On Buhari-phobia and the 2015 elections

Shehu ShagariPhotos9_July2.09

No matter how one looks at it, 2015 is Nigeria’s year of destiny. It is the year when the electorate will again decide the fate of the contestants for executive and legislative positions at the federal and state levels. It is the year when the voters will either extend the PDP’s 16-year unbroken hold on power or give the opposition a chance to approach the challenges facing our country from a new angle. Curiously, it is also the year that the apostles of doom expect Nigeria to disintegrate.

It is against the backdrop of the challenges facing our country that I consider the energy expended inflaming ethno-religious antagonisms at best, distracting, at worst, counter-productive. If the case against a particular region rests on solid grounds, it would be difficult if not impossible to dismiss. However, most of the commentaries on why the North should take a sabbatical from the presidency tend to be inconsistent, at times, downright petty and mean. One minute, the North is the problem; the next it is a particular Northerner, Muhammadu Buhari, that the commentators can’t stand. At yet another (particularly, when the hate-mongers are reminded that other Northerners, like Atiku Abubakar and Nuhu Ribadu, did contest the office of president before but never made it), the argument is likely to turn Islamophobic. In other words, the Northerners’ Islamic faith becomes the excuse for keeping them at arms’ length. In my humble opinion, the time spent harping on the North-South divide (and the hitherto unknown Muslim-Christian animosity) ought to be devoted to a diligent search for solutions to our country’s myriad and rapidly accreting challenges. I shall return to this topic later.

In the interim, let me demonstrate the futility of efforts at demonizing particular ethnic groups and/or individual personalities to the detriment of rational discourse. I shall focus on the attacks directed at former Head of State, Muhammadu Buhari (hereafter referred to as Buhari or MB). Worried by the prospects of a Buhari presidency, his critics have left nothing undone to halt his advance. One method is to exhume MB’s alleged past misdeeds and hold them aloft for all to see, thereby triggering mass hysteria. Who, instance, would not cringe at the prospect of a Nigerian president with ethno-regional, Islamic fundamentalist, and authoritarian antecedents, along with a tendency to curtail, if not completely annul, civil liberties? Another method is to blow up a word or phrase deemed offensive in a comment attributed to MB. The hate mongers have given little thought to the likelihood of the loud, persistent, and vitriolic attacks on Buhari confounding issues and bewildering the electorate ahead of the momentous decision it is expected to take in 2015.

They (the hate mongers) probably do not care about the consequences of their action. Employing subtle imagery and appealing to emotions, they appear bent on waging a smear war on Buhari as the later waged a soldier’s war on corruption and indiscipline in the 1980s. Yet, none of the allegations against MB accurately defines him as a person let alone provide a guide as to how he is likely to behave if elected to the office of President and Commander-in-Chief. Take for instance, the accusations that he presided over a regime noted for trampling on civil liberties and for egregious human rights violations. Was it not the Buhari/Idiagbon regime that drafted and promulgated Decree Number 4 making it an offence to publish unsubstantiated and embarrassing stories about the government? The Buhari-Idiagbon regime it was that ordered the incarceration of two journalists (Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor), and enacted decrees imposing stiff penalties for drug trafficking, money laundering, and other economic crimes. It also authorized the abduction of Umar Dikko in London to face corruption charges at home.

Regrettably, the critics of the Buhari regime have failed to do the needful—that is, place their assessment of the regime within the appropriate historical context. This was a regime that came into being at the height of public angst over the civilian government’s perceived failure to arrest Nigeria’s economic decline and to wage a credible war on corruption. On taking over from the civilians, the military regime pledged not only to tackle the mammoth fiscal and macro-economic challenges facing Nigeria but also to confront the corruption bogey head-on. How can any regime effectively tackle corruption without stepping on anybody’s toes? Ask China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia how they did it. The answer you are likely to get is that corruption forces are too formidable, too well-organized and too determined to be fought with kid gloves.

To return to Nigeria, a genuinely corrective regime must correct. And to correct, it must be ready to offend. This was the Buhari-Idiagbon “sin”—it went all out to correct obvious failings but did not seek anyone’s permission or consent to proceed. This was also one lesson it did not quickly learn—that Nigerians want change so long as they are not the ones required to change their mindset or their habits. As the regime’s belt-tightening measures began to bite, our compatriots began to miss the bad old days. They missed the days when they could piss on national monuments at will, cart off and sell NEPA cables just for the fun of it, push mind-bending drugs in schools and at town squares and expect the law to look the other way, and ridicule codes of orderly conduct in public places.

It is indeed gracious of MB that he has not once tried to evade responsibility for all the measures instituted on his watch. He does not have to, since the measures were geared towards putting Nigeria back on track. Within its short life span, the Buhari regime stood up to the IMF/World Bank, rejected the Breton-Woods institutions’ structural adjustment loan along with the conditionalities, waged a credible war on corruption and indiscipline, put drug barons and drug pushers on notice, plugged budget leakages, vetoed wasteful spending, enforced fiscal discipline, implemented a barter trade policy to facilitate the importation of capital goods and spare parts, and kept the economy afloat in spite of falling commodity prices and foreign exchange earnings. As the experience of Uganda revealed, the barter trade policy would have yielded greater long-term benefits if in implementing it, the career civil service had enlisted the services of experts in commodity exchange and price determination.

MB’s detractors are unlikely to be unimpressed with his regime’s achievements. Besides taking every available opportunity to belittle, or find faults with, the achievements, these detractors maintain that he should perish the thought of making the transition from military ruler (with near absolute power) to a civilian President (who would be obliged to share powers). Some even go as far as to completely rule out the chance of his ever becoming President in a civilian dispensation. According to the detractors, MB is too set in his ways to submit to checks and balances or to allow himself to be ensnared in the horse-trading that is an integral part of politics in democratic societies.

Whoever thinks that it is only among civilians that the principle of give-and-take prevails ought to read empirical studies on power struggle within the Nigerian military. I refer in particular to Robin Luckham’s The Nigerian Military: a Sociological Analysis of Authority and Revolt, 1960-67; MJ Balogun’s The Route to Power in Nigeria; and Nigerian Politics and Military Rule: Prelude to the Civil War, edited by S K Panterbrick. Whether it is at the coup-making stage or that of cabinet formation, the head of a military regime has to balance different constituency interests. BM’s critics would of course be right if their point is that there would be issues on which he would never compromise—issues on which he would not take political support if that requires giving away Nigeria’s abiding interest. The war on indiscipline and corruption was indeed one such deal-breaker, the one that pitted MB against a coalition intent on slowing down, if not halting, the regime’s anti-corruption momentum. The rest, as they say and as we know, is history.

Let me also address the recurrent but unfounded belief that MB is an unabashed champion of the Northern interest, howsoever defined. To buttress their argument, his critics cite the case of President Shehu Shagari who was simply placed under house arrest (presumably with 5-star service) while his deputy, Vice-President Alex Ekueme languished in a derelict prison away from home. I too nearly fell for this ploy until I met President Shehu Shagari face to face on 2nd July 2009 (see attached picture). If anybody thought that MB did the first Executive President and Commander-in-Chief a favour, s/he should find time to check with President Shagari. The impression I got while in Shagari town was that the first Executive President felt bitter over the treatment he received from his military successors. For months, our President had no access to members of his family. His movement was highly restricted. He not only lost the power and glory of his office, but the counsel and camaraderie of his lieutenants. Vice-President Alex Ekueme definitely fared worse than President Shagari but I doubt if that was any consolation to the then Number One citizen.

The hate mongers are unlikely to be appeased or disarmed—at least, not yet. If MB was not partial towards Shagari, and by implication to the North, how come he found no other person except another Northerner (in the person of the late Tunde Idiagbon) to fill the number two slot in the regime’s hierarchy? How can two Northerners between them occupy the two highest posts in Nigeria? An abomination! The hate mongers are wont to protest loudly. However, if these critics step back in time, and employ another one of their favourite power-sharing formulae (religious affiliation), they will quickly remember that two Christians, General, now Dr, Yakubu Gowon and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, did occupy two of the nation’s highest posts. At that time, the Muslims neither complained nor mounted a rear-guard action.

At any rate, the first two posts in the Buhari-Idiagbon regime might have been encumbered by two Northerners, but both did not constitute the regime. Others besides Buhari and Idiagbon served on the Supreme Military Council, the highest policy making body at the time. The Federal Executive Council (which supervised day-to-day implementation of the regime’s policy) comprised eminent personalities from different parts of Nigeria. Among them are Domkat Bali (Defence), Bukar Shuaib (Agriculture), Onaolapo Soleye (Finance), Mamman Vasta (FCT), Emmanuel Nsan (Health), Ibrahim Gambari (Foreign Affairs), Sam Omeruah (Information), Tam David-West (Energy), Chike Offodile (Justice), and Patrick Koshoni (Works).

Since a hate- or phobia-driven argument rests on shaky grounds, it keeps mutating. The critics of “the North” will never give the region the light of day until they realize that they have, through blind rage, shot themselves in the foot. After all, the North which they have grown to fear and loathe is not as monolithic as they intermittently imagine. The problem then is how to keep bashing the North without alienating potential allies within the region. The solution, as they see it, is to introduce the religious angle so as to stir up insurrection in the region. If painting the North in one single stroke looks like backfiring or simply not working, why not drive a wedge between the Christian populations of the Middle Belt and their Muslim counterparts in the “core North”? That seems to be the logic.

Really? If this is someone’s idea of a strategy–an anti-North strategy, to be precise–it is long overdue for a rethink. Regardless of how one may feel, the stability of Nigeria is closely intertwined with the stability of its constituent parts, the North included. If the North was stable (and Nigeria was calm), it is largely because the Christians and the Muslims subscribed to the principle of peaceful co-existence. If the North is suddenly on fire, as it appears to be right now, it is mainly because that principle has been subverted by elements given to bigotry and to cynical exploitation of diversity. Let the propagators of religious discord keep it up, and then watch even the hitherto religiously moderate South-West succumb to religious polarization–with its large Muslim populations getting increasingly distrustful of their Christian brethren. Fortunately, the Middle Belt is politically shrewd. It knows that if the Hausa-Fulani is perceived as a problem today, other linguistic groups (Birom, Tiv, Idoma, Igala, Jukun, Ebira, etc.) would be issues tomorrow. President Jonathan’s observation is highly instructive—there are no permanent friends but permanent interests!

There is no doubt that the introduction of the Sharia in parts of the North awakened in Christian populations feelings that lay dormant for generations. That act offended the religious sensibilities of non-Muslims. Yet, the acrimony that followed the introduction of the Islamic legal code would not have gotten out of hand if the debate had been duly moderated. All it takes is one unguarded or incendiary comment and all hell breaks loose. Someone issues a Sharia-oriented statement that accords with his faith; his/her opponent quickly twists it to score a political point. All of a sudden, anyone who says anything in support of the Sharia becomes a “Muslim fundamentalist”—one that is hell-bent on “Islamizing” non-Islamic communities. In no time, the Muslims shoot back by arguing that anyone who supports the declaration of Sunday as a work-free and church-going day is a Christian fundamentalist that is determined to Christianize non-Christians!

I have tried in vain to check the veracity of the claim that MB did enjoin upon Muslims to vote for none except other Muslims. Two wrongs never make a right. That some commentators mischievously label MB a “Muslim fundamentalist” does not justify asking Muslims to vote for Muslims. If MB ever made such a statement, I am pretty certain that he has reconsidered his position. His decision to pick Pastor Tunde Bakare as his running mate in 2011 should atone for the gaffe, if ever there was one. The God that the Christians and the Muslims worship is, after all, a forgiving God.

This still leaves one question unanswered. After three consecutive defeats at the poll, is this not the time for MB to pack it all up and move on? Are these defeats not enough signs that he could never win? The answer to that question is provided by a Canadian television advertisement: “Falling makes you stronger.” This brings me to our experience as human beings. Who among us took the first step without falling down? And did falling down stop us from standing up again, and again, and again—until our feet are firmly planted on the ground?

It is not the number of times we fall that matters, but the lesson that we learn when we are down as well as our resolve to do things differently when we get up. It was this lesson that brought Francois Mitterrand victory after endless trouncing at the hands of Charles de Gaulle. Kim Dae-Jung started vying for the office of South Korean President as early as 1971. Probably because of his Roman Catholic background in a predominantly Buddhist and Protestant Christian nation, or his trenchant criticisms of succeeding regimes, he did not realize his dream until 1998. He turned out to be the best president South Korea nearly missed having. He won the hearts of his former adversaries along with a Nobel Peace Prize.

The test of character in fact lies not in quitting after a setback but in remaining steadfast in face of all odds. A great leader sets out to accomplish a feat that others insist is beyond his/her capacity. As a matter of fact, all contestants for the office of president (or governor, or council chairman) need to go through the rigour of proving themselves. Without suffering defeats and humiliations, they will neither know true humility nor appreciate the value of the office they seek. If they do not appreciate the worth of the office, how can we expect them to spend their nights thinking about our welfare, and their wakeful hours deploying human, material and financial resources pursuing our best interests?

Professor Balogun is based in Canada. He is former Director-General, The Administrative Staff College of Nigeria and former Senior Adviser at the UN Headquarters, New York.

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