What Does Buhari Want?

What does Buhari want?

By Levi Obijiofor

IT is very difficult to understand Muhammadu Buhari, the former military head of state and former presidential candidate of the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP). It is even harder to determine whether Buhari's unpredictability should be classified as an element of human virtue or vice. You will understand why, shortly. In one moment, he would be saying the right things and in the next moment he would be saying things that would undermine the way the public views him.

In the political arena, Buhari is viewed as a dogged fighter. You only need to ask Olusegun Obasanjo and his hand-picked successor, Umaru Yar'Adua. Since his emergence as a soldier-turned-democrat, Buhari has refused to bow to his political opponents or to withdraw his election petition on the basis that his opponents asked him to sheathe his sword. Despite his doggedness in pushing his political dogma, fate has consistently served Buhari with humiliating defeats on a cold platter. Twice he contested presidential elections in 2003 and 2007 and twice he emerged first in the list of losers.

History has also not served Buhari well. When he ruled as head of state, with all the powers that military dictatorship could bestow on anyone, Buhari woke up one morning in late August 1985 with a bad headache. The government he led had been bundled out of office in a military coup led by Ibrahim Babangida. Buhari was ill prepared for the sad events that saw him lose power within two years of his overthrow of the democratically elected government of Shehu Shagari. When Buhari was toppled, many Nigerians celebrated in the streets in the same manner that everyone cried with joy when Shagari's bumbling government was toppled. On both occasions, Nigerians believed that any new government must be better than the government at the time.

In a sense, Buhari and his deputy - Tunde Idiagbon - contributed immensely to the demise of their regime. During their time, there were indiscriminate human rights abuses. Media houses were shut arbitrarily. Journalists were routinely harassed and threatened. Civil society was not spared. Buhari's "War Against Indiscipline" (WAI), the moral pillar on which he pegged the legality of his government, turned out unfortunately to be a war against the nation.

WAI was unpopular mostly because of the way it was executed. On paper, the idea was good. Indiscipline had taken a firm grip on the Nigerian society. However, the methods rolled out against indiscipline by Buhari's foot soldiers proved to be its downfall. Nigerians watched as the implementers of WAI became the law breakers while the implementation mechanism became too draconian. Every war must have a human face. Buhari's war against indiscipline lacked transparency, morality and sincerity.

Based on these antecedents, everyone was shocked when Buhari emerged from a long period of silence to announce that he was going into politics. It was difficult to understand how a man who had lived and worked in a system in which military decrees supplanted civil laws and the constitution could suddenly subject himself to democratic practices which included guarantees of freedom which were never tolerated in the previous military system.

For every question that was posed to him in regard to his political transformation, Buhari seemed to have a ready-made answer. First, he reminded his critics and hecklers that Olusegun Obasanjo, the man who led Nigeria from limited sunlight into total darkness, was once a military dictator who "successfully" shed his beliefs in military authoritarianism and transformed himself into an elected democrat. Second, Buhari also argued that, as a legitimate Nigerian without criminal record, he was entitled to participate in the political process and to seek election to any position that he wished.

These issues were evident in an interview he granted to the Hausa Service of the Voice of America radio program in early October 2008. In that interview, Buhari again reinforced his reasons for entering politics. He said: "I didn't join politics because I wanted to deal with dishonest people; rather I joined because of the downtrodden so that my voice will strengthen them in their agitation for their rights according to what the authorities ought to do for them... Therefore, whether they vote for me as President or not, whether they allow them to vote for me or not, they will not stop me from participating in active politics."

Sometimes Buhari undermined his cause by projecting himself as an artless politician. For instance, it was in the same Voice of America radio interview of last year that Buhari whinged endlessly about how he had been ignored by President Umaru Yar'Adua. His words: "He (Yar'Adua) has never called me; and he has never sent anybody to me to plead so that I withdraw the suit against him." He was referring to his suit which at that time was still pending in the Supreme Court.

Buhari's complaints bore the hallmarks of an angry man. Realistically, no president whose position is the subject of a legal challenge would, in his or her right mind, pick up the telephone and plead with his adversary to withdraw the legal objection. If a president did so, that president would have admitted openly that he was not the rightful winner of the election. Yar'Adua was smart enough not to call Buhari, even if it was public knowledge that Yar'Adua's election was riddled with many instances of electoral malpractices.

To many Nigerians, watching Buhari adapt to his new role as the defender of democracy is like watching a man spit out his phlegm and gently pick it up to swallow again (pardon this distasteful analogy). Just last month, at a forum in Abuja organised by the Coalition of Democrats for Election Reforms (CODER), I listened painfully to Buhari's rhetoric about his preparedness "not only to work but to die, pursuing what is right and is best for Nigeria". If you believe that Buhari or indeed any previous head of state would be prepared to lose his life in the campaign to change Nigeria, you will believe anything. After all, Obasanjo also talked about how he was prepared to lose his life in order to eliminate corruption from our doorsteps.

One of the reasons why many Nigerians continue to view Buhari with a great deal of suspicion and apprehension is his past record and his capricious nature. For instance, Buhari's views on national issues are often as impermanent and slippery as the colours of a chameleon. Just last year, Buhari, in concert with two former military dictators, defended Sani Abacha against allegations of corruption. In fact, Buhari said quite clearly that Nigeria should honour and commend Abacha rather than mock and desecrate the man's name.

In June 2008, Buhari joined Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar to exalt Sani Abacha, one of the most dreaded dictators in the history of military rule in Nigeria. In Kano at the 10th anniversary prayer session for Abacha, the three former military heads of state argued that Abacha did not loot the national treasury because no one had produced evidence to support the allegations. Buhari said: "All the allegations levelled against the personality of the late Gen. Sani Abacha will remain allegations. It is 10 years now, things should be over by now." Buhari's argument was that there should be a statute of limitation on the period when corrupt leaders should either be charged to court or be allowed to enjoy their fraudulent acquisitions.

In his defence of Abacha, Buhari also said: "When Gen. Sani Abacha came into power, he did four major things, which Nigerians will continue to remember him for... He came up with the idea of incorporating state governors into the National Council of State, he set up a tribunal to check unethical practices by banks and he also set up the Petroleum Trust Fund, which every Nigerian benefited from its activities."

What Buhari, the man who wants to be president, did not tell the nation was that he was the chairperson of the Petroleum Trust Fund during Abacha's era. When you tally these mystifyingly moral somersaults by Buhari with his unimpressive record as military dictator, you can understand why Buhari has consistently failed to crack the secret code of how to win presidential elections in Nigeria on two fronts: to win the hearts of voters or to join the political party most prepared to engage in audacious pre-election stuffing of ballot boxes or sheer manipulation of election results.