There is something about Muhammadu Buhari that seems to appeal to many Nigerians. This, perhaps, has something to do with the persona he projects onto the public space – the image of an honest and self-disciplined man. This public identity appears to be reinforced by his slender tall frame, simple sartorial taste and unsmiling demeanour.
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 December 31, 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 sort 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 believe that Buhari would have fixed many of the problems in the country if he had not been toppled by Babangida in August 1985. The unsmiling retired General apparently believes so too, for he contested for the presidency in 1983 and 2003 on the platform of ANPP. From all indications, he will do so again in 2011 under the banner of Congress for Progressive Change – a political party he registered late last year.
Buhari’s quest for a second chance to run the affairs of the country however raises a number of issues:
One, despite a near consensus that he is an honest man, some of Buhari’s political mistakes as Head of State will most likely continue to haunt him and stand on the way between him and his ambition. As Head of State for instance, Buhari 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. It was the first time in our political history that the two highest offices in the land would come from the same political region and religion. This apparent ignorance or lack of sensitivity (or both) of the country’s main fault lines means that Buhari remains deeply distrusted in the political South and by non-Muslims.
While everyone makes mistakes, what has been surprising to many political observers is that Buhari does not seem to have made any conscious effort to show that some of the things that happened when he was Head of State were honest mistakes – despite the fact that ethnic/religious watchers capitalised on these to engineer a legitimacy crisis that paved the way for Babangida to ease him out in August 1985. For instance Buhari appeared not to understand that the prolonged media speculations that he was working to pick Bola Tinubu, a fellow Muslim, as his running mate, was only reinforcing a certain stereotype of him, which would do him no good, especially in the political South, and among non-Muslims. Buhari also seems not to have worked on his body language, which continues to suggest some unease in the company of Nigerians from other sections of the country.
It is instructive that the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a man who is well respected for his intelligence and self-discipline, committed the same grievous political error in 1979 when he chose Philip Umeadi, a Christian Igbo, to be his running mate. It is true that Abiola won in June 1993 with a Muslim-Muslim ticket. I remain however unconvinced that the regime would have been a success if the mandate was actualised, given the depth of the religious chasm in the country.
Two, it is also not exactly clear whether Buhari really wants to win political power in the current civilian dispensation or is merely enamoured by protest politics. It is axiomatic that you first need to win or capture power before you can use it to transform the society. Does Buhari really believe that his political party - registered only in late 2009 and without clear structures on the ground or sources of funds to effectively compete in the elections - will be able to supplant the existing political parties, whatever their shortcomings? One would have expected a politician really interested in becoming the President of the country to fight from a party with a realistic chance of winning at the polls. In this context, it was surprising that in the reported merger/coalition talks between his newly formed party and AC, Buhari was giving conditions as if he was doing AC favours rather than the other way round.
Three, there are also legitimate questions about why Buhari wants to be a civilian President. Some cynics have averred that Buhari and Babangida are in the race simply out of ‘me-tooism’ – because another former military Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo, also ruled as a civilian President. The argument here is that the candidacies of Buhari and Babangida are no more than a continuation of the inter-Generals’ feuds that led to coups and counter coups during our prolonged experience with military rule. Other critics blame it on boredom among the retired Generals.
Whatever may be their real (as opposed to their declared reasons) for joining the presidential race, I do not subscribe to the view that they should be banned from contesting on the grounds of their perceived misdeeds while in office – unless of course they are disqualified by the Electoral Act. In fact those hiding under various banners to agitate for the banning of some candidates from running – including Buhari and Babangida - are greater threats to our democracy than these candidates because of the illogic in trying to use a combination of anarchical means and hypocritical grand-standing to purportedly defend the democratic space.
While I believe that Buhari and others should enjoy the same rights all of us have - to vote and be voted for - we need to sharpen our interrogation of their reasons for wanting the highest office in the land, which they had already enjoyed the privilege of occupying before. For Buhari, his manifesto has never been more than a populist rhetoric about the need to fight corruption and indiscipline. While these two malaises are admittedly pervasive in our society, they are in fact mere symptoms of a larger problem, rather than the causes of our current challenges. In this respect, candidate Buhari needs to develop a coherent and feasible manifesto that will pose and answer the ‘what’, ‘how’ ‘when’ and ‘why’ questions around the issues of our federalism, the appropriate number of federating units, fiscal federalism, economy, security, unemployment and education. He also needs to convince his supporters that he is really in this race to win and not for another consolation prize of ‘also ran’.