By President Muhammadu Buhari’s own admission, he is a “converted” democrat. That statement itself is a direct admission that there was a time when the man was something else 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 government thereby bringing to an end the Second Republic. That date was December 31st, 1983. Therefore, in the history (or “Black Book”) of the travails of democratic governance in Nigeria, Buhari’s name features prominently, albeit ingloriously, as one of those 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 of corruption and innumerable acts of impunity. Moreover, the Buhari military government was business-like, 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 dare to drop refuse anyhow. It is therefore not surprising that there are many Nigerians who still hold the short period of Buhari’s rule as the golden age of military rule in Nigeria; and who still feel that had that regime continued much long in office and not been overthrown by a deceitful regime that wasted no time in rolling back its achievements, Nigeria would have been a better country today.
Nevertheless, the Buhari regime had its drawbacks – so many of them! 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 vice, 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. Till date, Buhari has not offered any plausible explanation for this action that, in retrospect, has cost the entire country dearly. The regime also initiated many unpopular policies, such as the retroactive decree on drug peddling that got three citizens executed 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 in the stable of The Guardian newspapers, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were sent to prison for publications “embarrassing” to a public official! Whereas the Buhari regime banned underage citizens from making the pilgrimage to Mecca, his second-in-command, never-smiling 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 is not all. Buhari served as Chairman of the Petroleum (Special) Task Force under the most despicable dictator the country ever had, Sani Abacha. That, in itself, was unpardonable to many. But 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 to. 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, he always musters the courage and has the temerity to express them. In this wise, he has made statements supporting – to some, inciting – one faith against another. So has he come to bag the appellation of a religious 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.
This 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. 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 manifestoes, 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 – and which is what this intervention is all about. The messianic toga bestowed on Buhari, and which he has gleefully accepted and exuberantly donned, will be problematic if nothing is quickly done about it. 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 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 Barak 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.
The Nigerian president is touted as perhaps the most powerful in the entire universe; used recklessly and without assured control, his immense power, which has equal capacity to build as well as destroy, will lean more in the direction of the latter. Knowing this, we must resolve to ensure that Buhari, indeed every Nigeria leader from now going forward, deploys the awesome arsenal at his disposal to build and not burn the country. To achieve this, I suggest the following: One, no leader should see himself, act or be seen as a messiah because none is and none will ever be. We are all humans and infallible. None is the sole repository of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding; but together, rubbing minds and giving everyone his due, we will move this nation in the right direction. Two: The principles of checks and balances and separation of powers amongst the three arms of government i.e. the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary must be respected in theory as well as in practice. Three: Our federalism, including the principles of federal character and fiscal federalism, must be respected without sacrificing merit. Four: Constitutional democracy frowns at the imposition of military-style sole administratorship at federal, state, and council levels at the detriment of Constitutionally-prescribed organs and or regular elections. Five: Leaders at all levels must see themselves as servants and not lords. Every leader is elected\appointed to serve and not lord it over the people. This they should do diligently and at reasonable cost to the common purse. Six: The rule of law, as opposed to arbitrariness or rule of the thumb, must be enthroned. Public lynching of any sort is anathema to the rule of civilised conduct. Finally, leaders must be fair to all without discrimination on any account, be it race, creed, social status or political affiliation. The golden rule here must be to do other others what we wish they do unto us.
A one-time Minister of the Federal Republic was fond of telling this writer that governance is like the game of tennis: When it is the turn of Player A to serve, Player B is at the receiving end. Soon, however, it becomes the turn of Player B to serve and Player A is at the receiving end. If leaders take this to heart while in power, they will least behave like Almighty God who alone is infallible and whose tenure has no end.
BOLAWOLE, one-time Editor of The PUNCH, writes via firstname.lastname@example.org.