At 72, Muhammadu Buhari could yet be Nigeria’s comeback kid

Nigeria’s saviour-in-waiting? EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

Nigeria is just around the corner from what many believe will be the most closely contested presidential election in its history. No incumbent government has ever lost a presidential election in the country’s history – yet many Nigerians believe that they could be on the brink of their first ever change of government via the ballot box.

The man who could become the first candidate to defeat a Nigerian president in an election is the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. In a country plagued by corruption and insecurity, his reputation for probity and his experience as a retired military officer and former military head of state have led opposition political parties to coalesce around him.

Yet in some ways, Buhari’s choice as the APC’s presidential candidate is surprising. How has a 72-year-old man who was overthrown in a military coup nearly 30 years ago managed not only to re-emerge, but to get to the very threshold of power?

Rising star

Buhari had his first taste of government in 1975, when he and other middle-ranking army officers overthrew the military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, in a bloodless coup. Buhari was soon appointed military governor of the North-Eastern State.

Once in office, he built a reputation for avoiding the turgid corruption that bedevils Nigerian politics, which in turn got him appointed as the Federal Commissioner for Petroleum and Natural Resources (with oversight of the lucrative oil industry that dominates Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings).

The military government ceded power to an elected civilian government in October 1979, but Buhari’s return to army duties was brief: he was appointed head of state when the military returned to power on January 1 1984.

The new military government led by Buhari governed in a manner unlike any previous government in Nigeria’s history. Buhari’s supporters praised his anti-crime and corruption campaign which placed scores of public officials in prison for corruption, and his “War Against Indiscipline” (WAI) aimed at promoting patriotism, orderly public behaviour, respect for public property, and civic virtues.

The zenith of his anti-corruption campaign was an extraordinary incident in which a former minister of transport, Umaru Dikko (who had fled to Britain in order to evade arrest by the military government) was kidnapped while walking on a London street in broad daylight and stuffed into a crate in a bizarre attempt to forcibly return him to Nigeria to face trial for corruption.

Fourth time lucky? EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

Although the kidnap attempt was foiled, the alleged involvement of Nigerian diplomatic and security officials caused a serious rupture in relations between Britain and Nigeria, during which the Nigerian High Commissioner in London was declared persona non grata by the British government. Full diplomatic relations were not restored until years after Buhari was overthrown by yet another military coup on August 27, 1985.

Buhari’s critics accuse him of being repressive and intolerant of dissent. They recall that his government arrested and detained critics without trial, executed convicted drug dealers by firing squad, and approved incredibly lengthy prison sentences for government ministers convicted of corruption (including some prison sentences that exceeded a hundred years).

Although most Nigeria rulers are routinely accused of corruption, rarely are those accusations leveled at Buhari. After being overthrown he maintained his reputation for honesty and for refusing to use the public purse to line his pockets, unlike many other Nigerian politicians. He ran for president in 2003, 2007, and 2011 – losing each time to the current and previous two presidents of the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

But this time, Buhari’s supporters sense that the momentum is on their side.

Full circle

Multiple factors have combined to re-ignite Buhari’s popularity. Corruption allegations have dogged the government; it has also struggled to respond to the deadly Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed over 10,000 Nigerians and displaced 1.5m others.

Nigeria has come full circle. While Buhari’s previous tenure was criticised for its severity, the public now wants a leader who can simultaneously fight corruption and extinguish the Boko Haram insurgency. And whatever advances have been made against the jihadist group, Goodluck Jonathan simply cannot pretend to have better security or anti-corruption credentials than a disciplinarian general such as Buhari.

Still, now is hardly a great time to be the Nigerian president. If Buhari wins the election he will be handed a platter of diabolical problems.

Besides the murderous insurgency in the north-east, he will have several burned diplomatic bridges to repair, and an economy hobbled by a sharp drop in world oil prices. Nigeria’s currency, the Naira, has been devalued by nearly 20% since the start of 2015, and is now exchanging at the extraordinarily high rate of almost 310 Naira per pound.

On top of all that, a latent insurgency in the far south’s oil-producing areas will require delicate handling when the amnesty deal between the government and militants there expires later in 2015. President Jonathan’s home state is in the far south, and some militants there have threatened to take up arms again if he is not re-elected.

Steady hand

Buhari is by nature decisive, resolute and firm – almost to a fault. His former commanding officer, Lieutenant-General Theophilus Danjuma (who served with Buhari in the military and in a previous military government) has on multiple occasions described him as “a very inflexible person.” Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo, another retired general, has also characterised Buhari as “inflexible”.

That resolute temperament means Buhari is unlikely to seek a negotiated peace with militants, and may not shy away from simultaneous confrontations with armed insurgents in the north and south of Nigeria.

Buhari running in 2007. EPA/Tugela Ridley

However, Buhari might be constrained by the need to respect the interests of political “godfathers” such as Bola Tinubu and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, both of whom are funding his election campaign and were architects of the multi-party merger that created the APC. Younger, more reformist APC members now backing him are also likely to wield significant influence over his economic and social policies.

Meanwhile, although Buhari will be expected to fight corruption as a top priority, he may not go as far as some would hope. After all, he was overthrown in 1985 precisely because his anti-corruption crusade rocked too many boats and stepped on too many powerful toes.

A Buhari victory cannot be taken for granted: many voters who do not want President Jonathan do not want Buhari either. Many Nigerians recall his previous regime with dread, and fear that he will be an uncompromising and repressive leader. In some ways the election is a chance for the electorate to demonstrate who it most dislikes, rather than who it likes.

And at the age of 72, this is almost certainly Buhari’s last chance. If he loses a fourth successive presidential election, no party is likely back him ever again.

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