Nigeria: The shattering of the Buhari mythology

The reality of leadership has exploded the illusion of Buhari’s messianic abilities and exposed him as a prisoner of power – in other words, as just another politician.

Has Buhari's image as an ascetic, no-nonsense figure been broken? Credit: SaharaReporters.

Has Buhari lost his image as an ascetic, no-nonsense leader? Credit: SaharaReporters.

[This article was voted African Argument of 2016 by nearly 600 readers at the end of the year.]

Having been carried to the presidency on a wave of optimism last year, President Muhammadu Buhari’s time in office has been characterised by a trio of crises: an economy on the brink of recession; escalating militancy in the Niger Delta; and worsening power supply.

As the economy has imploded, the only bright spots in Buhari’s first 15 months have been modest gains in the struggle against corruption and the fight against Boko Haram.

[See: Boko Haram is not “defeated” but Buhari’s strategy is working]

The president took amidst a flurry of flamboyant promises, some of them so fantastical and unnecessary that many wondered why Buhari would wrap – and trap – himself in such unsustainable obligations. Elections are about promises, but the now ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) got caught up in its own rhetoric and refused, against all economic indicators, to alter its pledges. As a result the party came to power preoccupied with managing expectations instead of the country.

The unpreparedness that plagued the early months of the Buhari administration – exemplified by the fact it took seven months to name a cabinet – reflected its inability to bear the weight of promises made. And the sense of disillusionment that has now enveloped swathes of Nigeria stems from this unnecessary self-burdening as well as the government’s failure to articulate a compelling vision.

In the course of his short time in office, Buhari’s image as an ascetic and empathetic figure has disappeared, and he has shown a disturbing lack of initiative, creativity and new thinking in government, belying his inspiring pre-election rhetoric.

In momentous elections last year, Nigerians voted the incumbent out of power for the first time ever as millions enthusiastically put their faith in Buhari to transform the country. But sadly, it seems that the optimistic narrative about the former military leader and his first stint of power in 1983-5 these voters were buying into was little more than a myth.

[See: Not much magic: Nigeria’s Buhari completes his first year in office]

Broken promises

Buhari campaigned on a platform of ending waste and restoring probity, efficiency, and transparency. But when opportunities have presented themselves for him to underscore his professed opposition to the profligacy of the 16-year rule of the now-opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Buhari has failed to seize them.

To begin with, Buhari went back on his pledge to sell off some of the ten aircraft that make up the presidential fleet. That reversal may seem trivial, but it proved to be the start of a more brazen disregard for promises made.

For a president whose calling card was transparency and personal integrity, Buhari’s attempt to abandon his promise to publicly declare his assets within his first hundred days in office was perplexing. The president’s media team tried to disavow, dilute, and postpone the promise before sustained public pressure forced him to fulfill it. Yet the released document was a mere summary of his assets, not the declaration form he had submitted to the Code of Conduct Bureau. His reluctance and continued failure to make the full form public feeds a perception that the president is insincere.

Earlier this year, this feeling deepened as bureaucrats and the president’s own kitchen cabinet crafted a budget choked full of scandalous allocations to the presidency, ministries and government agencies, including hundreds of millions of Naira for a zoo in the presidential palace and a vice-presidential library budget larger than the library budgets of all but two federally funded higher institutions. When the news broke, Buhari fumed and threatened to punish those he claimed had “padded” the budget with extraneous and unjustified items.

[See: Nigeria: Buhari’s 2016 budget continues use of secretive ‘security votes’]

But curiously, the presidency’s spokespeople defended the budget and the punitive action never materialised. A few senior civil servants were redeployed and the final budget still contained many questionable allocations.

Recently, perceptions of the president’s commitment to the ideals on which he ran for the presidency have been further undermined as two illegal recruitment scandals have unfolded in quick succession: one at the Central Bank, the other at the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS).

In both, prominent APC figures and government officials were accused of using their influence to award positions to supporters without due process. In the Central Bank scheme, the president’s own nephew was among the beneficiaries. And in the FIRS scandal, a leaked list contained several individuals linked to “Baba” and “Mama”, codenames that the muckraking news website, Sahara Reporters, speculates refer to the president and his wife.

Buhari has yet to refute this allegation, nor has he commented on the allegations around fraudulent recruitment.

Meanwhile, the president’s chief-of-staff, Abba Kyari, has been accused, along with other prominent officials, of blocking investigations into the fraudulent affairs of Sahara Energy, a local oil company reported to have skimmed billions of dollars off Nigeria’s oil revenues. And the Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai, and Minister of Internal Affairs, General Abdulrahman Danbazzau, have also been implicated in scandals, with documentary evidence emerging of them acquiring multi-million-dollar real estate well beyond their legitimate incomes. The presidency continues to back them and has not ordered an investigation.

Lost lustre

Along with this drip-drip of scandal and inexplicable inaction, Buhari has added numerous broken promises in other areas.

During the campaign, the president vowed never to raise the price of petrol, to revamp domestic oil refining capacity, and reduce the price of fuel at the pump, an item upon which the price of everything else hinges in Nigeria’s petrol-driven economy. Buhari also promised never to devalue the naira, thumping his nose at pragmatic counsel that argued the currency should not be artificially propped up at a time when Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings had dwindled.

But the president has since broken both promises, raising the price of petrol from N85 to N145 a litre, and allowing the Nigerian Central Bank to float the Naira against major currencies. Inflation, which had already eclipsed all projected baselines due to the government’s restrictions on foreign exchange and arbitrary import restrictions, has soared.

This eventuality was perhaps inevitable, but the question many are asking is: why did Nigerians have to go through a year of painful economic restrictions, stagnation and inflation only for the government to embrace the pragmatic path of currency devaluation it earlier rejected?

This unexplained U-turn reeks of confusion, indecision, and experimentation on the part of the government. Nigeria seems to have become one giant economic laboratory where Buhari and his economic managers are lurching awkwardly from one idea to another in the hope that one of them works – all at the expense of a Nigerian people increasingly impoverished in an environment of policy uncertainty and outmoded economic measures.

As a candidate for the presidency, Buhari was renowned for his ascetic lifestyle and austere simplicity. But as president, this image is in peril too. Despite his pledge to put an end to health tourism, he recently spent (as the presidency confirmed) £6 million ($8 million) of Nigeria’s money at a time of revenue squeeze to treat an ear infection in London.

From the heights of modesty, Buhari has descended into self-indulgence and now resembles an ostentatious stereotype of the self-absorbed African autocrat. When he returns from his overseas trips, he is welcomed back to the country with elaborate and expensive airport ceremonies complete with military parades, Scottish kilts, and bagpipes that remind one of Idi Amin’s outlandish neo-imperial buffoonery. No one thought that we would be seeing this re-enactment in 2016, let alone by a president with a reputation for being a simple man of the masses.

In his election campaign, Buhari also presented a conciliatory, even self-deprecatory, demeanour. Yet this image as an avuncular and wise statesman has been undone by his blustery, self-righteous anger in office, as he has taken a law-and-order, take-no-prisoners approach to all problems –  even those requiring tact and negotiating acumen.

When the Nigerian army massacred hundreds of Shiites in Zaria, the president waxed belligerent and blamed the victims for creating “a state within a state”, provoking the army, and bringing calamity upon themselves. It took Buhari several weeks after the Agatu massacre in March to issue, through his media team, a tepid statement devoid of compassion. And his only response to date to the killing of unarmed Biafra agitators by the armed forces was to dismiss their agitation without even a word about the impropriety of confronting unarmed demonstrators with maximum military force.

Furthermore, before Niger Delta militants demonstrated their sophisticated ability to destroy surface, subterranean, and underwater oil pipelines, the president was threatening a scorched earth response to their renewed insurgency and ordering a military invasion of communities suspected to be harbouring the militants.

Buhari and the Murtala mythology

In The Trouble with Nigeria, Chinua Achebe’s little analytical book on Nigeria’s socioeconomic and political dysfunction, the great author writes about Murtala Mohammed, Nigeria’s military ruler in the mid-1970s who was assassinated only six months into his regime. By time of his demise, Achebe contends, the messianic aura that once surrounded Murtala had already begun to wane, but the late leader was, to quote commentator Chris Ngwodo, “immortalized by an early death or saved by martyrdom from eventual odium.”

Murtala, according to Achebe, did not live long enough to commit the inevitable errors of military men who try to manage a complex society with a regimented military philosophy. Instead, he suggests that Murtala’s premature death elevated him to a mythical status, generating a rarely-challenged or scrutinised nostalgia that fetishised his tough, anti-corruption stance.

Like Murtala, Buhari ruled only for a short time in his first stint in power from 1983-5, during which he made some errors common to military leaders. But he did not rule long enough to fully prove himself either competent or incompetent and for the full effect of his draconian policies to manifest. As a result, even though some celebrated his ouster, many others were ambivalent and yearned for the order and discipline – real and imagined – that Buhari’s military regime brought after years of chaotic civilian rule.

This feeling intensified during the corrupt regime of Ibrahim Babangida, Buhari’s successor, as some Nigerians who had hated being corralled and infantalised by Buhari’s soldiers and policies came to believe that a strong man might be what Nigeria needed after all.

Buhari was reimagined in the public consciousness, his regime mythologised as a rare period of competent governance, and as time passed, many began to wonder aloud what Nigeria would be like if Buhari’s military regime had not been overthrown. Perhaps, some suggested, Nigeria would be another South Korea and corruption would be a thing of the past.

An elastic myth of counterfactual assumptions was born around the military man. And this myth, which papered over his misdeeds and deficiencies, grew further as Nigeria continued to struggle, including from 1999 to 2015 as the PDP frittered away the country’s resources. Goodluck Jonathan’s misrule magnified Buhari’s mythical competence, whitewashed his inadequacies, and finally enabled his victory in last year’s elections.

With Buhari improvising aimlessly and looking confused and ill-prepared in office, some supporters are now saying that it would have perhaps been better if he had never won. That, they argue, would have preserved the myth of his competence, which is now unravelling. It would have enabled him to remain the philosopher and custodian of political morality they imagined him to be, a transcendental figure unmoored to and above the messy contestations of politics and the complicated art of governance that he has failed to master.

These disheartened individuals lament the fact that political exigencies, the intricacies of power, and elite manipulations have soiled Buhari’s reputation, exploded the illusion of his messianic abilities, and exposed him as a prisoner of power – in other words, as just another politician.

For if his second stint in power has proven anything so far, it is that. If Buhari has done well in combating Boko Haram and corruption, however incomplete and imperfect these efforts are, his record on the economy overshadows all else.

After little more than a year, the wondrous myths around Buhari and his first spell in office have been shattered. In their place, realisations about his economic rigidity and lack of thoughtful policymaking – then as now – are re-emerging.

Moses E. Ochonu is Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, US.

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21 thoughts on “Nigeria: The shattering of the Buhari mythology

  1. Power is a drug akin to an aphrodisiac requiring greater and greater doses of deference in terms of emoluments and plumage denoting high public office. The acclaimed American writer and political public biographer Robert Caro with pithy astringent elegance stated “power reveals”. President Buhari, it appears from his lacklustre performance in governance administration has succumbed to this addictive narcotized nature inherent in power governance. President Buhari including his team need to understand that high public office is service to the people where all emotional and political capital in order to ‘do least harm’ in contributing to the national civic civil social prescriptive calculus is expended.

  2. Great write up. You forgot to mention the following :
    1. Aisha Buhari’s penchant for luxury gooda. I’m her current visit to America she was spotted carrying a 200k use Hermes alligator bag.

    2. The destruction of INEC. Since he took over, INEC has swam from one controversy to another.

    3. He is the most nepotic president in our history. Has perpetuated his relatives in several arms of government

  3. Fine write-up Prof.
    Buhari has frittered away most if the goodwill that his ascetic image generated for him before gaining office. Yes the economy was a time-bomb primed before his arrival, but his – and I dread to use this term-clulessness 15 months into his tenure in charting a clear path to for the economy y has been his greatest undoing.

    His refusal to dispense of his 12 chariots-read aircraft- plus all the unkempt campaign promises reveal him and the ruling APC to be hypocrites of their own BS.

  4. This piece- timely, factual and engaging- represents the true picture of the country Nigeria since 29th May, 2015. Personally, I think it has been attenuated to an extent, as Nigeria’s current state is more dismal than it is captured above.

    However, if the writer- a Professor of History- would be a bit more circumspect with the above, he would agree that President’s Buhari’s second coming is no different from his first coming. It behoves the question: was history and logical reasoning discarded in last year’s Presidential elections? why was it discarded? Was it pragmatic to elect someone who has zero competence in leadership, over the many other more competent choices?

    What was the rational used in making this now atrocious and regrettable decision in Nigeria?

    The President, in my opinion, will go to spend at least an extra 7 years in power. Yes. Anyone that knows Nigeria and is honest enough to see through the repeated inconclusiveness of the current INEC setup, should know that the President will somehow ‘win’ a second term. It is important to examine the reasons behind the terrible choice made in 2015 and, if Nigerians are humble enough, accept the failures in decision-making in order to ensure that this does not repeat itself again.

  5. Ayuba’s comments are on point. Ochonu’s well-written piece inexplicably excludes some of the more obvious failings of the administration- the blatant nepotism, the mini-Imelda Marcos of a first lady, and destruction of the political infrastructure. The entire state is oozing with political mis- and malfeasance -from the senate leadership to the entire ranks of legislature and several state governments. Hardly the picture of probity the Nigerian electorate clamored for!

  6. This is a forensic and strict to the issues analysis of a President with an oversized ego. To safe Nigeria from the illusion of messianic leaders and thoughtless election promises, restructuring Nigeria based on the recommendations of the 2024 confab is the only viable option. If nothing, a restructured Nigeria will usher in an era of strong institutions that are actually the drivers of prosperous nations.

  7. Buhari is a big Sham!He deceived Nigerians and now is following the footsteps of Turkey! They want to align the World to Islam by all means! All his major appointments are the dumbest of the dumb Notherners! My only advice is for the Nigerian Youths to go on a peaceful demonstartion and insist that the old thieves in Nigeria Senate,House of Assembly should all step down and hand over the Government to a national confab and Buhari should be impeached and his Vice should be removed and none them and the Nothern Oligarchy should ever taste power again ! All the Oil Wells should be revoked from Northern Oligarchy and given back to the Nigerian State! Buhari is worst of them all leaders, he is athief, a liar who is stealing Nigeria blind right now by covering his back with people of his ilks around him! No transparency! He kept the juicest position for himself, to be petroleum minister! He is a big rogue, like someone said his Wife is the Imelda Marcus of Nigeria , A Nonentity, who does not have have the heart for the poor!He promised to sell the fleet of Jets, but as backtracked on that promise ! Buhari just wanted to bring back Fulani/Islam Oligarchy and he will be disgraced thoroughly out of power!I am to sick to my stomach right now that I even used social media to campaign for this liar and thief of a president!

  8. APC and Buhari’s cronies regarded him as the main man behind the WAI in the military days and not necessarily Idiagbon as we knew it. Today, those who once saw him as the man to take Nigerian from its economic and ethical quagmire are disappointed.

  9. The issue is that PDP refuesed to put in place political infrastructure that would have usher in a pragmatic governance. Rather for sixteen years they stole dry Nigeria. Infact no PDP member has the moral latitude to complain let point accusing at Buhari. They are birds of the same feather- two sides of the same coin. So far the blame is PDP and its leadership. Buhari on his part is so tribalistic that he can not see beyond his nose tip. Is a pity Nigeria. Nigeria needs nothing short of a revolution- the likes of Buhari should get near the presidency. They are well spent and have nothing to offer now. Imagine, Abba Kyari as chief of staff.
    Here is my take- Nigerians must first identify their problems, accept them then think of how to solve them. Meanwhile, Nigerians are yet to accept wholeheartedly their problems.

  10. I commend the writer for mentioning that Nigeria is a one revenue economy based on Oil “Nigeria’s petrol-driven economy”.

    I am kind of curious what the State of the Nation would have been during President Buhari’s 100 days in office and thereafter, if the the price of Oil in the World market was still $100+ per barrel. The last time I checked, Nigeria was producing 2.5 million barrels of Oil per day. Do the math, and this does not include Natural Gas production.

  11. Nice contribution from everyone, l have equally learnt some new things too. God would not make a mistake; we needed “Boohaarii” to stem situation at that time, only God knew what would have become of an average Nigerian. However, it’s equally obvious man would be man – his heart is deep and desperately wicked , who can know it. Second opportunity especially for an African seems not working. Surprisingly, l was astonished at his level of vendetta, family positioning in key areas of the government and lost of leadership and direction. Disappointingly, l campaigned for change and voted him, he has allowed the comments of his critics to come to pass. It’s never too late and four years is around the corner.

  12. Good read. I wish however that it captured more of the excruciating degree of carnage, impunity, and crimes against humanity that now besets the hopeless contraption known as Nigeria.

    Buhari has surpassed any atrocities for which NATO destroyed Libya.

    The unanimous silence of the world (especially the West) primes him for maximum tyranny. They still praise and distort all information about this mass murderer.

    USA and Britain are literally in collusion to recolonize Nigeria via Islamization to exacerbate neocolonialism in line with the fantasy of Western elitist NWO.

    The imperial media bureaucracy hardly publishes any article that unequivocally reveals the ongoing mass murders, mass incarcerations, mass graves, crimes against humanity, and downright ineptitude by this crude genocidist that Barack Obama and David Cameron helped foist on Nigerians.

  13. This piece is only one sided, the writer himself acknowledged the successes recorded in fight against corruption and Boko Haram… these alone are enough for us to celebrate so far, for the economy more need to be done to stimulate it, to begin with, he needs to have a total overhaul of the managers of our economy in similar fashion he did to the security leadership. we at the theater of war, having lost our families, relations and properties…. we are better off that we were before his election.

  14. Nice work from the Crusaders and beautiful contributions from the PDPigs. We who voted PMB are still solidly behind him and happy with his achievement so far. His campaign promises are still fresh in our memories regardless of your wishful thinking. Check your history Crusade had never succeeded in any Islamic area, therefore live and let live, you have your religion and we have ours. You failed to guide your clueless man now you are shamelessly trying to misguide a president that you never voted for. PMB and his team shall collate all your useful advices and correct their mistakes and leave all your chaff for posterity to judge. .

  15. This is a well articulated piece. Regardless of the myraid facts stated here, I still find it hard to conjecture why some commentators chose to politicise these things. Buhari has inspite of his lack of initiative managed to keep the world engaged in his anti corruption efforts, as one sided as they have been. II talk with foreigners and they really do believe that he is working hard and with a good motive in that regard. They are not Nigerians, so they do not understand how nepotism plays here. They do not understand the arm twisting tactics being employed by this administration. You see, corruption in Nigeria is generational, mainstream and entrenched. The absence of it is the exception, not the norm. This administration has exhibited its readiness to wrestle any one who expresses a descenting opinion to the ground, regardless of what he is saying. The likes of Fani-Kayode and Fayose readily come to mind. And since we are all fantastically corrupt and have a thing or two to hide, especially the folks from the PDP, who enjoyed a 16 year fleecing spree. The fear of persecution Has reduced Nigeria to a one party state.

  16. Nice writeup but what Nigerians are facing now is what they caused themselves
    I don’t believed anyone deceived them, but they deceived themselves by allowing religious and tribal bigotry and hatred elude them. If not they would have known that buhari has nothing to offer them apart from northernisation and islamisation. So any body telling me APC deceived them is a fool, because all APC members are among those that destroyed the country since inception. The earlier we rise up and reason well the better. Stand up tell yourself the truth and ask yourself what is Nigeria and who is a Nigeria and why Nigeria?
    Restructure the country or quietly dismember the entity or the worst is still coming

  17. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but fact are sacred. There is no oil producing state in the world today that doesn’t have economic challenges. In prosperity Nigeria did not save nor does she builds its infrastructure. Buhari inherited unpaid workers, contractors and depleted reserve. Take it or brush off Buhari is doing well in his area of expertise: security and fighting corruption. The economic team need to have good policies. I rest my case

  18. In his professorial write-up Moses E. Ochonu Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, US. deliberately plunged on to Mr. President by calling and addressing him with all sorts of words and jargons as if he is examining a thesis of a student who plagiarized . Professor; this is not necessary, especially from people like you. Of course, you have a right or a duty to criticize the government at least to wake it up and to challenge it to work for the poor people in the country. But accusing Mr. President unnecessary looks too naive to me and antithetical from the act of the learned person.

    I personally see all Professors as a reservoirs of knowledge, people that can challenge us to discuss major issues of the day. People that can challenge us to propose a solution to our problems, economic hardship in the country, unemployment, or perhaps the security issue that almost engulf us and sees us exist. Anything less than that from anybody; I see it as a political cajolery or negative intellectual persuasion that can only convince a simple-minded person against this government.

    As much as we love, and respect knowledge with esteem regards, we must also distaste anyone who misuse it, especially for grievance reasons.

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