Deconstructing Buhari

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Recent press reports and the reading of the body language of APC’s leaders seem to suggest that the party is zeroing on Muhammadu Buhari as its ‘consensus’ presidential candidate. While I cannot claim to know General Buhari or even to have met him in person, it is possible to deconstruct him from the information about him that is available in the public domain.

I am aware of the risks. For Buhari’s teeming supporters, who deify him and believe he can do no wrong, how can you go about the business of deconstructing a deity, which in layman’s language, could include unflattering interpretations of their hero?

For Buhari’s supporters, any criticism of their idol earns you the moniker of  a ‘Buhari hater’, as if we all have an obligation to support him or  that just the mere fact of interpreting an action about him in unflattering terms equates to hatred.  For die-hard Buhari critics, everything the man has ever done in his life has a hidden Islamic and northern agenda. This sort of reductionism is as problematic as the uncritical cult adulation he enjoys mostly in the Muslim north

While Buhari may mean many things to many people, there appears to be consensus about his honesty and incorruptibility. Buhari himself easily projects this persona onto the public space – a persona that is reinforced by his slender, tall and erect frame with an unsmiling demeanour to match.  Buhari is believed be so ascetic that he even rations his smiles frugally.

As military Head of State, Buhari is credited with one of the most patriotic sentiments ever uttered by any Nigerian Head of State. On coming to power on 31 December 1983, via a military coup, he made a clarion call for unity and patriotism, declaring that “this generation of Nigerians and indeed future generations have no other country than Nigeria. We shall remain here and salvage it together.” This invocation of nationalism was later captured in a biopic in which the character Andrew was caricatured for cowardly seeking to ‘check out’ of the country instead of staying behind to help salvage it from its numerous challenges. The Andrew jingle was a big boost to Buhari’s image as a patriot. On March 20, 1984, the Buhari regime launched what it called ‘War Against Indiscipline’ (WAI), which was to come in phases, with the first phase emphasising a queue culture. The initial successes of WAI, coupled with the wide disenchantment with the overthrown political class, added another fillip to Buhari’s (and Idiagbon’s) already growing images as sorts of junior messiahs. Though the goodwill was squandered in less than one year of coming to power, (even the regime’s signature WAI had begun to lose steam by the time the second phase was launched), there are still many Nigerians who passionately believe that Buhari would have fixed many of the problems in the country if he had not been toppled by Babangida in August 1985. Abstracting the initial successes of the queue culture of Buhari’s WAI to interrogate our current circumstances of apparent lawlessness and its attendant nostalgia is a favourite past time of ‘Buharimaniacs.’ The truth however is that Buhari’s era was more complex than that, with several mistakes along the way. His current label (or mislabel) as a religious fundamentalist also stemmed from the mistakes of that era.

I strongly believe that Buhari meant very well as Head of State but he made several mistakes some of which provided ammunition to his army of critics. For instance in a country where identity politics is very salient, Buhari as Head of State committed the ‘mortal political sin’ of constituting a Supreme Military Council (SMC) of 19, with 12 of these coming from the North, and 11 of them being Muslims. He also chose Tunde Idiagbon, a fellow northerner and Muslim, as his deputy. Apart from the civil war era in which Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a Christian was the de factor Vice President, while Gowon, also a Christian, was the Head of State, it was the first time in our political history that the two highest political offices in the land would come from the same political region and religion. The labelling of Buhari as a religious fundamentalist by ethnic/religious watchers stemmed from this singular error or naiveté.

I would have liked that Buhari’s recent attempt to show that he is not a religious fanatic as he is painted by his critics – which I honestly believe he is not – addressed the reasons why that label was stuck on him in the first place. Mentioning that in the three times he ran for president he chose Christian running mates is not a robust enough defence in my opinion.  By convention in this country, a Northern Muslim presidential candidate has to pick a Christian from the south  – just like a Christian presidential candidate from the south is expected to pick a vice presidential running mate from the north. So picking Christian running mates does not prove or disprove anything.

Apart from the mistake he made as a 42-year Head of State in the constitution of the Supreme Military Council, another major reason why that label was stuck on him was not of his own making. He is adored and deified by ordinary people in mostly the Muslim north.  Unfortunately one of the challenges of charismatic leadership in a highly polarized country like ours is that no leader enjoys universal legitimacy across the traditional fault lines. In fact a leader with cult followership from one of the fault lines immediately attracts the suspicion of other members of the out-group. Thus when such a charismatic leader tailors a message to his supporters, it is viewed dimly by the others, who may often feel disconnected, if not threatened by such a message. This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons Buhari’s label as a Muslim fundamentalist persists. Almost all the heroes of the different ethnic nationalities in the country such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the West, Ojukwu in the East,   Sarduana in the North and Adaka Boro in Rivers state – faced such problems. Was there anything Buhari could have done to avoid or stem such labelling?

I respectfully disagree with the retired Genera that he had done all he could to discountenance the label of religious fundamentalist. My opinion is that as someone who was once Head of state, had Buhari set up think tanks – just as Obasanjo did with his Obasanjo Leadership Forum after his first coming – or had he been more actively involved in resolving conflicts at the national and regional levels after he was overthrown as Head of State – as Obasanjo and Abdulsalam do – his pan Africanist credentials would have been buoyed, and would have eclipsed any religious or ethnic labelling.

A concern I have with a Buhari presidency is not just whether he will herd everyone to jail as he devotes excessive energy in a single-minded fight against corruption, but that he will end up spending all available time in fighting what is merely the symptom of a more fundamental problem. In my opinion, the fundamental problem of the country is not corruption but resolving the crisis in our nation-building processes. This requires not a warrior but a father figure and a consensus builder in the mould of Mandela and Julius Nyerere. Does Buhari have this trait in him?

In his first coming as Head of State, Buhari’s regime was fighting virtually all the social forces in the society – labour union, student leaders, academics, journalists and even the civil service where massive sacking of civil servants – started by Murtala Muhammed-   had the unintended effect of creating much of the problems in the service today. True, Buhari is no longer a soldier and age may have also have tempered his other radical inclinations.  However I believe that  one of the ways he can allay fears of his presidency  is to convince us  that he can be a, a consensus builder,  that in his messages and the manner in which such messages are delivered, the target is not just his die-hard supporters  but even those who cannot stand him. Certainly the retired General’s credentials as incorruptible and honest are virtues. However these are insufficient to meet the challenges of the 21stcentury Nigeria. Much more will be expected of him if he emerges as APC’s candidate and hopes to unseat President Jonathan.

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