As General Muhammadu Buhari prepares to declare his fourth run for the presidency of Nigeria, it is important that this campaign departs radically from previous ones, in which the General’s supporters and aides treated the election as a perfunctory exercise in the crowning of their candidate rather than a contest for votes and support.
For one thing, the stakes are higher this time, with Nigeria teetering. For another, there are many more people in Nigeria today who are willing to give the candidate of the opposition a serious look than there were in 2011, what with the current state of the nation. The country’s repertoire of problems has expanded since 2011, and President Jonathan has squandered the goodwill he enjoyed in 2011.
Given this convergence of factors, for this writer and many Nigerians, any alternative political path is preferable to the failed PDP paradigm. Yet, that does not mean that General Buhari, were he to emerge as the APC’s presidential candidate, would automatically get their votes. The General cannot win by default; he will have to earn the votes of those who are disenchanted with the status quo. He will have to give them a reason to embrace change, to choose an unknown future over a known, if tortuous, present. It is not enough to convince people to abandon Jonathan; you have to give them a reason to support and vote for you.
Buhari’s supporters — most of them — are escapists and habitual evaders. They don’t recognize the importance of outreach and platform. For them, you win an election by simply presenting yourself as an alternative to a failed status quo. They trade in their candidate’s inevitability to boot. In 2011 they even created alternate arithmetic universes in which, we were told, Buhari only needed the vote of the Northwest and parts of the Northeast to win the presidency since the two zones are, according to official census figures, Nigeria’s two most populous regions.
This strange arithmetic convinced many of the General’s supporters that their man could win even without campaigning in the rest of the country, that the only way he could lose was if he was rigged out by the infamous rigging infrastructure of the PDP, and that, given this certainty, if he lost he would have been denied an office for which he was solidly poised.
It was a narrative of entitlement. It informed the swagger, arrogance, complacency, and subtle threats that became commonplace in the less enlightened physical and online corners of Buhariland. A bellicose army of Buhari supporters strutted cyberspace with a huge chip on their shoulders, declaring with finality and certainty that their man was destined for Aso Rock. Realists wondered about the preemptive triumphalism.
Those not sold on the General and those who supported then candidate Goodluck Jonathan sniffed something offensive and presumptuous about the tenor of that curious campaign tactic of the General’s supporters. This attitude was puzzling because the electoral map and the shenanigans of a failed opposition merger barely a week before the election put Buhari at a marked disadvantage, making a Jonathan victory all but certain. Given the real, as opposed to the imagined, electoral calculus of 2011, Jonathan, who at the time commanded much goodwill as a relatively fresh face, would have won the election fair and square, but typical of the PDP, they could not let their rigging arrangements go to waste so they rigged a clearly winnable election and tainted a clear and imminent victory. By rigging, the PDP confirmed the fantastical theories of Buhariland, enabled the General’s supporters to shift the blame of their candidate’s loss, and prevented Buhari and his camp from engaging in the necessary soul-searching.
It is always the case that Buhari’s supporters take his support among the electorate for granted, and work from the premise that their man is entitled to the presidency because the incumbency is putrid and because Buhari is magnanimous enough to put his vast reservoir of integrity and can-do energy at Nigeria’s disposal. How could Nigeria’s beleaguered masses not recognize a messiah when they see him? How could they, Buhari’s supporters always seemed to wonder, not gravitate enthusiastically to the very antithesis of the ongoing corruption bazaar? Convinced of the General’s inherent goodness, his supporters have always reasoned that a good soup does not advertise itself — except that, contrary to their logic, in politics, it is goodness that often needs to prove itself as an alternative to a familiar badness and not the other way round. In politics a familiar badness is often preferred to an unfamiliar, untested goodness.
Buhari is a political lightening rod in Nigeria, and as long as he harbors the ambition of governing the country again, he will continue to be scrutinized, as he should be. Many of his supporters are usually unquestioning and sheepish in their adulation of their man. As a result they loathe hearing some truths about the man and his political methodology. In this respect, Buhari’s most ardent supporters are, ironically, similar to the hardcore Jonathan supporters they loathe with passion — the so-called Jonathanians who are receptive to praise for their man but resent criticisms of him.
I often take a philosophical view of this monologic approach to political conversation in Nigeria. The behavior of Buhari's supporters is, in my opinion, a reflection of the desperate order of things (apologies to Michel Foucault) in Nigeria today. They are projecting messianism and their own anxieties and hopes onto Buhari because he is a different kind of politician, and because, whatever you may think of Buhari, you cannot question his personal integrity. As corruption has ravaged Nigeria, the moral aptitude to discern and resist corruption has become a rare political asset, considered metonymic, rightly or wrongly, for other political qualities like competence, vision, statesmanship, and sound governing temperament. But Nigeria has regressed to a degree that personal integrity alone cannot salvage her. Buhari’s supporters have yet to catch on to this reality.
Then there is the dissonance between the past and the present. Certain myths have become associated with both the Buhari of 1985 and the Buhari of today. In a sense, many of his supporters think that the Buhari of 2014 will, should he become president, govern like the Buhari of 1985, forgetting that as civilian president he would not have the instruments of administrative fiat that were available to him as military head of state. His supporters have, moreover, not pondered the question of what Buhari of today would do when he realizes that he cannot rule by decree, when he cannot decree a thing and expect it to be done. The General’s supporters have proffered scanty, unsatisfactory answers to this question.
And that, precisely, is the problem with the growing personality cult of Buhari. His supporters cannot understand why some of us even have the audacity to pose these questions to their man. They cannot understand why Buhari's personal integrity, in a cesspool of political corruption that is Nigeria, is not enough, and why we are asking for plans, manifestoes, and evidence of a civil, democratic temperament in Buhari. When we point to Shehu Shagari as an incorruptible civilian president who presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in Nigerian history, and who was surrounded by loyal but corrupt allies, against whom he was impotent, Buhari's supporters resent the comparison without offering anything reassuring about their principal's departure from the Shagari model.
When we tell them that, like Shagari, Buhari's most pronounced weakness is that he is a sucker for loyalty, and that, just like Shagari who valued loyalty and allowed it to blind him to the corruption of his closest allies, a president Buhari, for whom loyalty and an unquestioning adulation means everything, may be ruined by the actions of his rapacious aides and political allies, his supporters simply say, as a retort, that their man will not be captive to corrupt but loyal allies.
When, as my friend, Pius Adesanmi, did in a recent essay, we raise the uncomfortable question of Buhari’s association with and reliance on the financial largesse of corrupt characters to conduct his political campaigns and surmise, reasonably, that these investors would populate and insidiously hijack a Buhari presidency to recoup their investments from the government of a beholden, impotent, Shagariesque president, his supporters say this scenario is farfetched and that their man is impervious to quid-pro-quo arrangements.
We are basically supposed to just take their word about Buhari and hope that the man will do the right thing. We are supposed to get on board on account of this blind faith. They want us to simply trust Buhari to do right by us if or when he gets into Aso Rock. In other words, they want everyone to emotionally connect with Buhari as a messianic figure and to stop asking questions and demanding substantive programmatic items.
The affliction of the typical Buhari supporter is the same, whether he is a Northerner desirous of "power shift" to the north, a Muslim enamored of Buhari's early and consistent support for Sharia, or a Southern or Middle Belt Christian longing for the discipline and vigorous anti-corruption regime of Buhari's military regime. The typical Buhari supporter is paranoid about people being out to get their man and is hardly receptive to anything resembling criticism directed against the General.
Most of us who have no direct personal stake in Nigeria's political game clearly see the problem with Buhari and we will continue to say it even if his supporters resent us for doing so or do not want to hear it. Given the desperate need for an alternative to the current PDP oligarchy, it would be a crime not to scrutinize, and in doing so, better position the opposition candidates that are emerging to challenge President Jonathan.
So, in that spirit of refining and challenging the opposition to be better than the status quo, here, below, are my itemized contentions on how Buhari’s political career, since his entry into elective politics in 2003, has been largely mismanaged. Implicit in this analysis is what he needs to do differently to improve his standing with Nigerians.
Buhari has been poorly managed and has not been well served by his aides and handlers. I'll give an example. When the General came on the political scene he and his team made a foundational political error right out of the gate. He was reported by a newspaper to have remarked at a small political rally somewhere in Sokoto State that Muslims should vote for Muslims. His supporters and handlers completely denied the story and alternately accused the reporter who covered the event of lying and of not understanding Hausa, the language in which Buhari had spoken. Unknown to them, the reporter had the tape and spoke Hausa with almost mother tongue proficiency. In fact Buhari's people had a point about the distortion of what Buhari had said because the newspaper story made it seem as though Buhari had asked Muslims to vote for only Muslims and not to vote for Christians. He had not.
What Buhari had said in fact was that as Muslims (he was addressing Hausa/Fulani Muslims) they should vote for people who would uphold and defend their values — the values that they held dear. The newspaper put its own spin on it. Had the Buhari folks simply gotten ahead of the story and explained what the General meant, that incident, from which his undeserved reputation as an Islamic bigot arguably emanated, would not have done the damage that it did.
What the General said and meant was actually fairly mainstream and progressive — that his audience should vote their conscience and that they should vote for people who embodied and would uphold their values — values such as probity, fairness, justice, consultation, etc. These are not just Muslim values but also Christian, traditional African, and humanistic values. A more experienced messaging team would have seized a wonderful opportunity to spin this as a compelling values argument, which it was, and not allowed the General’s traducers to interpret it as a religious one. It was an opportunity missed.
Had that incident been managed properly, it would have been a net plus for the General and not a minus. Instead, when the newspaper revealed the existence of the tape and mischievously leaked it to a few people, Buhari's (and his team's) credibility went south. When he and his people attempted to do damage control and to re-explain the comment, they actually did more damage and solidified in many minds the notion that Buhari was indeed a Muslim chauvinist. Even when he went from one church to another to dispel the fast spreading perception, it did not work.
Some people who initially doubted that Buhari had made the reported comment and thought the entire thing was a fabrication flipped on Buhari. Were they fair to the General? No. But that is politics. It’s not a game of civility, honor, and fairness. That's why it calls for good communication, a capacity for self-critique, and good crisis management skills. Buhari and his people saw no need for these, believing, as many of them still do, that his name recognition and his populist policies as head of state would be enough to endear him to Nigerians.
A Knack for Self-Destruction
Buhari is often his own worst enemy. When he talks, he often sounds like a sectional leader cultivating a parochial constituency more than a statesman. He is always defending or wanting to be seen to be defending the North and Islam against perceived and imagined anti-Northern and anti-Islamic policies.
In the context of Nigeria’s dueling narratives of ethno-religious victimhood, this message is a winner in a section of the country. The General became a darling of the Northern political grassroots precisely because of this unabashed willingness to align with the prevailing social anxieties and aspirations of the Northern Muslim grassroots. In 2000, Buhari, unlike many of the North's Muslim elites, boldly and proudly supported and identified with the implementation of criminal Sharia, earning himself the title of Jagoran Musulunci (champion/defender of Islam) among the masses. He was unequivocal about his support. That singular act turned him into an instant political hero to Northern Nigeria's Muslim grassroots, from where agitation for Sharia as a divinely ordained solution to society's polyvalent problems, had emanated.
From then on he could do no wrong. He was invincible. As he parlayed this popularity into politics, however, Buhari committed a grave error. He continued to pander to the Northern grassroots by repeatedly talking about Sharia and defending it, forgetting that, rightly or wrongly, Christians and even some Muslims in both North and South, were suspicious of Sharia politics or "political Sharia," given how divisive and volatile it can be in a multi-religious country like Nigeria, and given our previous experiences with the subject.
Buhari could have backed off the Sharia and religious rhetoric and retained his popularity with the Northern Muslim grassroots. Instead, he made the choice to continue to consolidate his base of support at the Northern grassroots by talking about things that they wanted to hear, things that establishment Northern politicians, for pragmatic political and selfish reasons, were not talking about. It worked wonderfully for the General, and solidified his messianic stature among the Northern Muslim masses, but it also alienated moderates, Christians, and Southerners and fed the perception that he was a religious fanatic who would implement an Islamic agenda — or at best an insensitive provincial politician.
He won the North but lost the South and the Middle Belt. He effectively became a sectional leader, and he has been trying ever since to escape that label, to no avail. I don't see how he can escape this pigeonhole without a willingness to occasionally disappoint his Northern base because the very thing that makes him popular in the North is what makes him unpopular elsewhere.
A Victim of Self and Circumstance
This all brings me to my final point about Buhari's penchant for soiling his own brand. Whether it is his quasi-military style of unnerving bluntness or he is merely pandering to his Northern Muslim base, he is fond of making shocking and controversial statements about national issues that help confirm prejudiced opinions of him as a parochial political leader. For instance, when he was interviewed on the Boko Haram insurgency a couple of years ago, he said the government was killing Northern youths, that the killing should stop, and that the government should implement for Boko Haram insurgents the kind of amnesty that was implemented in the Niger Delta. This was when the sect was killing civilians and abducting and raping women left and right. I couldn't believe that he would say such a thing in a newspaper interview, especially given the widespread perceptions about him, but he did.
President Jonathan had a similar moment a few years ago when, after the October 1 2010 bombing carried out by Henry Okah and his MEND Niger Delta militants, the president came out and declared, even before investigations had commenced, that this was not the work of Niger Delta militants. Not only was he skewered for this reckless and unpresidential behavior; he was embarrassed further when it turned out that the attack had been the work of those he had sought to exonerate. Jonathan only managed to recover from that blunder because he was a rookie to whom Nigerians were willing to give the benefit of the doubt and, more crucially, because, unlike Buhari, he had no prior perception baggage as a sectional or sectarian champion.
Buhari has made other public comments that may be construed as being soft on Boko Haram or as feeding some of the conspiracy theories about Boko Haram being an anti-North machination hatched by the Jonathan government. In critiquing Buhari on the same point, a friend of mine, a visible Hausa Muslim journalist, testified recently on my Facebook wall that he had actually heard Buhari say or imply in closed Northern circles that Boko Haram is a ploy by some people he would not name to destroy the North. Buhari has basically being echoing the same illiterate theories about Boko Haram being an anti-North and anti-Islam scheme, a sentiment with surprisingly widespread purchase among uninformed Northerners.
The General’s comments and speeches are enthusiastically received in the North, in his base, and add to his popularity there, but they spook people in other parts of the country, further confining him to the status of a sectional candidate.
I have noticed that in the last year or so, as 2015 beckons, Buhari, apparently heeding the advice of more savvy advisers, has toned down his rhetoric, has issued statements and comments on the terrorist attacks and on the counterinsurgency that are statesmanlike and thoughtful. He has also only spoken sparingly, and, after the Nyanya bombing, came out forcefully for the first time to unequivocally condemn the Boko Haram terrorists. Perhaps we're witnessing the emergence of a new Buhari, Buhari 3.0, if you will, who is more refined, more circumspect, and more of a statesman than a Northern grassroots hero. Nonetheless, the enduring legacies of bad political choices that limited the appeal of a great brand needs be overcome as Buhari unveils his fourth campaign for the presidency.
It should be said that Buhari has also been a victim of Nigeria’s charged ethno-religious political public space, which became particularly fraught in 2011 with both sides making patently parochial appeals to religious and ethnic affiliation in that year’s general elections. That tactic delivered victory and inflicted defeat at great human and material costs, but it is unfortunately now being reconfigured as a key component of the Jonathan reelection playbook. Buhari’s misfortune has been to try to advance integrity and moral clarity in a political context in which identity permutations have supplanted those qualities as baselines of electoral mobilization.
Buhari has thus been a victim of the political circumstances that have emerged and ossified in the last decade. Even so, Buhari is not a passive victim, for he has in the last few years often insinuated himself needlessly and through his utterances and silences into this cauldron of religious and ethnic politics. His bluntness has not always served him well and has often provided ammo to his detractors, who are all too happy to give mischievous legs and wings to his pronouncements.
When he invoked the metaphor of blood soaked dogs and baboons (kare jini biri jini) to illustrate how his supporters would checkmate the rigging and intimidation project of the PDP, a gory metaphor that, to be sure, was a poor choice of expressive device in a charged political atmosphere like Nigeria’s, his detractors, lacking knowledge of the linguistic and metaphorical subtleties of the Hausa language and intent on mischief, ran with it to associate the General with violence. When the General urged his supporters to protect their votes, the PDP folks reinterpreted this democratic pronouncement about vigilance and civic responsibility as a code for violent electoral vigilantism.
Buhari’s political enemies are many and are relentless, but the General often makes their job easy for them. I read an essay on a listserv recently with the headline, Why are They Against Buhari? When the question is framed in this way, perhaps the answer should be that, 1) they — whoever they are — are not the only problem of Buhari, and 2) that Buhari, along with his team and hero-worshiping supporters, is perhaps the biggest problem of Buhari.
Some people have raised the specter of Buhari’s age being a liability. I disagree. Recent events have shown that incompetence, corruption, and governing acumen are distributed equally across the age spectrum. In fact the biggest offenders in our national parade of larcenous establishmentarians are mostly folks possessing youthful energies, not elderly types. Besides, you govern with brains not brawn. So, for me the age of Buhari is not his biggest challenge — if it is a challenge at all. It’s the need to reintroduce himself to Nigerians — all Nigerians — as a serious national candidate with a platform beyond his familiar, appreciated, but by itself, insufficient personal integrity.
The author, Moses E. Ochonu, can be reached at [email protected]