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Old Buhari Versus New Buhari

March 19, 2011

Muhammadu Buhari appeals to our sense of nostalgia. His candidacy thrives on Nigerian’s disillusionment with the PDP incumbency and its twelve year mismanagement of Nigeria.

Muhammadu Buhari appeals to our sense of nostalgia. His candidacy thrives on Nigerian’s disillusionment with the PDP incumbency and its twelve year mismanagement of Nigeria.

Amidst this PDP-engineered gloom, Nigerians have increasingly succumbed to the seduction of Buhari’s image as a can-do, courageous man of integrity and action. This image has grown in reverse proportion to the PDP’s bungling of our affairs in the last twelve years.

Buhari’s modest support in Southern Nigerian is particularly rooted in an emotional investment in this mystique of Buhari as the ultimate anti-establishment candidate who can courageously cleanse the system of its layered rot. This mystique is founded alternately in factual, revisionist, and embellished retelling of Buhari’s populist exploits during his stint as military head of state. His action against corruption, drug trafficking, and indiscipline inspire nostalgia in today’s Nigeria, where public morality and ethics have broken down, seemingly irreparably. 

Whether this mystique is true or constructed is up for debate. But the populist yearning for the Buhari of 1985 is at once nurtured by hope and desperation. Hope that trusts naively and a desperation that leads to a belief in an anybody-is-better-than-the-PDP mindset. In this climate of national helplessness, Buhari’s truncated presidential experiments in social reengineering twenty-five years ago have acquired something of a mythical, seductive character. Against the background of active governmental cultivation and promotion of vice and corruption, Buhari’s war against indiscipline and corruption, a problematic and controversial war to be sure, have emerged as a glowingly seductive contrast.

Buhari himself has done little to trumpet his past social reforms. The reforms instead have simply reappeared and are now ingrained in the public’s imagination as the search for alternatives to the present meltdown has become urgent and less discriminating. The social narratives of the reforms have taken on a life of their own; they are romanticized and lionized, and their contradictions have largely been ignored or erased.

Lately though, a few critical voices have raised legitimate questions about the nature and mechanics of those reforms and about less than patriotic biases that may have underpinned some of Buhari’s presidential actions. Previously unscrutinized details have attracted robust critique. The Buhari government’s draconian enforcement of its regime of discipline and public morality and his assault on press and political freedoms have become staples of a new narrative seeking to demystify the candidate.

These questions have been posed by credible voices and by those who were victimized by some of the freedom-curtailing decrees of Buhari’s government. The credibility of victimhood has lend power and emotive persuasiveness to these narratives. They have become louder as Buhari’s public persona and the myths of his integrity and competence has grown.

The Buhari regime’s granting of a waiver to the Emir of Gwandu and father of his ADC to clear 53 imported suitcases at a time when all national borders were closed has been advanced credibly to nibble at Buhari’s image of integrity and impartiality. Even the differential treatment that his regime meted to Shehu Shagari and Alex Ekwueme in the wake of their overthrow has made cameo but powerful appearances in new, critical commentaries on Buhari’s image. These are weighty, if circumstantial, allegations against Buhari, and they clearly contradict the most familiar aspects of the candidate’s political personality. So far, these questions have dominated elite chatter and have yet to transition into the Nigerian political street. Their impact on Buhari’s electoral prospects therefore remains uncertain.

Another aspect of Buhari’s populist appeal that is largely misunderstood is his peculiar cult-like popularity among the common folk of Northern Nigeria. The genealogy of this popularity dates back to statements attributed to Buhari in the wake of the Sharia debate in the early years of Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration. When a spokesperson for the Obasanjo administration announced that the council of state, of which Buhari is a member, had decided to suspend Sharia implementation in Zamfara state and in other early implementer-states, Buhari publicly and courageously disputed the statement, saying that no such decision had been taken by the council.

At a time when the yearning for Sharia as a populist solution to the problems of corruption, vice, and political abuse was a genuine item on the menu of beleaguered and disenchanted Northern Nigerian Muslim masses, Buhari’s perceived courageous defense of Sharia implementation proved to be an instant, if unintended, hit at the Northern Nigerian Muslim grassroots.  Buhari reaped immense and immediate political capital from this proclamation. The failure of fellow Northern Council of State members, Shehu Shagari, Ibrahim Babangida, and Abdulasalam Abubakar to publicly contradict the position of the Obasanjo government on Sharia’s purported suspension carved a special place for Buhari in the hearts of many Sharia-loving Northern Nigerian Muslims: he emerged from the episode as a courageous defender of Sharia and its promise of social and economic justice.

This simple, unscripted, contrarian statement of Buhari’s transformed his image from a simple former Northern head of state to a hero of the Sharia Islamic revolution—to a champion of the masses. Buhari’s unintended advocacy of Sharia implementation—or more precisely his perceived opposition to its suspension— recast his image overnight and showed a different side of the general to his Northern co-religionists. Because the yearning for Sharia was largely about the desire for economic justice, accountability, equity, and redistributive fairness, and because this yearning was driven by the grassroots concerns of regular Northern Nigerian Muslims, Buhari instantly became a hero to the masses in the popular political imagination, a man of integrity, truth, courage, and piety. A political myth and a political cult of personality were simultaneously born.

Buhari earned the reverential name of mai gaskiya—man of integrity. This is the genealogy of Buhari’s political reinvention. Since then, he has become the most credible political figure in Muslim Northern Nigeria. Opportunistic politicians and true believers alike have flocked to his side, canonizing his every word and move, and helping to further renovate his political image and to reinforce the public myth of his exceptional integrity.

When in 2003, he was widely reported to have said that Muslims should only vote for Muslims the ensuing debate and controversy only added to his Islamic credibility and solidified his political image in the North as a champion of Islam and Islamic notions of justice, equity, good governance, and public morality. His efforts to disown the statement and to dispel unsavory impressions created in Southern Nigeria and the Middle Belt by that controversy and by his earlier disavowal of the Sharia suspension statement did little to blur the shine of his political persona in Muslim Northern Nigeria. In fact, the Southern Nigerian press’s focus on this disputed aspect of his personal politics only boosted his credibility in Northern Nigeria, as his hardcore supporters embraced his perceived, if disputed, Islamic activism in favor of the interest of the masses.

The controversy, while ultimately beneficial to Buhari in his Northern Muslim constituency, plunged him into a political quandary. His disputed Islamic activism for social and economic justice was admired in Muslim Northern Nigeria and helped expand his political base throughout the Northwest, the Northeast and parts of the Northcentral regions. But this foundation of his Northern popularity was precisely why Southerners and Middle Belt Christians regarded him with suspicion. This suspicion spawned myths and made-up tales about a secret Buhari agenda to Islamize Nigeria or to implement Sharia nationally. His political asset in the Islamic North became a burden in other parts of the country, where he was increasingly perceived as possessing a narrow, sectional, and religious perspective on Nigeria’s challenges. Managing this contradiction (nurturing his political persona in the North while not reinforcing his perceived image in the South as a champion of Sharia and Islamo-Northern interest) has been the supreme challenge of Buhari’s political aspiration in the last two presidential election circles. 

This regional bifurcation in Buhari’s political appeal is still a hurdle in the way of his ambition that he has to overcome. Pro- and anti-Buhari attitudes and myths seem to have ossified in the North and the South respectively. But as the PDP’s dysfunctional approach to governance at the national level has reached depressingly new lows, many people in the South with reservations about Buhari’s ability to transcend region and religion and about some of his past policies as military Head of State, are giving the candidate another, more sympathetic look. These are not unqualified or enthusiastic endorsements; they are merely the expression of disillusionment with the PDP’s twelve-year regime of waste, and of the concomitant hunger for alternatives, even imperfect ones.

These new, unlikely longings for Buhari reflect the depth and pan-Nigerian character of the epidemic of political helplessness than it does a belief in Buhari’s ability to reverse the dysfunction. Rather than wearing thin, Buhari’s surprising political novelty has acquired more luster as Nigerians have increasingly contrasted an admittedly romanticized and glossy picture of Buhari’s short regime to the PDP’s putrid statecraft. Buhari’s new, unlikely supporters, like prominent Guardian columnist, Sonala Olumhense, are projecting their political despair and hopes unto Buhari in a last ditch belief that the Buhari of 1985, in all his imperfect political flavor, may return and sanitize the polity and play the role of a revolutionary transitional figure. How this gamble will pan out is up in the air.

But is the Buhari of 1985, the insatiably patriotic, passionate, and courageous military revolutionary who can be forgiven for his overzealous overreach and other indiscretions, still possible?  Let’s look at the objective indicators.

If Buhari’s recent actions, utterances, and gestures are a guide, then it is fairly safe to conclude that the Buhari of 1985 is dead to Nigeria. Nigeria, by the way, seems to have returned the favor. First, when Buhari speaks now, he sounds withdrawn, disinterested, and aloof. I recently participated in a telephone interview with the General. It was organized by I was struck by how passion-less he sounded throughout the chat. And it wasn’t because we didn’t probe. We asked tough questions but also soft-ball ones that should have given him a platform to impress us with his diagnosis of Nigeria’s ills and his vision for curing them. Instead of punchy, substantive responses to our questions, we got platitudinous, banal, over-scripted political generalities.

Buhari’s political speech has become stale and bland, lacking the fierce urgency, to paraphrase Barack Obama, of Nigeria’s rescue mission. Buhari’s other recent interviews betray the same frustratingly noncommittal attitude and a seeming reluctance to make bold, promissory pronouncements about his intentions. He now speaks like a typical Nigerian politician; the same unimaginative vocabulary; the same vacuous rhetoric; the same lack of specifics; the same general, predictable promises about rooting out corruption, making government work, and improving security. The “how” of all this has been missing from the political gestures and pronouncements of today’s Buhari.

If this is an effort on his part to project a less fearful persona so as to appear less threatening to Nigeria’s elite kingmakers, then it illustrates the contention that we now have a morphed Buhari who would seek the approval of or compromise with the architects of Nigeria’s current predicament. If it is an attempt to tone down the firry rhetoric of his political youth, it is not striking the right cord and comes across as a capitulation to the pragmatics of the Nigerian political establishment. If it is evidence of a waning enthusiasm for public service or a loss of reformist fervor, it is even more depressing.

The most recent showcase of this new, diminished Buhari is the presidential debate organized by the NN24 TV channel. Buhari seemed faded and jaded, uninterested, and inarticulate. His plans for reversing the current rot, if one can call them plans, seemed scattered, impractical, and indiscernible. Mostly, he spoke in empty, familiar platitudes of the Abuja type. Even questions that seemed designed to draw out the old Buhari—questions on corruption and misgovernance—elicited disappointing, old, boringly banal, and non-substantive responses. His answers left more questions than they answered.

An objective, if a little cynical, assessment of Buhari’s political promise, then, has to conduce to a conclusion that Nigeria, age, and political disappointment have consumed the Buhari of 1985. The Buhari of 2011 is a frail, boring, typically Nigerian politician, indistinguishable from the rest of the political elite except in matters of personal integrity.

What about Buhari’s democratic bona fides? Here, too, Buhari’s current demeanor falls short of the urgent task of national reclamation. Starting from 2003 and in the ANPP, one of Buhari’s well known but constantly ignored political tendencies is his penchant for poor judgment in empowering every political opportunist who pledges allegiance to the Buhari brand. The result has been: 1) the imposition of Buhari-favored candidates in many Northern states and the exclusion of actual winners of party primaries; and 2) the political empowerment of incompetents and establishment politicians who rode to power on the Buhari name only to abandon Buhari’s principles for the crude, familiar politics of patronage and survival.

One prime example and embodiment of this problem is Ibrahim Shekarau, the Kano State Governor who stood side by side with Buhari in the recent debate as the ANPP presidential candidate and who was imposed on Kano ANPP by Buhari in 2003, displacing the winner of the party’s gubernatorial primaries, Ibrahim Ali Amin. Shekarau has since abandoned everything that Buhari claims to stand for and has, for good measure, wrestled the ANPP from his political mentor. That Shekarau stood on par with him at the debate as a rival candidate is the ultimate dramatization of Buhari’s inability to manage the affairs of his political party.

If a man cannot exercise good judgment and is not a democrat in internal party matters, it is doubtful if he can conjure up these assets in the presidency. The CPC, which Buhari formed after naivety and aloofness cost him control of the ANPP, is today a party in turmoil, with tales of candidate imposition proliferating across the North at all levels. Buhari has even publicly—shockingly—justified his imposition of candidates and the sidelining of primary winners. The crisis engendered by candidate impositions, mismanaged primaries, and Buhari’s biased interventions in some races and calamitous aloofness in others is currently threatening the prospect of a party that should otherwise sweep local elections in the Northwest and parts of the Northeast. So severe is this crisis that even die-hard Buhari supporters like Aliyu Tilde have commented critically in public on Buhari’s inability to use his enormous political capital in the North to build a coherent, orderly and just political party. The problems of the ANPP and now CPC illustrate a major weakness in Buhari: he is a poor manager of people and institutions.

Finally, there is the matter of Buhari’s personal integrity, namely his incorruptibility, which he has nurtured and treasured throughout his long career in public service. No one can take this away from Buhari. In this presidential race, he towers above all the candidates in this department. A man who has been exposed to national resources at many tempting levels and has emerged unscathed from all of them deserves the ethical pedestal that Buhari occupies.

 But personal integrity alone is not enough. It was not enough in 1979-1983, and it will not be enough in 2011-2115. Shehu Shagari was, by all accounts, not corrupt. But his political reputation of poor management and indifference meant that he presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in Nigerian history. His political associates gorged on the national patrimony while he fiddled and fidgeted with statecraft, content to dwell in the aura of the presidency and satisfied with the adoration of his thieving political allies. There is a legitimate fear that Buhari has all the makings of another Shagari.

At the height of Buhari’s current brand of politics is the cult of personality. Translated into simple political language, it means that Buhari is today surrounded with incompetent, corrupt, opportunistic, but loyal associates. Word on the Northern political street is that members of Buhari’s inner political family can do no wrong; their loyalty to Buhari buys them impunity, which they have sometimes used to enrich themselves and to brutalize and discredit rivals.

In hidden conversational scripts in Northern political circles, there are whispers that Buhari’s advisers and inner circle members are the greatest threat to his political brand in the North. They continue to trade patronage in a manner that dents Buhari’s brand. All this has happened and continues to happen at a sniffing distance away from Buhari. Yet, he is incapable of seeing these shenanigans because he is blinded by loyalty. Buhari is known throughout the Muslim North to value political and personal loyalty above all else. Because of this he is powerless to act against corrupt, incompetent, and misbehaving associates and aides. This is what doomed Shagari’s presidency. It may doom Buhari’s.  This should be a real concern to Buhari’s supporters as it is to this distanced admirer.

A compelling illustration of this reality is Buhari’s PTF chairmanship. It is very well known that the PTF was constituted by design or by reason of Nigeria’s established tradition of ethnic patronage, into a small family of Buhari’s associates, admirers, and kinsmen. No case of corrupt enrichment or personal waste has been brought against Buhari as a person despite a lengthy probe of the Fund’s activities by the government of Mr. Obasanjo. However, the PTF, it s well known, was a cesspool of waste and a cash cow for members of the emergent group of Northern admirers of Buhari. Many young kinsmen of Buhari’s and of his Adamawa-born wife emerged from the Fund as multimillionaires. Waste and unethical enrichment plagued the Fund, creating a class of moneyed and fiercely loyal group of young and middle aged Northerners around Buhari. Many of these people have struck out on their own politically; others have remained loyal to their benefactor.

The point here is that, like Shagari, Buhari ran a less than transparent, patently patrimonial organization while avoiding the stain of corruption. A Buhari presidency may amount to Buhari’s PTF regime writ large.

What good is personal integrity if it does not trickle down from the president to the associates below and if it does not find its way into institutions of government? Of what use is personal integrity if an inexplicable obsession with personal loyalty on the part of the president prevents him from insisting on and enforcing probity and transparency at all levels of government, including those run by his loyalists?

In Bakare, Buhari has a running mate who would not let loyalty trump accountability and public ethics, a running mate who would not let loyalty get in the way of transparency and the desire to do good. But since initiative and overarching authority resides with the president under our political system, it remains to be seen if a strong-willed, principled, intelligent, and uncompromising vice president can have any consequential impact on the ethical identity of a government or if he can exert any effective influence over politicians allied to the president or over aides appointed by and loyal to his principal.

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