criticize, reevaluate, correct, or modify one’s view of the subject of that decision is to imprison oneself in a psychological condition of post-decision cognitive dissonance. It is to detain oneself in a time warp that denies the dynamism of politics and the innate fluidity of human character, of which the president is not immune.
What’s more, post-decision cognitive dissonance leads to illogicality, to unconvincing defenses, untenable rationalizations, and makes one an enabler of maladministration. It makes one abandon the sacred citizen obligation of speaking truth to power and holding leaders accountable.
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