In a country soaked deep in greed and graft, especially of its ruling elite, General Muhammadu Buhari should be a natural material for the highest office in the land? Unfortunately, not so. Thrice (2003, 2007 and 2011), he ran for the presidency and thrice, he failed to make it. Each time, he cried that the ruling party, which boasted it would continue to rule in the next 60 years, fixed the elections. 60 years? To do what? Of course, elections are always neither free, nor fair and credible in Africa’s most populous nation. The winner keeps winning, mostly through foul means. Democracy here is obviously government of the strong men, who often muscle their way through every election.
So, despite his incorruptibility, integrity and legendary disciplined disposition, people like Buhari, who even his adversaries acknowledge as a good presidential choice, never made it to the finish line. They have become, as one cheeky newscaster described him the other day, veteran presidential candidates, serial contestants for the office of Nigeria’s president!
But Buhari never intends to give in. He seems to believe that, like Abraham Lincoln, who ran for elections and failed many times before becoming president, he too could win if he keeps trying, if he keeps running.
In 2015, from all indications, Buhari intends, once more, to throw his hat in the ring. Even though his new party, the newly registered mega party, the All Progressive Congress, APC, is yet to blow the whistle for aspirants, the General is not hiding his intention. He told a visiting Arewa youth group at his Kaduna residence recently that he would be trying again for the presidential mansion, otherwise known and called Aso Rock. He was reported in the newspapers to have said he felt a sacred duty to run for the presidency.
Should Buhari run in 2015? Of course, it is his inalienable right to contest elections into any office of his choice, as many times as he so wishes. If he runs, will he win? That’s a different kettle of fish altogether. If he runs and fails a fourth time, what would be the consequences for him as a person and the future of his party? By allegedly alluding to a ‘divine call’ to run (as reported in the newspapers), is he not beginning to be consumed by a Messianic complex? I hope not.
I first met the respected General sometime in 2003, shortly after the presidential election, through the assistance of the late Alhaji Wada Nas, the controversial former minister of special duties in Abacha’s regime. I had been pressurising Nas for an interview, for him to speak up on his tenure as Abacha’s minister; why he took on the opposition so frontally and became known as ‘minister for NADECO affairs’; Did he make so much money for all his efforts, given the widely acknowledged sleaze of that administration?
A genial old man, despite his unfavourable public persona, Nas would not grant a formal interview, even as he shared his shock to the news of the Abacha loot. He said he didn’t know the man was stashing so much away, while keeping a straight face under his dark goggles. Nas was facing harsh times financially, while the family he defended with his all, was living large on the largesse left by their patriarch.
When my pressures (for an exclusive interview) became too much, he told me: “Please, take this phone number. Call the person. Tell him you are from me.” The person turned out to be Gen. Buhari’s PA. Once I told him I was from Nas, he was warm and friendly,and went on to fix an interview appointment with Buhari. It was a lucky break. I wanted a big interview with Nas but I got a bigger one with Buhari. The interview held at the NICON Hilton (now Transcorp Hilton). Buhari spoke to me for an hour. He told me he was in politics to sanitise the process, when I asked him why a man, who sacked a civilian administration over alleged indiscipline and graft, would be comfortable in partisan politics? What was a good man doing in the midst of bad people? Buhari said politics was the only legitimate way anyone could change the system. “I have told you my reason for going into politics. I don’t know what else you want me to say,” he snapped, when I tried to box him into a corner. He spoke on other issues, including what he called the ‘fraud’ of Obasanjo’s victory.
I met Buhari again in his Kaduna residence twice in 2010 and 2011. I have the activist Professor of Virology, Tam David-West, to thank for one of the other two encounters. He had been through two electoral defeats, albeit in circumstances, he insists were skewed by the ruling party. During the interview sessions, I asked him the reason he wouldn’t quit (the race), seeing he had been unlucky in the contests? I asked him if he was not a religious fundamentalist, as alleged by his opponents? Why would a man, who became Head of State at 46 or thereabout, be fighting to be president at 70? Wasn’t that an aberration in Africa, seeing Europe and America were switching over to youthful leaders?
Buhari took all the questions in his stride. He betrayed no sign of irritation. First, he denied being a religious fundamentalist or a Nigerian Ayatollah? He asked for proofs from people, who were saying so. All his life and career, he had been at home with people of all religions, including Christianity. Even some of his domestic aides were staunch Christians. He would continue to run for elections so long as he had breath in his nostrils. He didn’t see himself as too old to run for elective office.
“The young people should come together, mobilise and defeat people like me you describe as old, instead of complaining,” he said. “That’s what Obama did. That’s what Cameron did. This is democracy. Mobilise and defeat the old.”
Buhari said Nigeria needed liberation from the crooks in power. And he would lead that change, with support from the ordinary people. His greatest fear, he said, was the fractionalisation of the country, what he called the’ Somalia-sation’ of Nigeria as a result of the irresponsibility of its leaders.
Anytime you left Buhari, you had the impression of a man of vision, a man deeply pained by the backwardness of his country. You also had the impression of a man with a cult following, who has been made to believe in his own invincibility and god-like qualities. He’s nearest to a saint, in the eyes of his followers and adherents. You can’t blame them. This is a nation in search of authentic heroes. Buhari approximates what heroic leadership is about.
When he made his iconic broadcast December 31, 1983, exhorting Nigerians to love their country, he was our ultimate JFK. He told Nigerians: “This generation of Nigerians, and indeed, future generations, have no other country but Nigeria. So, we must stay here and salvage it together.”
It was the days of the ‘Andrews,’ checking out to the foreign land in search of greener pastures. That exhortation became our own patriotic anthem, a rally call to Nigerians to love Nigeria, because Nigeria’s all we’ve got.
That was over two decades ago. Not anymore. No one has courage to tell Nigerians not to check out any longer. To stay home and do what? With a ballooning unemployment index, including that of graduates, people are searching for any kind of job from wherever.
With all the good qualities enumerated above, will Buhari, therefore, make better showing than he did in the three previous elections if he runs in 2015? Sadly, no. Yes, he is a good man, loved by many ordinary people. However, in life and politics where perception is everything, he has not been able to completely shake off the alleged religious extremism toga or that of a Northern irredentist. The forces that have so painted him seem to have done a good job of it. Many years after, he, unfortunately, doesn’t come across to many as a national leader. Just like the man who currently occupies the seat, President Jonathan. We have seen how a president, who came on a strong national appeal, has dramatically narrowed his administration to ethnic predilection.
If Buhari runs in 2015, he would be confirming what many of his adversaries and opponents had always suspected: That the whole merger proposition was all for the realisation of the ambition of Buhari and the ego of Bola Tinubu. A party should be about ideas and ideals, not individuals. A party is not a limited liability company owned by one or two persons. Luckily, I know a few respected members of APC, who won’t let that happen. For APC to remain the hope of the common man, that must never happen.
At 70 plus, it’s time for Buhari to forget his presidential dream, groom younger leaders to take over from him. With all due respect, Buhari is not indispensable. No man is indispensable. If Buhari runs and fails in 2015, he would have finally eroded the Buhari myth, which has kept many of his followers going over the years. And that would be quite tragic. A nation should not lose all its heroes, in the name of politics or whatever. We need statesmen men who, when they speak, everyone listens, including the president and governors. Partisanship robs the nation of such leaders. Anyone who truly loves Buhari ought to advise him to take a bow, and go on a deserved rest (from running for elective office). He’s played his part, he’s given his best and the rest is left for history, which will record him as a truly great Nigerian. No one can ask for more!