Muhammadu Buhari... between imagination and reality
By Kingsley Osadolor
PROBABLY the best description of the book I am about to review is to say that, Who Really Is General Muhammadu Buhari? is an extensive, robust, engaging and illuminating rejoinder to the series of views and opinions which over the past 25 years have created in the public imagination a persona that is at variance with the real Gen. Buhari. The author himself is a prominent, articulate and irrepressible player in the public space. For several decades, he has taken on a broad range of issues and persons, never tiring, never despairing, until he believes that the last iota of the particular or ancillary matter has been exhausted. He is not only a renowned scholar as a Professor of Virology, he is also a highly regarded public intellectual. It is certainly not impolite to say that Professor Tam David-West is a controversial figure. Indeed, that would be a trite remark to make, for as he acknowledges in his new book, "I never, ever run away from a fight, especially for a good cause." (p. 117). And he has served notice already to those who will pick issues with him on matters arising from the book. "I naturally expect that the wounded will snort and even roar and, of course, come around charging. No problem at all. I'm ready and prepared to take them on in 'open space'." (p.8).
In October 1989 at the NEWSWATCH summit, Prof. David-West granted an interview in which he contrasted the styles of Buhari and Babangida. He was arrested and detained without trial. Subsequently, he was arraigned on trumped-up charges that, while he was Oil Minister, he drank tea and received a lady's wristwatch as bribes, to compromise the nation's economic interest. The tribunal jailed him for life, but was freed on appeal, after he had spent nine months behind bars at the inhospitable Bama prisons in the country's north-eastern fringe. The author refers to these incidents in the book, extolling Buhari, while firing broadsides at Babangida and Prof. Jubril Aminu, a task he achieves briskly and then returns to his polemic pre-occupation with Buhari's defence.
Who Really Is General Muhammadu Buhari? was unsolicited by the subject of the book. The author tells us that Gen. Buhari was kept completely in the dark about the project, making no contribution whatsoever. But the author leaves no one in doubt that the immediate instigation for the writing project derived from the barrage of attacks on Buhari on the eve on the 2007 presidential elections in which Buhari was the candidate of the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP), running against the incumbent People's Democratic Party (PDP), and Action Congress (AC). By the author's reckoning, in January 2007 alone, there were, on Buhari, over 14 media articles and three editorials, which were decidedly negative with hardly any redeeming features. "I've never come across such unrestrained hate, such denouncement, such repulsive verbiage against a fellow human being, a compatriot, all because these Buhari haters want to hoist themselves as super-patriots of Nigeria." (p.50). He notes, for instance, the title and text of the press conference addressed by Prof Wole Soyinka, "The Nigerian Nation Against Buhari". According to David-West, "It should have been more appropriate to say, 'Wole Soyinka Against Buhari', because Wole is no spokesman for Nigeria at all." (p.60).
But what qualifies David-West to be Buhari's defender, considering the differences between them, which the writer itemises? The author is an Ijaw from the South, the subject a Fulani from the North; the author an Anglican from Rivers State, the subject a Muslim from Katsina State. Former Head of State Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar points out in the Foreword that, in fact, with these differences, "the credibility of his testimony will, even for doubting Thomases, appear to be irreproachable and with cast-iron guarantees." But there is indeed more to the sterling qualifications of the author to handle his self-assigned task. He describes himself as "a dyed-in-the-wool pro Buhari" (p.53), adding that, "I write as an insider, not as an outsider. I write from first hand, not from second hand. I write with copious authentic documents, not speculations or histrionics spiced with prejudice and bias." (p.114). A meticulous record-keeper, Prof. David-West should alternatively have been a librarian or an archivist. He is reputed with a prodigious talent for research and analysis. He argues that there are at least two reasons why Buhari is one of Nigeria's most misunderstood and maligned leaders of our time. "One, laziness to study the 'Buhari phenomenon'. The real Buhari. This laziness often expresses itself in 'lazy scepticism', rather than 'rational scepticism' (Russell) or 'virtuous scepticism' (Dudley).... The second reason which makes for the Buhari-phobia is implacable negative mindset suffused in negative stereotypes" (pp.42-43).
Clearly, the persuasion for the author in writing the book derives from his personal encounter with the subject, who left a remarkable impression on him when he served as Oil Minister. Buhari's impact must have been quite telling, for David-West was no first-timer in public office when he assumed headship of Nigeria's oil industry. From 1975-1978, he was Commissioner for Education in old Rivers State; he also served on the Constitution Drafting Committee that prepared the 1979 draft Constitution. And, in any event, he is a man of great intellect and exposure. But Buhari won him over with the essential attributes of integrity, probity, discipline, reliability, thoroughness, patriotism, stoicism and self-effacement. (p.26). Besides, the author acknowledges that Buhari, a former Military Governor of the old North-Eastern State and erstwhile Chairman of NNPC and Oil Minister (or Federal Commissioner as they were called in the 1970s), was his first tutor in matters of hydrocarbon.
Prof. David-West's defence of Gen. Buhari is fiery, hard-hitting, argumentative, and occasionally sarcastic. The reader has much to make him laugh, as David-West crows each time he believes he has delivered a knockout punch to the opposing view. The reader gets the impression also that the author is holding court, and he is the sole judge. So that when he clears Buhari of a long-standing allegation, he pronounces the verdict with a gavel. This is evident, for instance, in the matter of the Oputa Panel on Human Rights abuses over which Buhari declined to honour the Panel's invitation to testify. After blaming the Obasanjo government for not fast-tracking the appropriate legal instrument that would have empowered the Panel to issue subpoenas, and recalling President Bill Clinton's retort not to help the Senate Committee define the meaning of sexual intercourse in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, David-West concludes: "Verdict: Buhari/Oputa Panel: Not guilty. Discharged and acquitted simpliciter." (p.156).
To identify the real Buhari, the author has first to rescue him from the clutches of the band of Buhari-choppers, Buhari-phobics and Buhari-haters, as he describes them. In his view, Buhari's image has been maligned by some 16 'sins'. Among the 16 'sins' are human rights abuse, Islamic fundamentalism, Decree 4 and repression of the media, Decree 2: State Security (Detention of Persons ) of 1984, the 53 suitcases saga, suspension of the Ooni of Ife and the Emir of Kano, the N2.8 billion 'missing' oil money (which was probed and dismissed earlier by Justice Ayo Irikefe), the siege laid to Chief Awolowo's house, lack of democratic credentials, the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), among others. In coming to Buhari's defence, the author's duty is to perform the absolution.
To achieve this, the book has five chapters, excluding the preliminary pages as well as the epilogue and annexure. The work is dedicated "To all who are sincerely and obdurately committed to lofty ethical principles and values. Persons of rock solid principles." (p. vii). The Foreword is written by former Head of State Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who praises Buhari as an extraordinary Nigerian in or out of uniform, and "a leader of rare qualities and even rarer attributes". (p.ix). The book has a Prologue, which is like an extended abstract, although it does not suffice for a reader who wants the meat of the author's contestation of Buhari's vilification.
In Chapter One, the author recounts his first meeting with Gen. Buhari, which was at his swearing-in as a Minister. He describes the process of his unsolicited nomination and the dispatch with which letters were treated as unmistakable signs that it was a serious-minded government. In Chapter Two, he explores Buhari's biography, noting his huge appetite for reading and recalling that it was not unusual for the former Head of State to return to him his memos as Oil Minister with extensive comments only a few hours after receiving such memos. As a student, Buhari had been outstanding both in academics and in sports; but his schoolmates already noticed that he was strong-willed, principled and that he always stood his ground. Considering his military ancestry, it seemed to have been no accident that young Buhari enlisted in the army, where he had a glittering career, including being a Civil War veteran, GOC, and later military Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.
Chapters Three and Four are easily the heart of the book where the author enumerates and responds pointedly to Buhari's critics and their catalogue of allegations. In Chapter Three, titled, 'Buhari's Critics', the heat which the author generates is as intense as that of the anti-Buhari squadron whom he wants to shoot down. The chapter easily passes as a scathing review of Prof. Wole Soyinka's memoirs, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, as well as of the text of his press conference address referred to earlier in this review. Prof. David-West takes on Prof. Soyinka, whom he calls his friend, for the latter challenging Buhari's competence to seek election on account of his unfavourable antecedents, and for the vitriol of his language. The author is livid at Prof. Soyinka, pointing out his inconsistencies in ignoring the unfavourable antecedents of another presidential candidate whom David-West accuses Soyinka of endorsing only as an after-thought. In a sense, the chapter conveys the distinct impression of a shouting match. Thus, where Soyinka referred to Buhari as "Somebody like Buhari", David-West leaps in with his acerbic response: " How rude. How intemperate....Honestly, I'm so upset with this indecency in language especially from someone I have respected. What does Wole Soyinka really think he is to warrant such cheekiness from him against a fellow compatriot"? (p.57). Then he adds, "the cavalier manner with which General Buhari is being dismissed as a presidential candidate or aspirant falls short of decency, intellectual or moral, especially from the heights it emanates." (p.54).
Chapter Four is the longest in the book, running from page 69 to page 224, that is, 156 pages in all. It is in this chapter that the author addresses the Buhari 'sins'. It seems to me that the chapter could have conveniently been broken into three separate chapters. The first could have tackled some of the 'sins' such as those on human rights abuses, media repression, Decree 2, and the trial of politicians of the Second Republic under Decree 3. Another suggested chapter could have addressed 'sins' emanating from Buhari's economic management, including his tenure as Oil Minister in the 1970s and the N2.8 billion saga, while using the section to highlight Buhari's successes in economic management which a dispassionate reading will show were quite impressive. Another chapter could have been devoted to Buhari and Idiagbon as the Quintessential Pair.
In rebutting the allegations of human rights abuses, the author draws attention to the fact that the draconian decrees, some of which he personally had reservations about, were drafted by civilian lawyers. This in my view bestirs the question of whether the principal did not get what he requested of the agent. David-West also uses antecedent and subsequent history as a major plank for the revisionism of the alleged human rights abuses of the Buhari administration. Thus, he argues that Obasanjo as a military leader established a gulag at Ita-Oko, and even as a civilian President the human rights record of his government was appalling. Ditto other military governments after Buhari. But he omits to recognise that none of those governments, for example, Obasanjo, Babangida, and Abacha have been spared of blistering criticisms in the public arena.
Understandably, because of his long-standing relationship with the media, as a preamble to addressing the Decree 4 issue, the author establishes his credentials cogently as an adjunct member and supporter of a free but responsible press. He claims that The Guardian journalists who published prematurely the ambassadorial list should have exercised better discretion, because the story indicated security lapses in government and simultaneously embarrassed the regime. Did that warrant a jail sentence? Journalists who read the book will wonder whether the author forgot that in the early days of the regime, even when no one had irritated it, Gen. Buhari granted an interview to the National Concord newspaper in which he declared deadpan that he was going to "tamper" with the press. As with the revisionism of human rights abuses, the author claims that whereas only one Decree 4 was promulgated under Buhari, between 1984 and 1994, there were 11 anti-Press Decrees. Journalists would definitely retort: who knows what might have been if Buhari's regime had lasted more than 20 months?
On the other hand, David-West blasts those who accuse Buhari of Islamic fundamentalism, because he had urged Muslims to vote for a Muslim leader. The author draws a parallel with the exhortation by a former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria that Christians should vote for a Christian leader. Besides, he charges that some of those who are most vociferous in maligning Buhari with fundamentalism are either atheists or agnostics, some of whom wine and dine with tyrants. He notes further that as Governor of Katsina State, President Yar'Adua introduced Sharia law. Nevertheless, the book recounts a number of actions taken by Buhari, which clearly did not portray him as a fundamentalist. He bulldozed mosques that were constructed illegally, arrested and detained a number of Islamic preachers for their violent sermons, raised the fares for the annual hajj, and throughout his command duties in the military, there were no complaints that he discriminated against anyone on the basis of religion.
In Chapter Five, there is an elaboration on Gen. Buhari's contributions to democracy, an issue that was considered in the preceding chapter, where the author had queried which military Head of State ever had democratic credentials. It is contradictory he argues, but points out, citing Kofi Busia's Africa In Search Of Democracy, that what was crucial was the style of the particular leader, that is, "whether the military head of state is an orthodox dictator (despot) or respects the 'moral language' of democracy". (p.150). David-West contends that at the Federal Executive Council meetings, Gen. Buhari did not impose his views, but rather was democratic in pandering to the wishes of the majority. I will quote one encounter in detail. "I cannot forget the day I lost, as Minister of Petroleum and Energy, a memo on Petroleum Tax. Both the Head of State, General Buhari, and his alter ego, General Idiagbon, supported me to the hilt. In fact, General Buhari was so sure of my pulling my memo through the Exco that he had to instruct the Acting Attorney-General, Chief Howard F. David-West (my first cousin), on the section of the NNPC Act that would be amended after the Exco meeting. Howard, in fact, walked across to me to further ascertain the relevant sections to be amended. I confirmed. However, after I presented the memo, a heated debate ensued. In the end, after the democratic voting by ministers, I lost, and this was after both Buhari and Idiagbon had spoken very spiritedly in my support. General Buhari's rounding-up remark: 'One cannot predict this council. I thought the memo would sail through easily.'" (p.226).
But the author falls into a grievous error by charging that were the above-narrated transaction to have been under Alhaji Shehu Shagari's Second Republic or Chief Olusegun Obasanjo's Fourth Republic, they would have lobbied and bribed lawmakers for the passage of bills. The comparable structure and arm of government is the Federal Executive Council, and there is no evidence that either Shagari or Obasanjo had to bribe or lobby their ministers. Even though Buhari's Exco was small, the process of lawmaking under the military is totally different from a civilian democratic setting. Or were there legislators so-called under the Buhari regime? It is also debatable whether as the author claims that, by terminating the Second Republic "parody of democracy" Buhari also contributed to democracy. Indeed, the evidence that the author provides of Buhari's contribution to democracy relates to, not his superintendence over a democratically elected government as such, but in seeking under the current dispensation, to test the legal underpinnings of democracy. This David-West describes as Buhari's "obstinate, inflexible and very strong-willed resolve to run the entire legal gamut in his principled quest for justice, even in the face of the manifest or palpable electoral malpractices and fraud which were visited on us with perverse swank". (p.228). I agree.
The book closes with an Epilogue, which is an anthology of some of the public reactions to the Supreme Court verdict on December 12, 2008, by which the apex court by a split decision of 4:3 held that President Umaru Yar'Adua won the disputed presidential elections of April 21, 2007, and thus ended the legal battle spearheaded by Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Using academic metaphors, David-West weighs in on the commentaries on the Supreme Court verdict. On the non-serialisation of ballot papers, the author argues that, "It is like a compulsory subject requirement for a degree in academic culture. A student can score 'distinction' in all the other subjects required for the degree. Once he failed in the compulsory subject, all the impressive scores of 'distinction' are automatically worthless for the award of the degree...President Yar'Adua is very familiar with this, being an academic." (p.256). On President Yar'Adua's confession to electoral irregularities, the author reminds his readers of the harsh penalty meted to a student who cheats in an examination. "In other words," David-West writes, "President Yar'Adua after confessing (to) cheating or electoral malpractice ('flaw' in his own words) in the electoral processes that declared him 'President' had no business continuing to be beneficiary of the very fraudulent or flawed election..."(p.257).
There is no question that, in exploring who the real Buhari is, David-West calls attention to the achievements of Buhari while he was Head of State for 20 months. The record is humbling and thought-provoking. It is a clear message for us as a nation to demand good governance and a wake-up call for public office holders. The media, civil society groups, and policy makers will find the book particularly revealing. Under Buhari, Nigeria was exporting refined petroleum products. Petroleum products were never imported, unlike the bazaar and attendant hardship we experience today. Buhari shunned the IMF; our refineries were brimful of bitumen. His government also stamped out illegal bunkering for which David-West received several death threats and an encounter he relates in the book. An acquaintance even offered him a bulletproof vest which he accepted but never used. He asks: "How many people would remember that, under General Buhari, our refineries never had problems with Turn-Around -Maintenance?" (p.13).
So, when did Buhari commit the original 'sin'? This is a matter for future enquiry, as the author provides no clue as to the genesis of the allegations. It is certainly no longer axiomatic that good wine need no bush. Those who occupy public office owe themselves and the governed a duty to correct erroneous impressions about themselves and their policies. I concede that sometimes a target of persistent disinformation may simply throw his hands up in despair. But the weight of evidence provided by David-West indicates that the subject may have, indeed, been unfair to himself in paying scant attention to image and reputation management. But then, Who Really Is General Muhammadu Buhari? Gen. Buhari hasn't changed. Prof. Tam David-West has provided us with new lenses with which to view a misunderstood patriot.