Buhari Without ‘General’ By Abimbola Adelakun
The president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, recently requested he no longer be addressed as “General Muhammadu Buhari’ but simply as ‘Muhammadu Buhari”. It is a critical move that, perhaps, registers his public declaration of self-refashioning as a converted democrat willing to shed a title he devoted a significant part of his life earning.
Four years ago, when I first met Buhari in Lagos, I had asked him about his “General” toga; if he did not think it was incongruous with democracy. Mine was a question of perception by the voting citizens. Paraphrased, did he not think the General title was evocative of the unsavoury years of military rule and could impede his ambition? For a reply, he commenced with a stern look – as if I had just asked him to burn a holy book. He then replied in a voice, devoid of the charm he had displayed all evening with journalists, that he was keeping his title. He went on to say he had earned it meritoriously unlike some people who undeservedly promoted themselves through the ranks. He, Buhari, earned his title and he was keeping it.
Now, as president-elect, Buhari announced he was relinquishing it.
Historically, many a “vagabond in power,” apologies to the iconic Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, has taken designations to advance the character of their offices in a rather triumphalist, bombastic and self-aggrandising manner. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, after ascension to the presidency of Zaire, became Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, meaning, ‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’. If one ever needed to illustrate a hypocritical leadership, bereft of substance yet suffused with ideological contradictions, Mobutu was it. At the height of Idi Amin Dada’s lunatic presidency in Uganda, the world suffered the following offering: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”
If the politics of self-naming and renaming by a leadership indexes how their government will be defined, then Buhari’s slicing off the ‘General’ title from his person less than a fortnight before his oath of office is an omen. This renaming therefore may be a forerunner of his emergent persona after May 29.
One could, definitely, consider the titular realignment a practical necessity. If Buhari does not drop his military title, how will he add it to the title of “president” without the combo becoming cumbersome? But then, there is more to reconfiguring one’s identity than mere pragmatism. Buhari is trying to shed the overbearing, brute and dictatorial practices of his 21-month rule junta. Driven by raw passion, misplaced patriotism and, scant understanding of human behavioural practices, his junta tried to forcefully instil ethics and military discipline in the populace.
His junta might have succeeded in imposing some semblance of discipline in people while they lasted in office but in retrospect, Buhari would perhaps have learnt that one does not dictate collective morals with horsewhips and sheer force. When he was kicked out of office, his anti-indiscipline machinery could not but collapse like the brittle structure it truly was.
While some legacy has been attributed to Buhari’s junta, much of the ethical push of the 80s was a quick fix that underestimated the roots of indiscipline in Nigeria. Some folk, high on nostalgia for the Nigeria that used to be, have asked for a return of the War Against Indiscipline campaign. I truly hope Buhari ignores them. Nostalgia is not always a good sentiment, it can be paralysing. Setting up WAI – or any similar structure – in 2015 is not only retrogressive but a reflection of poor judgment on the part of his returning government.
In Nigeria’s 2015, letting go of General is an acknowledgement of the temporality of his return to power. If he had insisted otherwise, that title and all it educes would be the filter through which the actions of his presidency will be processed. If he chooses to fight corruption with iron gloves, as his followers expect, he would have to fight as president – guided by the principles of democracy and not an autocratic general who will confuse the country, with its complexities and fledging institutions, for a military camp.
It is not yet obvious what his anti-corruption plans proffer that knocks out what currently subsists. Who knows, the next few months might just knock the zeal out of him when he is confronted with the inbuilt contradictions of democracy. For instance, moving against the bigwigs of corruption does not guarantee he would succeed in throwing a single one in jail before May 29, 2019. His administration would be confronted with endless court injunctions facilitated by lawyers who will not hesitate to test the law to the uttermost limits set by the proponents of democracy. I still wonder what he would do then. Push back against the law like an old General or stand within its limits thereby gradually turning into a teddy bear, devoid of potent force but at least useful for gracing little girls’ mattresses? My hope for him is that he balances his zeal to sanitise the system with an adherence to the tenets of the law.
One more interesting aspect of Buhari’s ‘stripping’ of himself is how it conveys a message of a humble admission of his own humanity. Note he added neither the ‘Chief’ label like Olusegun Obasanjo did when he walked this path some 16 years ago (without entirely purging himself of his high-handedness) nor “Mallam” as a desperate last resort against ordinariness. It is “call me Muhammadu Buhari” with nothing else added to shore up any vacuity or insecurity of his person he might be accommodating. He is saying he is an ordinary man, one who will be unprotected from his fallibility by military fatigue.
Those who think that Buhari’s past as a military ruler –and all the successes associated with his tough stance – is all Nigeria needs to purge her soul had better take a cue from the man himself. He will not – because he cannot – sort out Nigeria through the force of his personality. Our problems are too complex for such simple-minded expectations. His choice to drop the title he once held dear is a telling move for the benefit of his followers who fancy him an avenging angel, the man who will bear Nigeria’s problems on his shoulders. The resolution of Nigeria’s problems, he has indicated, will be a concerted effort of the ruler and the ruled.