Conversations with Buhari By Tunde Fagbenle
The setting was ideal, so was the time. It was morning in Daura, Katsina State, and General Muhammadu Buhari’s hometown. The sun was readying itself to rise, with an eye peering through the greyish northern sky to spy on the earth beneath.
My contact had warned me to be there before dawn and, like an ambusher, lie in wait for the general to be up to do his morning ablution and prayers. “He’s an early riser,” he had told me. But he knows you are around and would attend to you, ‘briefly,’ he had said, since you have come from far away land and have been here for two days already. But you must be here before the loving masses start to amass. For, then, it would be over. And he will be off to Kaduna today.”
When finally at about 6 am the lanky general sauntered into the lounge, he had a warm smile across his face, a bright white set of teeth breaking through the lightly ajar lips. The thought of how this mimics the rising sun crossed my mind. But this is no time for idle reverie.
“Hello, Tunde,” the general said, “hope the vigil has not been too long.” He smiled.
TF: “Congratulations, sir, on your victory.”
MB: “Thank you, thank you, but the victory is everyone’s, and yours, or you didn’t vote for me?”
TF: “I did, sir.”
MB: “Then congratulations to you too. In another 15 minutes we shall be mobbed. So you are well advised to be quick with your questions,”
(He sat down across to me, his mien suddenly drawn and serious.)
TF: “Sir, fourth time lucky. Did you at any time truly believe that this day will come, that Nigerians will finally come round to voting you in as their president?”
MB: I never do anything if I don’t have the conviction that it is possible, if I give it my best. My policy is never to give up — on anything: people, the country, desire, anything. If I don’t achieve the result I aim for, it should never be for want of trying.”
TF: “But you gave up in 2011, literally, after your third attempt and being rejected by Nigerians.”
MB: (Cuts in) “If I ‘gave up’ as you said, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be persuaded to run again. And, I believe I was not ‘rejected by Nigerians’ as you put it. If I thought I was truly rejected by the majority of Nigerians and that I lost fairly, I wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of challenging the result in the tribunal. Be that as it may, that is behind us now.”
TF: “Many Nigerians, sir, even those who hate you…”
MB: “No Nigerian ‘hates’ me.”
TF: “Sorry, sir, even those who are against you, recognise certain admirable qualities in you from the experience of your time as military Head of State, to which perseverance has now been added. One of them is my friend Lawson Omokhodion who held an unshaken belief that only a Buhari can save Nigeria.
“In one of my columns in August last year titled, ‘Examining the Buhari Option,’ I despaired on the prospect of the ‘Buhari Option’ (BO). If I may explain sir, the BO is a romantic notion of a Gen Buhari coming to clear the deck of corruption and indiscipline in Nigeria, a la Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, spearheading a ‘revolution’ as it were.
“My despair at the prospect was explained thus: ‘A civilian Buhari cannot do much amidst the barracuda politicians we have without being impeached, compromised, forced to resign, or eliminated.’ I argued that even as a military government, it didn’t take long before an internal military putsch terminated it.
“My question sir, seeing, as Nigerians believe, that your APC is the PDP in all but name — comprising largely of politicians who are either not different from or have migrated from the PDP — how do you propose to go about your ‘cleansing’ of the systemic rot without being consumed by the system in a manner akin to how your military rule ended?”
MB: “Yes, I remember reading that your piece which had an insightful beginning and middle and a poor, very poor, and despairing conclusion. (Laughter). You talked like one who has lost faith in Nigeria and the Nigerian. I think you even said something like you are sad or convinced that Nigeria’s problem is unresolvable. And that things will continue in the same ways for a long time to come — unmitigated rigging by unpopular incumbents to remain in power; corruption; indolence; etc.
“But it hasn’t taken long before that premise of yours was disproved, has it? For the first time in Nigeria, an incumbent president was rejected at the polls to continue in office, even in spite of scattered attempts to keep to the rigging tradition. It has reached a point that Nigerians have had enough, and the majority truly yearns for a country that is well run, an economy that is structured and buoyant, a military that is capable of defending their country, a judiciary the ordinary man can repose faith in, institutions that are structured, disciplined, and patriotic, and a ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’ that is not brown-envelope driven.”
TF: “The colour of the envelope has changed, sir.”
MB: “Tunde, on a serious note, a lot rests on the leadership. People take cue from the leadership, its body language, the matching of its utterances with its actions; its transparency. Nigerians are not by any yardstick different from human beings all over the world. And I will not accept that we are doomed to remain backward, undisciplined, unproductive, corrupt, for life. No.
“For a start, I am publicly declaring my assets from day one, and I am asking my deputy and cabinet members to do likewise. If you can’t abide by that you don’t take the position. Simple. Then after that, the eyes of the world will be on you and your dealings to see by how much your declared assets have astronomically multiplied while in office. The institutions of checking against corruption will be strengthened and well funded and headed by like-minded incorruptible people. And, believe me, there are many out there. Didn’t we just have a Jega of INEC? How he has conducted himself throughout, in the face of unspeakable temptations, would anyone have believed of such a Nigerian in the past? When Nigerians begin to believe in the leadership and in the system, things will start to change and roll spectacularly.”
TF: “But, sir, all this is sweet without considering the anomalous system and structure underpinning the whole wobbly edifice. Starting from the National Assembly — its size, composition, and nature — to the whole executive structure where the number of ministers, special advisers, special assistants, advisers to special advisers and assistants to special assistants, etc. have meant 70 or more per cent of our revenue going to paying overheads and recurrent expenditure. No nation in the world develops with such crippling load. Sir, with due respect, without figuring out how to change all that drastically and dramatically, it wouldn’t take long before you are frustrated or booted out of office. And I am yet to talk of the entire contradictory federal structure that has brought the clamour for a ‘true federalism’ or ‘fiscal federalism,’ and so on; hence the call for a (Sovereign) National Conference. How do you hope to deal with this myriad of problems sir.”
MB: “The cynic in you again. Again, Tunde, I believe in Nigeria and I believe the majority of Nigerians want a change for the better. I believe that when they see a leadership that is open, transparent, progressive and purposeful, Nigerians will support any action or step to reorder the system and structure without necessarily bringing the roof down on everybody. Yes, I agree with you that the Legislature issues need to be addressed and urgently. I will support a unicameral system and will support reduction in size and remuneration of the legislature and even the executive.”
TF: “But, sir, you will not have the whole time in the world to work some magic. Nigerians are impatient lot, especially after the years of locust they have just suffered. The honeymoon with you and your government will not be for more than six months when they would need to see visible changes in the system or in their lives. I am worried that…”
MB: “Don’t be worried for me. The job at hand is for everybody to do. We will all have to join hands and heads to bring the change we want about. I am over 70 now and so I am not afraid to die. I am ready to help bring about the change Nigeria needs or die trying.”
(The noise around the house was increasing in decibel by the minute. The crowd had begun to mass and chant: “Sai Baba,” “Sai Buhari,” “Sai Baba.” There was scant security to deter them. We could no longer hear ourselves talk. General Buhari looked at me in pity. “You have to go now,” he said. “Perhaps another opportunity will come in future for us to continue from where we left.”
(The sun had risen out of the sky, its ray piercing through my window blinds unforgiving of my extended stay in bed. I woke up to the cacophony of the menagerie in my garden. The geese were gawking, the peacocks were neighing, the cockerels were persistent in their morning alarm, and my parrot had joined heralding the new dawn. It was all but a dream. Sai Baba.