Is this, Finally, the Buhari Moment? By Waziri Adio
“This generation of Nigerians, and indeed future generations, have no country other than Nigeria. We shall remain here and salvage it together.”—Buhari, 1984.
“We seek a new Nigeria. It starts with us. It starts today… Nigeria is our home. Let us now turn it into the great nation we know it can and should be.”—Buhari, 2014.
The story of General Muhammadu Buhari and his engagement with Nigeria is a story layered with ironies. He made the first statement above in his first speech as a military head of state, after truncating a democracy. He made the second last week in his address to delegates at the national convention of the All Progressives Congress (APC), which could as well be an address to all Nigerians, as part of his quest to be the head of state again, this time under a democracy.
Woven into this personal narrative is a very sad and ironic commentary on the Nigerian condition. If the needful had been done, the first statement would have lost resonance by now, and the second, made thirty years after the first, would have been superfluous. Both, sadly, have not. And if those ills he identified and tried to tackle three decades ago as a military dictator have been wrestled aground, we won’t be confronted with a converted democrat and a septuagenarian exhorting us to build a new Nigeria. Sadly, too, those issues have not.
After that landmark speech last week, Buhari emerged as the flag-bearer of APC, scoring almost 60 per cent of the total votes cast against the initial prediction of a close race. He is set for a historic rematch against a familiar opponent, President Goodluck Jonathan, the only candidate he will be contesting against twice. Now in the race for the fourth time, the retired general has become something of a perennial presidential candidate. Thrice he had contested against candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and thrice he had lost.
Perhaps buoyed by that history, some PDP officials boast that they look forward to a contest against Buhari with relish because they believe their party has perfected a way of defeating him. They might mean this and they might turn out to be right. But my money is on the possibility that they are merely playing political mind-games to mask their trepidation about duelling with Buhari again. But if they indeed believe their own story, I think it will be the height of political naivety to dismiss Buhari’s candidacy at a moment like this.
To start with, the Buhari of 2014/2015 is not the Buhari of 2003 or the Buhari of 2007 or the Buhari of 2011. For sure, he is still the same person, largely. But time has been good to the retired general beyond the fact that he looks fit and sound. Time has dulled the edges of his contrived handicaps and brought his skill-set and pedigree into sharp focus. Also, the context and the issues of the coming election as well as the present field of play have imbued Buhari’s quest with fresh viability. Can this fourth shot at the presidency then be the Buhari moment? Possibly. We won’t know the answer to this until the votes are cast and counted in February. One thing is certain though: this is Buhari’s best chance ever as a presidential candidate.
I think three reasons have aligned to give Buhari this bounce. The first is that the major challenges facing the country today, and the critical issues that should decide the voters, give Buhari some edge. These are insecurity, corruption and the economy. Except during the civil war, at no other time in our history has our country witnessed such a generalised state of insecurity. Armed robbers, ritualists and kidnappers are having a field day in different parts of the country. And depraved terrorists kidnap, maim and kill our citizens with unnerving regularity and seize our territory with disturbing ease.
Yes, there is some recent claw-back by our armed forces against Boko Haram. But we are only recovering territories that shouldn’t have been lost in the first instance. We are Nigeria, for God’s sake! It a supreme irony that a country once known for bailing out other countries in distress cannot guarantee the safety of her citizens and the integrity of her territory. The fact that Buhari, in the early eighties under President Shehu Shagari, successfully fought the Maitasine insurgents and made a daring incursion into a hostile Chad projects him as the man with the track-record and the disposition for this dire moment.
Also, Buhari is widely believed to be well positioned to checkmate corruption. Here, his past and present make eloquent statements. His iron-fisted regime tried and jailed many Second Republic politicians for corruption. He also tried to straighten out the rest of society through his War Against Indiscipline (WAI). Out of office, he has lived modestly despite having been a federal commissioner (minister) for petroleum, the head of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) and a head of state. Buhari might not be as poor as he is being projected, but his Spartan and stern lifestyle radiates integrity and endears him to the mass of ordinary Northerners, who believe their other leaders have failed them, a rebuke that has been mischievously framed as evidence of religious fundamentalism. At a time when sleaze is now six for a penny and when the country cries for moral leadership, this plays to Buhari’s strength.
The economy is definitely not Buhari’s strong suit, but this might not be a fatal handicap. Clearly, the present administration has recorded some economic achievements in terms of growth and inflation rates, foreign direct investments and external reserves. But the more than 40% slump in the price of crude oil and our lack of much wriggle room, unlike other oil exporters, erodes the bragging rights of the incumbent. The fact that growth did not translate to shared prosperity and that the economy is headed south not just because of plunging oil prices but also because of massive oil theft and corruption may only give the incumbent some marginal advantage on the economy but will not put Buhari in a totally bad stead.
The second factor that has enhanced Buhari’s candidacy is that, unlike in the past three attempts, Buhari now has a formidable political platform. Buhari ran his three previous presidential contests largely on his own steam, without the benefit of a solid political structure and on platforms that were not national enough. Buhari has had to rely only on his cult-like following in the North, which in turn aroused and solidified suspicion in the South. Yet Buhari got 12.7 million votes in 2003, 6.6 million votes in 2007, and 12.2 million votes in 2011. He disputed all of them and challenged the results all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost, even when the highest court agreed there were some irregularities on some occasions.
However, the truth of the matter is that Buhari lacked a national support base in his last three outings and did not stand on the platform of a party that could compensate for his weakness. The emergence of APC, his election as its candidate and the fact that APC has managed not to implode after its primaries have changed all that. For the first time in five electoral cycles, PDP is now faced with its most formidable test ever. By next year, PDP would have been in power for 16 years and if it wins the election, it would have held power for 20 years by 2019. Even in the best of circumstances, fatigue will set in and voters will naturally seek change, as it happens regularly not just in the UK and the US, but also in countries like Ghana.
But the absence of a viable and formidable opposition had been a boon to PDP. Now, there is an APC, which even though has been described as “PDP light”, has the spread and the structure to credibly challenge the ruling party. For Buhari, APC provides added value and offers a beach-head into the hitherto impregnable South. The Southwest, where APC controls four out of six states, will be the real battleground in this election. While APC cannot guarantee that it will deliver the four states overwhelmingly to Buhari, the possibility that the party might deliver even a simple majority to Buhari in those states is a potential game changer.
The last factor that I think puts Buhari in serious contention is the current status of the profile of the two contestants. In 2011, President Jonathan, Buhari’s opponent then and now, was projected as a breath of fresh air and someone different from (and better than) his party. Three years after, that well-crafted image has run into serious headwind. Now, the only pitch open to the incumbent is not change or difference but his scorecard in office. This, expectedly, will be rigorously interrogated. Fact is while Buhari contested against a stronger Jonathan in 2011, Jonathan will be contesting against a stronger Buhari in 2015.
The stigmatization of Buhari as a religious fundamentalist and sympathiser of Boko Haram is losing its sheen. Unlike in the past, there have been conscious efforts to market Buhari beyond his fanatical base and challenge the way he was negatively framed by reverse bigots. Based on this outreach, a groundswell of support, fuelled by nostalgia and the burning desire for a new Nigeria, is building up for Buhari where none previously existed. Despite his rebranding, Buhari however still does not come across as an orator, a good debater and someone with a good handle on the economy. But these handicaps are more than compensated for by the reality that, at best, his opponent has only a slight advantage in these areas and that Buhari’s tested and trusted image speaks to the urgent national challenges of the moment.
It is still early to call the next presidential election. For one, two months is a very long time in politics. The landscape can change, for good and for ill, within hours. Another caveat is that elections are not won on paper or by logic alone. And yet another is that Buhari is running against a determined incumbent who should be expected to throw everything he has into it. For now, it is safe to say this election will live up to its billing as the most competitive in Nigeria’s history. And that: PDP can only dismiss a resurgent Buhari at its own peril.
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