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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.