Journalism in the service of society

Buhari: Converted or convoluted democrat?

THE piece you are about to read was first published by me on 30th September, 2015, almost eight years ago and just four months into retired Major-General Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency. With little editing to whittle it down to fit into the space allotted,, it is as relevant today as it was then. Enjoy it!

“By President Muhammadu Buhari’s own admission, he is a ‘converted’ democrat. That statement in itself is a direct admission that there was a time the man was something other than a democrat. What, then, was Buhari before his self-confessed conversion? He did not say but he need not because we all knew he was a military dictator. Buhari shot his way into the office of military Head of state; he seized power from a democratically-elected civilian government by the force of arms. He overthrew the Alhaji Shehu Shagari civilian government, thereby bringing to an end the Second Republic. That date was December 31, 1983. Therefore, in the history (or “Black Book”) of the travails of democracy, Buhari’s name features prominently, albeit ingloriously, as someone who truncated civil rule and stunted the growth of democracy in Nigeria.

It must be said, though, that the Shagari government was through and through despicable; so, few folks voiced opposition to the military putsch or regretted the demise of a government that stank to high heavens with corruption and innumerable acts of impunity. Moreover, the Buhari military government was business-like, was no-nonsense, and dealt firmly, even if harshly, with corrupt politicians and this was saluted by many Nigerians. It sought to instil discipline; its “queue culture” especially was noble. In those days, no one dared to drop refuse anyhow. It is, therefore, the golden age of military rule in Nigeria; and many still feel that had that regime continued much longer in office and not been overthrown by the deceitful Gen. Ibrahim Babangida regime that wasted no time in rolling back its achievements, Nigeria would, today, have been a better country.

Nevertheless, the Buhari regime had its drawbacks! To start with, the way it treated the politicians it toppled was not even-handed. While the head of the ship, Shagari, was put under house arrest, his deputy, Alex Ekwueme, was hauled into prison. And that was the general pattern of how politicians from the North were treated with kid gloves – or with respect – while their counterparts from the South were harshly and discourteously treated. To make matters worse, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, acclaimed political leader of the Yoruba people of the South-west, had his home subjected to a demeaning search in what was seen as a deliberate attempt to humiliate the Chief and, possibly, the people and political tendency he represented. Another of Buhari’s decisions seen to be anti-Yoruba was the cancellation of the Lagos metro-line project of then Gov. LK Jakande.

To date, Buhari has not offered any plausible explanation for this action that, in retrospect, has cost Lagos in particular and the entire country in general dearly. The regime also initiated many unpopular policies, such as the retroactive decree on drug peddling that saw to the execution of three citizens for cocaine-pushing in what came to be regarded as “judicial murder”; the currency trafficking decree that controversially sent Afro-beat king Fela Anikulapo-Kuti to jail; the omnibus Decree 4 of 1984 which criminalised the publishing of the truth by journalists, as a result of which two editors of The Guardian newspapers, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were sent to prison for publications said to be “embarrassing” to a public official! Whereas the Buhari regime banned underage citizens from making the pilgrimage to Mecca, his second-in-command, the never-smiling Gen. Tunde Idiagbon, took his 14-year-old son on the same pilgrimage. He was on this pilgrimage when their regime was toppled by gap-toothed Ibrahim Babangida.

That was not all. Buhari served as Chairman of the Petroleum (Special) Task Force under the most despicable dictator the country has ever had, Gen. Sani Abacha. That, in itself, was unpardonable to many. Although there were question marks here and there over Buhari’s stewardship as PTF chairman, it was generally accepted that he performed better than many other public office-holders of his time. There were, and still are, many PTF projects from the Buhari days as PTF chairman that Nigerians can still remember or point at. Nevertheless, he was accused of favouring the North to the chagrin of the South in the allocation of resources/development projects.

Buhari is one man not afraid to express himself; no matter how unpopular or incendiary his views may be. In this way, he has made statements supporting – even inciting – one faith against another. So has he come to bag the appellation of a religious and fundamentalist bigot! He has made statements that have been interpreted to mean support for Boko Haram. When the insurgents thereafter chose the same Buhari to represent their interests as the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan fiddled with the idea of entering into negotiations with Boko Haram, many immediately concluded that, truly, Buhari was Boko Haram! That Buhari eventually spurned the Boko Haram offer did little to assuage the anti-Buhari feelings already engendered in some quarters.

That was the unenviable past that returned to haunt Buhari again and again – in 2003, 2007, and 2011 – when he sought to be president via the ballot box, until luck smiled on him the last time around in 2015. Does it, then, mean that Nigerians have forgotten Buhari’s past? Or have they forgiven him? Not really! Buhari won because his opponent, the then President Goodluck Jonathan, had to lose. Voters found themselves caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. It was a choice between two evils. And the people, disappointed in Jonathan because they believed he badly let them down even after they had invested so much faith and efforts in him, broke ranks with the Otuoke boy. The resolve to punish Jonathan was sterner than the urge to put Buhari at bay. Thus, protest votes were the major undoing of Jonathan. It was Jonathan who, by and large, dashed Buhari the presidency on a platter.

This, however, is not to say that Buhari did not have certain factors of his own also running in his favour. Against a Jonathan government seen to be very lax in tackling run-away corruption and impunity, Buhari, with his military-era image of a no-nonsense leader, coupled with his reputation for frugal or near-ascetic living, became hot cake. These were the deciding factors in the last election – perhaps, more than political parties, party manifestos, and campaigns. Fear of what could become of Nigeria in another four years of the same shenanigans under Jonathan drove many into Buhari’s arms. Confronted with Buhari’s inglorious past and the grim prospects of a likely capsizing of the ship of State if Jonathan’s tenure was renewed, the citizens considered the former the lesser of two evils and embraced it.

This choice, understandable as it is, has its complications. The messianic toga bestowed on Buhari, and which he has gleefully accepted and exuberantly donned, will be problematic… Wherever it took firm roots, the cult of the Omnipotent leader was a disaster waiting to happen. Where leaders see themselves as messiah; where they appropriate all the wisdom unto themselves; where they alone know all the answers and have all the solutions; where, in their reckoning, no one else is capable and competent; where everything grounds to a halt when they are not around; and when the nation goes to sleep each time the leader goes to bed, then, the nation is done for!

When the people see their leader as a messiah, three things happen. One: They abdicate their civic duties and responsibilities and go to sleep. This is a sure recipe for dictatorship. Two: They have unreasonably high expectations as they expect the leader to simply wave a magic wand for decade-old, deeply-ingrained problems to simply vamoose into thin air. Three: They are impatient and unrealistic with their demands. We have seen all of these already at play with the exasperation of the citizenry with Buhari so early in the life of his administration. Witness the controversies that trailed what was promised and what was not in Buhari’s first 100 Days in office!

We have also witnessed early signs of creeping fascism. The delusion that Messianic leaders suffer gravitate them inexorably in the direction of dictatorial tendencies; especially so in societies such as ours where institutions are weak and checks and balances exist more in theory than in practice. We can now see the point that the United States President Barack Obama was making when he counselled Nigeria to build strong institutions and not strong personalities. Strong personalities in the absence of strong institutions breed abuse and lead to the tyranny of power…”

That was eight years ago! Buhari, today, is at the end of his tenure. How has he fared: A truly converted democrat or a convoluted democrat? You may avert, avoid or arrest the judgement of man but no one is strong or smart enough to thwart the judgment of history. Like the Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castrol, stated in his famous allocutus in 1953, history absolves; it also condemns. As he begs Nigerians for forgiveness, I have for Buhari the inimitable admonition of God for Cain in Genesis 4: 7: “If you have done well, shall thou not be accepted?”

*Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.

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