Muhammadu Buhari’s emergence as the opposition challenger of this year’s polls has set the stage for a keen contest. Buoyed by a morale-boosting primary win, and with his street popularity now hitched to a well-oiled political machine, Buhari has a firm base upon which to mount his fourth presidential bid.
For sheer persistence, Buhari most resembles Obafemi Awolowo, who also serially sought national leadership unsuccessfully. Like Buhari, Awolowo was of somewhat ascetic bearing, Spartan self-discipline, inflexible will and dogged conviction in his worthiness for high office. However, despite his intellectual and administrative acumen, aspects of Awolowo’s political record undermined his chances of national leadership. His political platform was deemed too provincial to generate a national following. A similar limitation arguably accounted for Buhari’s previous electoral failures.
Unable to gainsay Buhari’s reputation for honesty, his adversaries have resorted to the favoured tactic of smearing him as an ethnic and a religious extremist – a bogus charge which endures because of some of Buhari’s own inopportune gaffes. This time though, the politics of smear and fear is of limited utility. The incumbent is running not only against Buhari but also against his own dismal presidential record.
The allegation that Buhari is a closet ethno-religious bigot is simply not borne out by his record as Head of State. Though he and his deputy, Major General Tunde Idiagbon, were both Muslims, they were favourably perceived by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). In his book, A Dangerous Awakening: The Politicization of Religion in Nigeria, Catholic priest and scholar, Iheanyi Enwerem cites a 1988 publication by CAN’s northern zonal chapter which hailed Buhari’s regime as the first to acknowledge “that the North was not predominantly Islamic.” It also expressed satisfaction with the fairness of Buhari’s political appointments and praised him for carrying out his war against indiscipline “without fear or favour.”
Ironically, Buhari’s most implacable opponent from the religious fold was the influential Islamic cleric Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, who earned the regime’s wrath for opposing its draconian punishment of Second Republic politicians. Arguably, the two principal victims of Buhari’s ascent to power were northern Muslims – the deposed President Shehu Shagari and his ally, Umaru Dikko, who very narrowly escaped being abducted from Britain by the regime’s agents to stand trial at home.
Unlike Awolowo who wrote prolifically, Buhari’s decades-long public career has yielded little literature in his name outlining his ideas, convictions and policy preferences. This literary deficit has aided the character assassins and libelous hacks commissioned to defame him. But this gap is offset by the fact that Buhari’s opponent is by no means a fecund intellectual colossus.
In a 2002 essay, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi coined the term “Buharism” to capture the ideals extrapolated from Buhari’s time as Head of State and argued that Buharism is an ideology of bourgeois nationalism that aims to replace a political economy dominated by parasitic elites beholden to global capital with a new order in which a nationalist and productive class gains ascendancy. Buhari certainly has the credentials to tackle elite impunity and the rent-seeking political culture that is now in kleptomaniacal overdrive. Indeed, the persistent slandering of Buhari as a bigot stems less from his occasional tin ear for Nigeria’s polyphonic diversity than from kleptocrats’ fears of a certain reckoning for their crimes should he clinch the presidency.
As a battle-tested infantry corps veteran, Buhari will surely frontally confront the terrorist insurgency that has killed conservatively over 9, 000 Nigerians, displaced over 1.5 million more and claimed vast swathes of Nigerian territory. As an officer who famously led a military incursion into Chad in pursuit of rebels, he will be especially concerned by the institutional weaknesses that have brought the armed forces into disrepute. Having crushed the Maitatsine insurgency as Head of State, he will certainly bring a warrior’s resolve to the office of the commander-in-chief. Regarding the key issues of security and corruption, Buhari’s record is compelling.
Buhari’s near obsessive focus on graft may be an insufficient critique of all that ails Nigeria but his unequivocal anti-corruption stance is a welcome departure from the incumbent’s bizarre insistence that corruption is not Nigeria’s problem or his much lampooned attempt to articulate a little known distinction between corruption and stealing. Buhari’s policy-lite deportment suggests that his main interest is cleansing the Augean stables. Restoring propriety to public life is vital. But his party has an impressive cast of policy wonks and its campaign battle cry of security and jobs is gratifyingly current.
Buhari’s support is more pan-Nigerian than in previous campaigns. Popular disgust with the incumbent’s ineptitude competes favourably with whatever phobia for Buhari that the ruling party can marshal. Opposing partisans have taken to feverishly reminding Nigerians of Buhari’s previous failed candidacies. Their frenzied negative attacks are telling. Rarely have so much time and effort been expended to convince an electorate that an aged “serial loser” that supposedly has no chance will lose again.
Those who argued before the primaries for a younger opposition candidate than Buhari (as I did) had a point. But clearly the incumbent is not an advertisement of the radiant possibilities of youth. Given the available options, Buhari, warts and all, is the viable alternative. The resort to a figure who last led Nigeria thirty years ago indicates the scale of our predicament. That liberal elites who ordinarily should be opposed to an ex-dictator have made common cause with him suggests that we have reached that nadir at which extreme necessity sires creative expediency. This may not be the contest we want but it is the contest we deserve.