A Kinder, Gentler Buhari

Muhammadu Buhari has a second chance to prove to Nigeria that he can end corruption, revive the economy, and defeat Boko Haram. But to do so, he'll have to show his softer side.


The first time Muhammadu Buhari ruled Nigeria, he was a boyish, unsmiling, teetotaling, 41-year-old major general, invited to take office by a coterie of lower-ranking military officers who had just overthrown the elected civilian government of Shehu Shagari. Buhari was not a complete unknown commodity to Nigerians: He’d commanded the Third Division of the Nigerian Army and had overseen the Petroleum Ministry in the military government that had handed over power to Shagari four years earlier. Even still, his rise to head of state was a something of a surprise.

The coup took place in the waning hours of 1983, allowing Buhari, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, to emerge as a New Year’s gift of sorts to an unsuspecting nation. President Shagari had just begun his second term, following an election marred, like all others in Nigeria’s history, by vote rigging and violence. “The last general election was anything but free and fair. The only political parties that could complain of election rigging are those parties that lacked the resources to rig,” Buhari said in his inaugural speech on New Year’s Day 1984.

I was three months shy of my second birthday, and remember nothing of that era. What my peers and I know of this Buhari comes from the stories told by earlier generations to the tens of millions of Nigerians who weren’t alive the first time around. But now, the nearly 128 million Nigerians under the age of 30 will be able to judge Buhari for themselves.

In my mother’s retelling of one of the stories from that period, I have a starring role. In 1982, not too long before the coup, the government of Nigeria suffered a sharp drop in government revenues on account of a slump in global oil prices and the rising cost of foreign debt service. In response, the Shagari government imposed an “austerity” program, which included budget cuts, along with an “essential commodity” scheme that compelled citizens to queue outside designated centers for their allotted rations of imported rice, milk, cooking oil, and soap. My parents had only just returned to Nigeria after studying in Britain for several years, and apparently spent so much time talking about the rationing that I, just learning to speak, thought it fitting to tell anyone who cared to listen that my name was “Essential Commodity.”

When Buhari came to power, he continued with Shagari’s rationing program and his austerity-inflected economic policies, cutting down on imports and government expenditures, and trimming the civil service. Where the two governments differed was in their approaches to corruption. Unlike Shagari, who paid lip service to combating corruption, Buhari showed resolve, throwing dozens of allegedly crooked Shagari government officials into prison. His administration also launched a “War Against Indiscipline,” empowering soldiers and a special paramilitary corps to seek out and punish “everyday manifestations of indiscipline,” which included such minor infractions as littering, failing to form queues, inflating the prices of goods, and showing up late to work. The discipline campaign also applied to the press, whose freedom was curtailed by Decree 4 — making it an offense for journalists to publish anything “which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute.” Nigeria’s secret police, the National Security Organization, grew extremely powerful under the coordinating eye of Buhari’s deputy, Tunde Idiagbon.

It didn’t take long for Nigerians to tire of Buhari’s heavy-handedness, and there was palpable relief in August of 1985, when the same men who had brought him to power deposed him just as suddenly. He was replaced by his army chief of staff, Ibrahim Babangida, a major general from Niger state in the northwest, whose sunniness offered the perfect counterpoint to Buhari’s dourness. In his inaugural speech, Babangida accused Buhari of being “too rigid and uncompromising in his attitudes to issues of national significance” and Idiagbon of “arrogat[ing] to himself absolute knowledge of problems and solutions.”

Things started out well enough. Babangida emptied the jails of Buhari’s prisoners, and courted the press by annulling Decree 4. He continued the austerity program, but repackaged it as a homegrown “structural adjustment program” (SAP). Then in 1986, he did what previous governments had avoided: He unhitched the naira from its dollar peg, resulting in the most substantial devaluation in the currency’s history. In 1985, $1 U.S. officially exchanged for 0.89 naira. By 1990, the rate was $1 U.S. to 8 naira. Soon, the economy would crater. Nigeria, an import-dependent country, watched helplessly as prices soared and the real value of wages plummeted. An already beleaguered middle class bore the brunt of this pain, causing hordes of doctors, nurses, and academics to flee to North America and Europe in search of a better life. Industries reliant on dollar-denominated imports of raw materials and operating equipment found it increasingly difficult to survive. Babangida also quickly grew repressive, brutally putting down anti-SAP protests and abandoning his liberal attitude to the press. The promise of the Babangida era was rapidly dissipating.

In December 1988, Babangida freed Buhari, whom he had placed under house arrest since being forced from power. Buhari retired to a quiet life tending to his herd of cattle in his hometown in northern Nigeria. It was during this period, after watching the collapse of the Soviet Union, that he became convinced, he says, “that multiparty democratic system was and is still superior to despotism.”

Still, in 1994, he accepted an offer from dictator Sani Abacha, who had recently become Nigeria’s head of state following yet another palace coup, to head the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), a new government agency set up to invest proceeds from a partial removal of petrol subsidies into infrastructure. (Notably, it was Abacha who made the television broadcasts announcing the coups that both installed and deposed Buhari on Dec. 31, 1983, and Aug. 27, 1985, respectively). Buhari ran the PTF until Abacha’s sudden death in June 1998.

Since then, Abacha’s regime has been implicated in the systematic looting of Nigerian government funds; the Swiss government has in the last decade repatriated to Nigeria hundreds of millions of dollars from bank accounts linked to the Abacha family. But in spite of his service to Abacha’s corrupt government, Buhari has managed to maintain his reputation within the country as an honest and incorruptible man; it’s rare in Nigeria to see a retired army general with no links to Swiss bank accounts, oil blocks, or shares in large companies.

This status has been Buhari’s biggest political asset over the past decade. He ran for president in 2003, 2007, and 2011, ardently supported by the poor masses of northern Nigeria to whom he is “Mai Gaskiya,” or “the honest one” in the widely spoken Hausa language. It was only in his 2015 presidential run that he finally became, in the eyes of millions of Nigerians, the one best positioned to stand up to the vested interests that completely hijacked the outgoing government of his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. In a December 2014 letter to party delegates gathered in Lagos for his party’s presidential primary, he wrote, “I am not a rich person. I can’t give you a pocketful of dollars or naira to purchase your support. Even if I could, I would not do so. The fate of this nation is not up for sale.”

Buhari’s second-most formidable asset has been his ambition for the presidency. Indeed, all of Nigeria’s previously elected presidents — Shagari, Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua, and Jonathan — initially showed little zeal for the presidency, until the months leading to the elections that brought them to power. Shagari had his eyes on the Senate. Obasanjo had just emerged from prison after being jailed by Abacha in 1995 on trumped-up treason charges. Yar’Adua and Jonathan had other plans when the outgoing Obasanjo picked them as presidential and vice presidential candidates, respectively, of the ruling People’s Democratic Party.

The 72-year-old Buhari is the exception to this long-running rule of Nigerian politics. After his third loss in 2011, he pledged that he was done with presidential politics. But in 2012, he reversed course: “Even though I said at some stage that I wouldn’t present myself for candidature again … I remain in party politics as long as I have breath in me,” he declared in an interview that year. Shortly afterward, he led his party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) into the merger that produced the All Progressives Congress party (APC) — the coalition that enabled Buhari to finally capture the presidency.

Buhari’s acquiescence to the merger is proof of how much he — a man seen by military colleagues as “too rigid” — has changed in recent years. He ran his first three campaigns on the strength of political organizations largely defined by the cult of personality. But after placing a distant second on each occasion (with virtually all his votes coming from Nigeria’s 12 northernmost, Muslim-majority states), he seemed to realize the need to try a different approach: trading sole proprietorship of the CPC — ineffectual outside its northern Nigerian stronghold — for a stake in a better-organized and better-funded machine with broader appeal. Each of the four parties that merged brought some form of regional clout to the table.

The sacrifice has now paid off handsomely. On May 29, Buhari will be sworn in as president — the first opposition candidate for president to unseat an incumbent in Nigeria. He will also be only the second Nigerian, after Obasanjo, to rule Nigeria at two different times, first as military dictator and then as elected president. It turns out that some of those who most ardently supported him in the recent election were victims of his dictatorial rule.

Thanks to Jonathan’s halfhearted, visionless presidency, Buhari inherits a country in a situation so similar to 1984 it seems like déjà vu. As in 1984, he takes over from a corruption-ridden administration. And, as in much of the 1980s, global oil prices are plummeting, imperiling the Nigerian economy. And in yet another parallel, Buhari will likely draw on his reputation as a tough military leader to restore the confidence of Nigerians as the country continues to wage war on Boko Haram.

The first obstacle for Buhari: restoring a sense of self-respect to government. Nigerians expect him to run a government that, unlike the outgoing one, is neither given to executive nonchalance nor overly beholden to vested interests. But there is plenty of speculation surrounding how, against the backdrop of his stated determination to fight corruption, he will deal with those in the ranks of his powerful backers and campaign funders who have acquired a reputation for dirty dealing. He’ll also need to govern with a lighter touch. The first time around, as military dictator, Buhari ruled through a “Supreme Military Council” that combined executive and legislative powers. Now, the self-described “converted democrat” will need to work in cooperation with a parliament, as well as a judiciary and media that cannot be muzzled by military fiat. He also must balance the needs of the motley coalition of political blocs that delivered him to the presidency. That coalition includes politicians like Bola Tinubu and Kayode Fayemi, who earned their stripes agitating from abroad against the tyranny of the Abacha government, and for the restoration of democratic rule, at the same time that Buhari served Abacha in the PTF. There is also a powerful bloc of defectors from the People’s Democratic Party that has ruled Nigeria since 1999, without whom the APC would be a considerably weaker party.

Restoring good governance, however, will not address the major economic hurdles facing Nigeria. In Buhari’s first go at the presidency, his handling of the economy, in spite of its focus on fighting graft and waste, did little to improve the lives of ordinary people. Today, foreign reserves are at their lowest level in a decade, despite the fact that for most of Jonathan’s tenure oil prices were near their highest levels ever. Since July of last year, the price of oil — on which the country depends for three-quarters of government revenues — has been halved, dragging the federal budget down with it. Nigeria is also bleeding billions of dollars from alleged oil theft and opaque dealings with an array of private companies. Meanwhile, there are the many promises yet to be fulfilled — on infrastructure projects, social security, a public works program, the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs — none of which the country can afford at this time.

These challenges are all compounded by Nigeria’s deteriorating security situation, and a military demoralized by its long struggle to contain the threat of Boko Haram. But here, Buhari’s track record may serve him well. Boko Haram is, after all, only the latest incarnation of a brand of militant Islamic fundamentalism that first emerged under President Shagari, as a sect known as Maitatsine. Buhari himself had to deal with a Maitatsine uprising when he was head of state that left hundreds dead in Yola, a northeastern Nigerian city that Boko Haram came close to seizing last year. Buhari’s reputation as a decisive military leader also stems from an incident in 1983 in which, as the commander of a military brigade overseeing northeastern Nigeria, he repelled an invasion by Chadian soldiers, pursuing them deep into Chadian territory. Perhaps this is where Buhari should start: reminding Nigerians that he took care of them once before and can do it again. But with a few modifications.

Buhari 2.0 must be as strong as Buhari 1.0. But he must be willing to welcome the disagreement and diversity of opinion that are the stuff of democracy, even as he struggles to restore a sense of integrity to government and bring the economy back from the edge. Or else he’ll face consequences he’s quite familiar with. Just one generation ago, Nigerians only took a couple of months before growing tired of the change Buhari represented. Many are now wondering: How long will President Buhari get?

Photo Credit: Stringer

 Twitter: @toluogunlesi

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