He looked rather gangly, and so his gestures weren’t particularly dreadful. But he barked orders that sent shivers down the spines of Nigerians. He threatened to tamper with the press, and then struck through the Protection Against False Accusations Decree, infamously dubbed Decree 4. He ordered Nigerians to form neat queues, as part of his ‘War Against Indiscipline’ (WAI), which he prosecuted alongside his never-smiling partner, Tunde Idiagbon. He whipped many people back to the lines, literally so, recording modest success in that area. Many a citizen ready to queue for essentials endured the stress, sweating under the fiendish intensity of the afternoon sun. No pain, no gain—they must have reasoned. And so when he materialized as Nigeria’s Head of State in the wake of the coup d’état of December 1983, jackboots and all, Muhammadu Buhari came across as a ‘reformist’.
In 2015, thirty-two years after he first showed up from the shadows of the coup he would later deny knowledge of, Buhari emerged yet again as the darling of many Nigerians. But this time, his presence wasn’t particularly announced with martial music, but with sounds of gongs, Goje, Sekere, Kakaki, Kora and, er, Odu-mkpalo. Nigerians, reeling from damages inflicted upon the nation by a weak and profligate government, called upon the man they fondly referred to as “Baba” to come rescue Nigeria from the brink of collapse. His tough stance in his first coming resonated with some older folks, and they fantasized about WAI, queues, and relative orderliness. Some younger people brought into the dream, ostensibly because there was the near-widespread belief among Nigerians that corruption—and its attendant chaos—was a major impediment militating against national development.
The economy was sick, corruption was endemic, and, bent under the crush of insurgency, Nigerians were unsafe. Buhari’s handlers claimed he had the right analgesic for an ailing economy, the most potent antidote for corruption, and the wealth of an experience to help flush out terrorists. Many even invoked the legend of his exploits in the handling of the Maitatsine conundrum in the 1980s. Buhari and his political allies thereafter came into our lives smiling, with flowing Agbada and well-ironed Babariga, reeling out a long list of promises.
But six years into the second coming of Buhari, Nigerians are now being haunted by the spectre of 1984.
First, the economy relapsed into comma, having limped through two recessions in five years. Now dealt another heavy blow by Covid-19, it’s gasping desperately for air. In the area of corruption, we have only recorded a change in the conception and dimension of that cancer, and, of course, there has also been a change in the nomenclature of people so privileged to be so corrupt.
Yet except that we do not remember with tact, but with emotions, the events playing out are quite reminiscent of the Nigerian reality in the wake of Buhari’s first coming at about this period in 1984.
In 1985, barely 20 months after he assumed power as head of state, Buhari was toppled by then Major General Ibrahim Babangida, who offered some justification for the August 27, 1985 coup that ousted his former friend and ally.
“The last 20 months have not witnessed any significant changes in the national economy,” said Babangida, ever sly and scheming. “Contrary to expectations, we have so far been subjected to a steady deterioration in the general standard of living; and intolerable suffering by ordinary Nigerians have (sic) risen higher, scarcity of commodities has increased…. Unemployment has stretched to critical dimensions.”
In that inaugural broadcast as military president, Babangida, no hero by many accounts, could as well have taken his words straight out of the reality of 2021 Nigeria. But then, if he did, he would perhaps have missed the big elephant in the room: the spectre of insecurity.
With regard to security, unlike in 1985, Nigeria has now become a huge graveyard of burnt and butchered humans, with others so lucky to be alive moving about in trepidation, permanently haunted by the eternal fear of being kidnapped or killed like chicken.
In the first week of December, the nation dissolved into tears when 23 persons died of injuries sustained from burns after bandits shot at a bus conveying travellers from Sokoto to Kaduna.
Like the daily carnage that is now a regular item in news reports from Kaduna, the Sokoto attack, horrible as it appeared, was only but a mere drop in an ocean of largely untold stories depicting how worthless the human life has become under the Buhari government, a la the hobbessian state where life is short, nasty, and brutish.
For one, the spectre of insecurity now defies geography, with terrorist bandits, secessionists, murderous herdsmen, and other outlaws sharing grief across the country as though they are paying obeisance to ‘federal character’. The South West is reeling from the pains inflicted by robbers and other criminal elements, including, until recently, murderous herders. The South East is dangerously going the way of the North East in the hands of violent secessionists and other outlaws perpetrating evil under the guise of secession. The Deep South has always been in thrall of the fiat of militants. Although there are faint signs of victory here and elsewhere, the recovery of the North East is still being kept at bay by insurgents. The North Central/Middle Belt has been a huge field of corpses lying in a heap often in the wake of perennial herder-farmer clashes.
But as far as Buhari’s scorecards on security go, the most indicting records would come from his own region, the North West, whose vast land and forests, under the watch of a “son of the soil” as Commander-in-Chief, have become a commodious theatre of blood, carcasses and fear, controlled largely by terrorists masquerading as “bandits”.
From Sokoto to Kano through Kaduna and even Daura in Katsina, where Buhari hails from, the narrative is the same: Nigerians are being butchered daily in their tens and hundreds, while others continue to flee villages that have now been overtaken by bandits. So bad has the situation become that many villagers have resigned to fate, submitting their sovereignty to almighty bandits, paying taxes and all.
Last week, when the news went viral that one Adamu Ayuba sang praises of Bello Turji, a known bandit in Sokoto, the government typically reacted with empty theatrics. Ayuba was declared wanted. But could we have rather been concerned about a plausible psychological answer to the question of this loss of faith in the government and near-total submission to the supremacy of a band of marauding thugs, as exemplified in Ayuba’s misadventure?
In all of these, the president has been most taciturn and insouciant, occasionally picking his teeth or cracking some lifeless joke, even as Nigerians struggle to breathe under the devastating impact of country-wide insecurity.
But to be sure, Muhammadu Buhari’s most significant trait has been his trademark insouciance anyway, one which the Yoruba, in informal parleys, would perhaps capture as “Adonkia” (I don’t care). Not for him the Maradona-esque gambit of an IBB, or the serpentine calmness of Abacha, or the bucolic rage of OBJ, or, even, the act of sitting permanently on the pity potty, like Jonathan. With that insouciance, at the height of the 2015 electioneering, he was able to manage and ignore the hateful wishes and rhetoric of the FFKs and Fayoses.
But the ironic twist is that while this insouciance might appear good for him during electioneering and partisan politics, it obviously isn’t any good for Nigerians in terms of governance and sustenance of democratic ethos. His “Adonkia” attitude aspires to stifle, if not whimsically strangulate, the culture of accountability and responsibility, two pillars upon which good governance rests. A president that shows no concern at all times, even at a time of country-wide despair, leaves the citizens with no option but to lose faith in the ability of the nation to offer succor, material and otherwise, irrespective of what the government is doing behind the scenes.
Last week, amid outcries over the apparently bad optics of staging a show of vanity in the wake of the wanton killings across northern Nigeria, which erupted in protests, Yusuf Buhari, the president’s son, was turbaned as Talban Daura. First, since “corruption” is only defined in literal, medieval terms under him, Buhari didn’t cringe at the obscenity of having his son crowned “district head” on the strength of nothing but his status as Buhari’s son. Beyond that, from media reports, the president wasn’t there at the ceremony, but the presidency was there. That way, Buhari played an old trick: indulging in things without taking responsibility for them. The illogic is that perhaps since he was not in Daura, we wouldn’t know whether he was in support of the vanity or not. That was classic Buhari, anyway, shifting the goalposts and taking no responsibility for anything.
For instance, some accounts of the coup that brought him to power in 1984 contain claims that he was in on the coup plot, but Buhari has denied such claims. There is also this viral meme of a tweep who googled “Buhari Blames” and had his page flooded with a litany of presidential blame-shifting alibis.
Aside taking no responsibility for his actions, Buhari compounds the problem with crass insensitivity. Penultimate week, when the Sokoto carnage generated outrage, the president played Nero, and materialized in Lagos for a book launch.
“Leadership”, as TV host Oprah Winfrey noted, “is about empathy. “ And empathy isn’t even merely about empty theatrics; it’s about finding “echoes of another person in yourself”, as British Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid quipped.
Buhari’s handlers are often quick to point in the direction of his railways and other infrastructural projects. Good imprints, to be sure, even though they have come with extra baggages of asphyxiating loans. And considering how central infrastructure is to the economy, the jury is still out on the desirability of these projects in the context of Nigeria’s debt problem. But beyond that, he has failed to tackle a security conundrum that would even allow people enjoy these projects. And yet even in the midst of these glaring failures, he has enjoyed incredible level of goodwill among a section of Nigerians, especially in the north, where the people have since lowered the bar of presidential expectations to the point of asking for something as basic as empathy. But on that front, too, he has failed woefully.
So Buhari’s most significant trait is after all his Achilles’ heel, and he would be remembered largely as a cold, taciturn, insensitive, and annoyingly insouciant leader. By the time he vacates office, history may not be kind to him – not necessarily because of his action, but essentially because of his inactions.
Oladeinde Olawoyin tweets via @ola_deinde
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