Four Chinks in Buhari’s Armour


The consensus of opinion to my last week’s article (For Buhari, 2019 Began in 2015) on this page was that President Muhammadu Buhari lacks the capacity to be as strategic as my analysis attempted to locate him. And most people answered in the affirmative, my concluding question, Was it simply coincidence at work? My colleague Wale Olaleye captured nicely the preponderance of views in a text message: “ You took Buhari to a strategic realm he is not intellectually wired to attain even if granted a memory waiver. These are sheer coincidences he can never consciously get close to.” However, my attitude is that a general, like Buhari, who has attended many military institutions where strategy is inculcated as an article of faith would naturally internalize a few things about power – its acquisition and uses. After all the late military leader General Sani Abacha, despite being publicly ridiculed for not passing Staff College, outsmarted the best of our politicians in the power game, and for five years held the nation by the balls. Most politicians in this clime seem not to realize that, in politics as in war, strategy is everything. An anecdote will be appropriate at this point.

Sometime in May 2016, I was on a team of senior journalists from selected newspapers in an interview session with President Muhammadu Buhari to mark his one-year anniversary in office. Seated on a U-shaped table in one of the smaller conference rooms at the Aso Rock Villa, members of the team, some seven or eight of us, were only allowed one question at a time in a dry, rigid format that made it impossible to ask follow-up questions to make for an intellectually engaging interview. Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina, who had earlier laid the ground rules, moved in anti-clockwise direction, calling each member of the team the moment the president was through answering a question. Adesina went round the table twice and closed the session. Aside from his opening statement when he spoke briefly on the economy, among other issues, getting the president to answer questions on the economy was like attempting to make stone absorb water. Always in his elements on any issue on security and corruption, the president would repeat his opening statement to every question on the economy, while shutting down the questioner with a blank, withering stare. And he couldn’t be bothered if the question asked had any bearing to the opening statement he offered to repeat. I came away from the session dissatisfied, disappointed and a little angry, but not without appreciating the rigidity in the interview format as Adesina’s way of protecting his principal.

As you would see presently this anecdote would serve as my entry door to Buhari’s failings in examining the four chinks in his armour, and as in last week, using Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War as a guide. Before his election in 2015, it was an open secret that Buhari was very weak on the economy, despite all the resources and energy invested in rebranding him. Somehow a man who had once ruled the country for 20 months, who had failed in three presidential election contests, and who had entered the presidential race for the fourth time at a time the economy was becoming traumatized did not make any effort to improve and develop himself in arguably his greatest area of weakness. He was comfortable to live in the past and to be so judged. Even after one year in office at the time of that interview, his understanding of the economy, which he had promised to turn around in his campaign promises, was passé. That violates Greene’s (the) Guerrilla-War-of-the-Mind Strategy wherein he advises a leader to shun unnecessary attachments to the past, avoid tired formulas, but learn to strike out in new directions. Reinforcing this in The Death-Ground Strategy, Greene affirms that that leader who fails to cut loose from the past and enter unknown territory would be half involved in what he does, be unable to engage the present, as nothing would seem urgent to him. “What most often weighs you down and brings you misery is the past…”

A quick application of this strategy on Buhari, starting with his reputation for parochialism: promised to pay greater attention to the 97% that voted for him as against the 5% that did not; appointed about 95% of security chiefs from the north; advised the World Bank to focus on the north for its projects; north favoured in recruitment to government agencies and in making senior executive appointments; and ministers from the north have better access to him and therefore more powerful. He’s even advanced to nepotism by appointing as ministers and personal aides, particularly in the Villa, a complex network of nephews and nieces and in-laws and other family members. Check.

There is the long-standing reputation for blaming others for every difficulty: the administration has blamed the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) and former President Goodluck Jonathan for every of its failing and difficulty, including the latest scandal involving the recall of Abdulrasheed Maina of the Pension Board fame. Check. There’s the reputation of being lethargic: it took more than six months to form a cabinet; several agencies have no boards; there’s been no action on charges of misdemeanor against suspended SGF Babachir Lawal and Intelligence chief Ayo Oke, the report of their investigation having been submitted for months. Check. Then of course is the reputation of being weak on the economy: for an economy that had, long before the 2015 election, been advertised as a possible recession candidate, it took Buhari less than six months of taking over to, with every of his economic policy, crash the value of the naira which he had promised to strengthen, increased fuel prices which he had vowed to reduce, caused foreign investors to bail out, fast-tracked inflation from single to double digit, worsened the unemployment situation where he had promised jobs, and sped the engine of the economy into recession. There was only a gradual reversal of the lamentable situation after the economy was almost grounded and when he had to travel to London on his first medical vacation. Check. Imprisoned behind the walls of the past, and relying on the same jaded methods, it was difficult for the administration he heads to be innovative and inventive. The result is unwholesome national misery.

Two, in the Perfect Economy Strategy, Greene advises the leader to pick his battles carefully and not surpass his limits, or overextend himself in order not to end up exhausted and vulnerable, or make the war unduly expensive. “Consider the hidden costs of war: time lost, political goodwill squandered, an embittered enemy bent on revenge”, writes Greene. It doesn’t appear Buhari has so far picked his battles carefully. The administration anti-corruption war has been noisy in form but hollow in substance, a lot of motion but little or no movement. There has been a lot of media trial but some shambolic action where it matters – in the courts. Suspects are unnecessarily detained without trial, charges are duplicated, cases are withdrawn and re-filed, there is no rigour in building convictable evidence against those arraigned, and getting conviction has been a tall order despite the carefully leaked media reports of the alleged refund of billions stolen. It is a testament to the poverty of prosecution of the corruption cases that former petroleum minister Diezani Alison-Madueke would be fighting to be brought back home for trial, rather than in the UK where she had initially escaped to. In the light of the cases of others being prosecuted on corruption charges, she must have realized that it would be easier to play the judicial process in Nigeria and walk. As a result, the administration’s political goodwill on that front has been massively eroded, partly because of the time lost without any meaningful progress, and partly, and more crucially, because of the perception that the anti-corruption war is selective as top administration officials and presidential aides accused or even indicted on corruption charges are, as Senator Shehu Sanni inimitably described it, sprayed with deodorant. The anti-graft war, arguably Buhari’s strongest campaign point in the build up to the 2015 election, is today all but a huge joke.

The war against the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has fared no much better. The administration’s penchant for blaming the PDP for its failings and problems after more than two years in office is tiresome and laughable. The easy resort to blame-game creates the impression that the administration has no solution to the country’s problems and therefore hides behind a veil of excuses; and a president who is either not in charge of affairs or is incapable of taking responsibility. The mistakes of the last two years have given the PDP, which was dead and almost buried, a platform to rise like a phoenix and initiate the process of regeneration. Meanwhile, Buhari’s war on some key members of the coalition that brought him to power has weakened his All Progressives Congress (APC). Bola Tinubu is unhappy. Bukola Saraki is nursing his wounds. Atiku Abubakar is frustrated. Rabiu Kwankwaso is bitter. So bad is the atmosphere in the APC that the party has not been able to convene a broad-based meeting of its leaders in the last two years. With most boards of agencies yet to be constituted, there is a feeling of disconnect in the party’s rank and file, the government not having been seen to have empowered party members or at least give them a sense of belonging. Since the 2015 election, Buhari has not made enough efforts to win new support base even as every step his administration has taken daily erodes the base of the support he enjoyed in that election. Rather than woo to his side the two zones – southeast and south-south – which he believed gave him 5% votes in 2015, he has, with his pro-north policies and contemptuous disregard for their fears, further antagonized them. The southwest does not think Buhari has done enough to get their support for a second term, and Tinubu’s believed (mal)treatment complicates matters. The people of the north central and other minority Christians in the north are seething at the administration’s paralysis in curbing the indiscriminate attacks and killings by herdsmen, whose spokesmen the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association once had Buhari as patron. Even among the elite of the northwest and northeast zones, there is a general feeling of unease at the brazen nepotism in Buhari’s appointments.

Three, the application of The Righteous Strategy, which should ordinarily be the administration’s strong point, has become its Archilles’ heel. The righteous strategy is moving to occupy the moral high ground, fighting for a just cause, questioning the enemies’ motives and making them appear evil, deploying guilt as a moral weapon to narrow the opposition’s support base. By constantly whining about PDP maladministration to explain away the country’s problems, and serially blaming Jonathan for digging the grave of the country’s recession, Buhari and his aides wanted to occupy the moral high ground. They were, however, caught in their own trap in that their initial policy choices worsened the economic situation. And the much-celebrated anti-corruption war lost credibility; Buhari’s aides and associates accused of corruption were either peremptorily cleared one after the other, or the report of their investigations was not released. In the circumstance, Buhari was wide open for a moral attack of counter punches from friends and foes alike. “Corruption is fighting back”, the administration’s usual response, has become an empty refrain.

Four, in all this, there is no sign that Buhari has in place an Exit Strategy, which Greene says is “the height of strategic wisdom essential to avoid all conflicts and entanglements from which there are no realistic exits.” According to Greene, “You are judged … by how well you bring things to an end. A messy or incomplete conclusion can reverberate for years to come, ruining your reputation in the process.” Shia’s Ibrahim el-Zakzaky and immediate past NSA Sambo Dasuki are now attracting pity due to prolonged detention without trial. Senate President Bukola Saraki successfully ringed his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal into a political witch-hunt, particularly with government decision to appeal. The structure of government, especially the nature of strategic appointments and recruitments, which has brazenly been in favour of the north and which widens the country’s fault lines, the south has found unsettling. Buhari’s has left many wars in messy or incomplete conclusion, and in the process created bitter enemies.

With Buhari’s reputation standing on feet of clay, the APC coming apart at the seams, the administration punching far below its weight, and the people consumed by anger fuelled by hunger and misery, those who think the president has unassailable claim to a second term may need to return to the drawing board. To restore faith in his administration, Buhari would have to do something extraordinary. From what we have seen of his actions and inactions since 2015, can he? I have my doubts.