Five years is long enough time to sufficiently deconstruct and brand an eight- year presidency. The footprints and imprints of the Buhari presidency are now unmistakable. There is something that amounts to some style even in the stark lack of one. There is an undeniable pattern of decision making, of governance and predictable reflexes to public sensitivities that can now be fairly ascribed to this presidency. Above all, there is a general pattern of relating to Nigerians, the reality of Nigeria’s history and nation being that have become increasingly peculiar to General Muhammadu Buhari as president. Therefore, as we begin to contemplate a Buhari legacy in the pantheon of Nigerian leadership, we might as well sketch its outline characteristics. For good or for ill, Mr. Buhari has become entitled to his share of the cumulative burden of national leadership. Even after he returns to Daura for a much deserved retirement, the trails of his prefecture are likely to linger.
Buhari’s democratic re-emergence and tenure is not an immaculate conception. It is in a broad sense an extension, in terms of general temperament and sense of mission, of the two- year military autocracy that brought him into national limelight. Perhaps this is the reason why rather recently, mainstream media reverted to prefixing the president’s name with his retirement military rank of Major General! People remember the ascetic regimentalist. They remember the serial abuses of human rights, the endless jail terms, the indiscriminate arrests, the horsewhips as people queued up for basic household goods. It was above all the preoccupation with anti corruption that earned him a cultic presence in our national psyche. In the run up to the 2015 presidential elections, therefore, Mr. Jonathan’s serial bumbling created an urgent necessity for change at the helm. In a sense Mr. Jonathan was perhaps Buhari’s unofficial chief campaign promoter. Nigerian political entrepreneurs weighed in. They re-brand Buhari, dressed him up in three-piece suit and other garish costumes. The man had been applying for the job of president for over two decades. He got it at last.
In spite of his frequent testimonies about being now a convert to democracy, Mr. Buhari has retained a copious appetite for autocracy and illiberal flirtations when it comes to matters of civil liberties and basic freedoms. At the early stages of his ascension as an elected president, he once openly regretted that the rule of law will not let him lock up those accused of corruption as casually as he did as a military despot. He has openly castigated Nigerian youth for their free spirit and leisurely carriage.
In the last five years, Mr. Buhari’s essentially regimental psyche has resurfaced ever so often. An online publisher, Mr. Omoyele Sowore, has been detained, put on trial, been severally re-arrested and released. His laughable offense was that he planned a demonstration to call for a ‘revolution’ ostensibly to oust Mr. Buahari. Judges have been harassed, arrested, put on trial and some convicted on charges of perceived corruption that mostly ended up as gimmicks of intimidation. Under Mr. Buhari’s watch, the state security apparatus has invaded the National Assembly with armed hooded goons and disrupted parliamentary proceedings. The same instrument has been used to invade court premises to disperse court sessions and frighten off presiding judges. Similarly, in his contentious anti-corruption campaign, reservations have arisen about a certain partisan lopsidedness in the execution of the campaign.
It is uncertain whether the Buhari presidency can be described as business friendly. While the president has made ceaseless foreign trips ostensibly to expand the possibilities of foreign investment in Nigeria, it is uncertain if his critical perspectives on Nigerian corruption has not ended up de-marketing the country and frightening off some investors. Nor does anyone know exactly Buhari’s precise attitude to the business practices of the very financial oligarchs who paid for his election in 2015 and re-election in 2019. A regime of top-down excessive regulations and meddling in the oil and financial sectors have arguably shackled economic growth and stifled local creativity. His open preference for a 1970s type economy dominated by peasant farmers, herdsmen and primary produce has rifled modern day economists. His nostalgic fascination for the long gone days of the cotton fields, the groundnut pyramids and cocoa farms is undisguised.
The major sustaining power of the Buhari presidency is his appeal to two broad political bases. The first is the mob of uneducated followership mostly in the dense population centers of the northern half of the country. That undifferentiated mass of impoverished humanity who have thronged his campaign appearances chanting ‘Sai Baba’ hold Mr. Buhari in cultic awe. Their conception of the man is that of a tough messianic figure who stands in contrasting opposition to the materialism and corruption of his contemporaries. The myth among the mob is that Mr. Buhari would use presidential power to dispossess the rich of their ill-gotten wealth and redistribute it among the poor masses.
The elite arm of the Buhari support base consists of an amalgam of interests. There are those who have lost out in previous contests for patronage and power. There are others who are naïve enough to look back at the populist autocracy of the military Buhari. Others are habitual Nigerian political scavengers who routinely monitor the weathervane of public opinion and sway whichever way the wind goes. The convenient marketing gimmick of this faction on the Buhari bandwagon is that he symbolizes a disciplinarian anti corruption leadership that will transform Nigeria for the better.
Taken together, these support factions of Mr. Buhari’s myth constitute his devotees. They share the traits of something of a religious followership, a veritable cult. In their recent political rhetoric, they have reduced their support for Buhari to some kind of political religion with the president as a deity. We now have a presidency that views the citizenry in terms of whether they are believers and devotees of Mr. Buhari or not. Some curious designation has consequently emerged. You are either a ‘Buharist’ or otherwise. If you are a Buharist, you are ever ready to justify and rationalize every act of this presidency.
If on the contrary you happen to hold critical views of government policies or advance divergent opinion from the dominant catechism in Aso Rock, you are quickly branded a non-Buharist. You could even be consigned to the opposition party or branded an apologist for corrupt interests. By a curious extension of this logic, every non-Buharist is an unpatriotic Nigerian since the president is now the embodiment of ultimate patriotism.
An unhealthy political dichotomy has been created among the elite. The political nation is divided between Buhari devotees and the rest of other Nigerians who are entitled to free and independent beliefs and views. In a constitutional democracy, every citizen is first and foremost a subscriber to a republican ethos with democratic rights and privileges. The trumped up dichotomy between Buhari devotees and the rest of our citizenry is fast becoming the reflex of a presidential establishment that has adopted divisiveness as a directive principle of state policy.
What this presidency and its proselytizing army of regime devotees seems to forget is that there is a nation outside the perimeters of the Buhari presidency. The stake of this mass is the survival of the nation as a free democratic space where the common good supersedes specific loyalties and partisan inanities. Among this vast majority of honest Nigerian citizens, the national interest is supreme. Incidentally, it is within this fold that we can still have informed conversations about the Nigerian project.
It is quite possible that the president himself subscribes to or even enjoys the mystification of him as some kind of political deity or constitutional monarch. At some point, his family and acolytes referred to him as a ‘king’ or ‘lion’ towards the end of his medical vacation in the United Kingdom. All manner of predatory animal images and metaphors were conjured up specifically by Mrs. Buhari and then Senator Shehu Sani and others to portray the absolutism of the president’s powers.
At the level of personal style, the less than fashionable president has allowed the trappings of imperial symbolism to be added on to the usual pomp and ceremony of presidential pageantry. At a recent ceremony to commission Nigeria’s new combat helicopters, the presidential motorcade was heralded by a skirling of Scottish bagpipes, complete with kilts, sporrans and polished buttons flourished by the band of the presidential guards display. The British media derisively celebrated this outlandish spectacle as a nostalgic throwback to the colonial good old days that ended nearly 70 years ago!
The cultivation of a conscious personality cult by leaders is not exactly new especially in Africa and parts of the Third world. But a personality cult is often the result of certain conscious efforts by the leader in question to etch his name into the public consciousness in order to perpetuate his legacy and prolong his brand survival.
In cases where serious personality cults have sprouted, they are usually founded on the convictions, vision and thoughts of the leader himself. It would be patently unfair to hold Mr. Buhari responsible for any serious line of thought or convictions about Nigeria. The gentleman has not claimed to be a philosopher king or an intellectual leader. He has not laid claims to any degree of enlightenment either in his policy articulation, choice of functionaries or relationship to power itself. If he harbors any, he has not yet articulated it in any coordinated and recognizable way. He has remained a routine, run of the mill civil service president, running a presidency of ordinary things in ordinary ways. He has relied mostly on the civil service deep state and the guidance of a faceless cabal of conservative neo-feudalist hangers on to propel the affairs of state.
In terms of the practical mechanics of governance, I doubt that Buhari has been anything close to a target oriented corporate chief executive hence Nigerians have tended to be impatient with his tempo at times. Those who have had this expectation may have wanted him to appoint a cabinet in a matter of weeks each time he was inaugurated or map out an economic agenda in his first 90 days in office. On the contrary, the president has chosen his own pace and followed it. His pace has consequently slowed down the adrenalin of the usually hasty and restless Nigerian public. In fairness to the president, this style may have saved him from some calamities that would have resulted from undue haste in some cases.
Mr. Buhari is entitled to his personal style as an individual. But the trouble is that he did not content himself with being just another private Nigerian citizen. He applied for a job, got it at the ballot and signed up on oath. Therefore, his personal self-effacing and withdrawn personality has at times conflicted with the dictates of his office. An executive president in the American mould is a role not cut out for a man or woman who is withdrawn, unduly private, and shy of constant publicity or television exposure.
On the contrary, the republican ethos that underlies the institution of executive presidency demands and dictates that the president is in the national spotlight frequently and relentlessly. The constitution has designed the president to be one of the people. Therefore, the people expect him to be in the places where they experience life’s pains and pleasures. Presidential accountability is an open 24/7 matter. The president must be accountable to the public through reporters wherever they accost him and he must respond to queries on issues literally on the go.
In the age of television, the president is national drama perpetually on the stage of public expectation. Therefore, the perception issues that Buhari has had with the Nigerian public are the result of certain avoidable gaps in this area. When Nigerians expect Mr. Buhari to be on stage and do not find him, the impression grows that the nation is leaderless. When Covid-19 broke, Nigerians expected the president quickly address the nation on measures being taken to protect them. It took weeks for this to happen. For all we care, the man may have been quite busy behind the scenes.
It would be unfair to deny Buhari devotees of their chosen faith. This is a free country in which people should be free to worship whoever and whatever they choose however they like. But the presidency is a strategic national institution. I believe it has evolved in response to what Nigerians do NOT want their country to be. In the US system which we have selectively cloned, the presidency was conceived as a decisive departure from the monarchical absolutism from which the Puritan founders of America were fleeing from Europe. So, it is clear what Nigerians do NOT want in their presidency. We do not want a monarchy. We also do not want a theocracy of any sort. This is purely and simply a secular republican democracy. Therefore, the Nigerian presidency must approximate the common denominator of citizens’ collective aspiration for a fair and equitable polity in which their rights would be respected.
Political myths tend to have a short life span. The Buhari myth endured from 1983 to 2016. That myth is now fast expiring even while the man is still in office with his badly ruffled presidential toga. The trouble with Buhari’s devotee presidency is that it is a cult without a creed. I have searched in vain for a unifying thought, some ideological anchor on which to hang the man’s exertions. In general, cults with many devotees without a creed end up a historical nuisance. Yet, as we contemplate the Buhari legacy in the young history of the Nigerian presidency, a cascade of questions come racing by: Is Buhari a revolutionary? Far from it. Is he a reformer? No way. A reformer needs to believe in what came before him. Is he a nationalist? May be in a nativist sense. Could he be a conservative? Somehow, if there is anything to conserve. Is he an ex army general? Yes. Most certainly.
We cannot but return to a stubborn question in recent political theory: it has to do with the role of individuals and institutions in sustaining democracy. The jury is out on whether it is individuals that sustain the institutions of democracy or it is our common subordination to institutions that sustains democracy. I vote on the side of the supremacy of institutions, in this case the Nigerian presidency. Individual leaders can bring their styles to bear on the development of the presidency. But to erode or subvert the basic institution itself is to thwart the national will and bend the arc of our democratic evolution towards a personal and private agenda.