Loss and the Empathetic Bridge: A Case Analysis of President Buhari’s #EndSARS Speech

Loss and the Empathetic Bridge: A Case Analysis of President Buhari’s #EndSARS Speech


On the evening of March 31, 2019, Kolade Johnson, a professional footballer was watching an English Premier League football match when a stray bullet hit him. He died on the spot. Some police officers attached to the anti-cultism unit of the Lagos State Command had stormed Olu Aboderin street after getting a hint that a group of cultists were in the area[1]. To disperse the boys, they shot sporadically into the air and killed Kolade, the only son of his mother.

Kolade is one of many hundreds of young Nigerians that have been killed extra judicially by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, otherwise known as SARS, a specialized unit of the Nigerian Police Force, founded in 1992 as a response to increase in crime rate. The unit has been accused of several cases of killings, assaults and harassments of innocent citizens.

In October 2020, thousands of Nigerian youths embarked on a nationwide protest to demand an end to police brutality, calling for the complete eradication of SARS using the hashtag #EndSARS. What started as a social media advocacy turned into a wide scale social movement. By the second day, the hashtag had become the most trending topic in the world, generating up to 28 million tweets. Nigerians shared stories, pictures and videos of different atrocities of SARS officers on social media. Within 2 days, peaceful protests were organized in several cities across Nigeria and in the diaspora including United States, Canada and United Kingdom. Many international celebrities and world leaders also added their voices, including Kanye West, John Boyega and Hillary Clinton.

The Nigerian government’s response

After weeks of peaceful protests across the world, the Nigerian Police Chief promised to disband SARS but in reality, only created a new unit called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics). Nigerian youths rejected this and continued protesting. According to them, government has made such promises in the past with little or no commitmentOn October 20, the protest took a sad turn — the Nigerian military opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, killing at least 12 people[2]. This led to a global outrage from Nigerians and non-Nigerians across the world. The Nigerian government denied the killings despite a live video footage by Nigerian Disc Jockey, DJ Switch[3].

After weeks of protest, President Buhari finally addressed Nigerians. Many described the pre-recorded speech which was made to look like a live broadcast as ‘tone-deaf and ‘utterly insensitive’. The speech lacked emotion and empathy and refused to directly address the shooting of unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll gate. Many were disappointed. The question on the lips of everyone was ‘who gave the order for the massacre of innocent protesters at the Lekki Tollgate?’ on the 20th of October 2020.

Analysis of Case — The President’s speech


“On approving the termination of SARS, I already made it clear that it was in line with our commitment to the implementation of extensive Police reforms. Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests”.

“The spreading of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media in particular, that this government is oblivious of the pains and plights of its citizens, is a ploy to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgement and disruptive behaviour”

“To our neighbours in particular, and members of the international community, many of whom have expressed concern about the ongoing development in Nigeria, we thank you and urge you all to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgement and making hasty pronouncements”.

“In the circumstances, I would like to appeal to protesters to note and take advantage of the various well-thought-out initiatives of this administration designed to make their lives better and more meaningful, and resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy”.

“For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation. Under no circumstances will this be tolerated”.

Read the full text of the speech here.

Using the conceptual framework of the empathetic bridge (Acknowledge challenge, Express Empathy, Narrate Hope, Create a Choice), the President’s speech shows an absence of thoughtful and empathetic leadership. The President refused to acknowledge the problem (in this case the shooting of innocent protesters by the military). He also refused to empathize with grieving families which shows a lack of empathetic availability. The President could have used the speech to create an empathetic bridge which could have further calmed down tensions and unify the country.

The speech could have started like this:

“Fellow Nigerians, it is with a deep sense of grief that I address you today. The terrible incidence that happened on Tuesday, 20th of October has no place in our history. I condole with the family of those we lost and as the Commander-In-Chief, I take full responsibility and will ensure that perpetrators of this heinous crime are brought to book. I have ordered for an immediate investigation and directed that daily briefings be submitted to me until Justice is served”.

A speech of this nature could have given a narrative of hope and created an agency. The president’s speech instead of giving hope and agency issued threats both to Nigerians and to the International Community. For instance, the statements “Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests” and “For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation. Under no circumstances will this be tolerated” sounded like threats. The speech could have amplified government’s response to the demands of thousands of Nigerians including permanently disbanding SARS and implementing an overarching police service reform. This would have been a source of hope to many Nigerians. Also, in narrating hope, the president should have announced a monetary support to the families of those who lost their lives (civilians and police) and those injured. It would have assured Nigerians that the government is indeed serious with pursuing justice for the victims.

Leadership lessons

1. Taking responsibility- Leadership involves first understanding the problem and taking full responsibility to fix it. President Buhari could have admitted the government’s culpability in the root problem (SARS), immediately accept the demands of the youths and proffer a quick solution.

2. Building trust: There is a huge trust deficit between the government and citizens of Nigeria. The speech could have been an opportunity to rebuild that trust. As Stephen Covey argues in his books The Speed of Trust and Smart Trust, trust is not a soft, social virtue — it’s truly a hard, economic driver for every organization.

3. Empathy: Without empathy, it is difficult to build a team more less a country of over 200 million people. A leader should always be aware of the feelings and needs of others.

4. Respond vs react: Bad leaders react to a situation, while good leaders respond. A good leader is one who gives a careful thought to a situation and gives a measured response. A bad leader is the opposite.

Questions I am struggling with

1. A leader should have trusted advisors who advises him/her in taking right decisions. Could the President’s advisors be giving him wrong advices?

2. Could a leader struggle with giving hope in particular aggravating situations?

Let me know your thoughts.

Dayo Ibitoye — Harvard Kennedy School 

Reflection Paper #5 — Loss Case — Applying Public Narrative as a Leadership Practice

31st October 2020

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