Defensiveness is the lazy alternative to facing reality

It is not strange for people or groups of people to protect themselves. Psychologically, they do so by denial and defensiveness. But it is dangerous if it becomes the attribute of people in leadership positions. According to researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Center for Creative Leadership, defensiveness hinders leaders’ ability to learn and, as a result, their success. It is, therefore, a worry when leaders become defensive as the Nigerian presidency has become in recent times.

Having become president in 2015, riding on the goodwill of Nigerians who saw him as a man of integrity who will fight corruption in Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari has seen people’s trust in him erode with allegations of selective fight against corruption. Buhari had also promised to fight Boko Haram insurgency to a standstill and even announced victory at some point, but the terrorists have continued attacks. These inadequacies have led to criticisms, which the presidency sees as threat to President Buhari’s re-election bid, hence the continued defensiveness.

In its latest defensive response to criticism, the Nigerian presidency described as false the assertions of Ms Priti Patel, former Secretary of State for International Development, United Kingdom, who warned investors against investing in Nigeria.

Patel had in an opinion published by City A.M. stated that while she is a supporter of economic investment in developing countries, she also thinks investors should “know of the corrosive effect of corruption, as well as the lack of transparency and associated difficulties of doing business in certain countries.” She gave an instance of Irish company Process and Industrial Development (P&ID) and the government’s continued flouting of court orders, as well as the level of corruption in Nigeria as reported by Transparency International.

The Nigerian presidency through President Buhari’s spokesperson Garba Shehu stated that “Trumpeting a so-called Transparency International report is a false fabrication that cannot be supported by the facts on the ground”. The presidency had also earlier in the year rubbished the organisation’s ranking of Nigeria on its corruption perception index. The same organisation was revered by the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) when it was the country’s main opposition party.

In a press briefing on 4 December, 2014, then party chairman John Odigie-Oyegun had called the Goodluck Jonathan-led government corrupt. “Corruption as defined by Transparency International and accepted by the APC is the ‘abuse of entrusted power for private gain’.” Odigie-Oyegun had also referred to Nigeria’s ranking on the CPI in his speech. However, the same index has now been rubbished by the presidency.

Shehu, who reacted to Patel’s piece on behalf of the president, is the same person who tweeted defensively about HSBC’s report that a second term for President Buhari would affect the country’s economy.

“A bank that soiled its hand with ‘‘milions of US dollars yet-to-be-recovered Abacha loot and continued until a few months ago to shield the stolen funds of one of the leaders of the Nigerian Senate has no moral right whatsoever to project that a “second term for Mr. Buhari raises the risk of limited economic progress and further fiscal deterioration,” he wrote as part of a series of tweets defending the president.

Sadly, Patel’s assertions are backed with facts, one, the presidency was able to contest and the other was dismissed. But there are also examples that can be considered. President Buhari has shown disregard for the rule of law on more than one occasion. Some businesses have also faced a tough business environment under the present administration. Rather than defend his principal, Shehu would have done better to highlight successes in the areas the critics claimed the government has failed, while also acknowledging their observations and shedding light on grey areas, if any. By being defensive every time there is criticism, the presidency shows that the critics may be right.

Almost 100 percent of the time, defensiveness is a sign of guilt. And like it is in business, leaders who are defensive are less effective when it comes to achieving set goals. This is because they are closed-minded when challenged or given critical feedback. Like American psychologist Dr Jacqueline B. Sallade wrote “Keeping an open mind, facing reality and knowing that truth is better than ignorance is hard work, but we must try.

Buhari’s biggest challenger for the president’s seat at the 2019 elections Atiku Abubakar has promised to create a business-friendly environment. In a policy document released this week, the former vice president said he would set the country on the path to becoming a $900 billion economy by 2025. According to the candidate of the country’s main opposition the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), his economic agenda will be based on five pillars: competitive and open economic system; redeeming public institutions; reducing infrastructure deficit; promoting economic diversification and human capital development.

There are other notable Nigerians vying for the top office, including former Minister of Education and co-founder of Transparency International Oby Ezekwesili and former deputy governor of Nigeria’s central bank Kingsley Moghalu.