It is settled even in the most polemical circles that Gen Ibrahim Babangida, had he won the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) nominations, could never produce the kind of fanatical and almost hypnotic following Gen Muhammadu Buhari is eliciting in most parts of the North. The reason, it seems, is not that Babangida is less a humanist than Buhari, or even less astute a politician and tactician. What sets the two apart, and puts Buhari ahead of Babangida at the moment, is the cumulative and sanitising effect of time, or what some historians and biographers describe as iconoclastic posterity. It is indeed a strange phenomenon that someone so aloof as Buhari, so cold and detached, so inflexible and unfriendly can work a crowd so passionately. Stranger still is the fact that he whips the crowd into frenzy, not by delicately wrought words and uplifting phrases, nor by calculated soapbox theatrics and choreographed dances, as perfected by both the PDP and the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), but by the simple fact of his unfathomably aloof personality.
There is nothing in Buhari’s history or in his politics to warn us of the explosively adulatory reception he is receiving all over the North. In 2003 when he first tried to win the presidency, his almost condescending approach to seeking votes barely got him notice in serious political gatherings. Party apparatchiks viewed him with curious amazement, as if he were an object of comedy from serious literature, and both regular and rented crowds that thronged his rallies instinctively knew he was unsellable. The lanky and laconic military officer-turned politician was too politically and socially awkward to be admired or given a serious hearing. In 2007, when he again fought for the presidency, he had begun to make an impression, but the voters were still too impassive and too judgemental to help him. They didn’t like the ways and impositions of the anti-modernist, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, but Buhari was also too apolitical to make amends for his dictatorial past, particularly his medieval, if not inquisitorial, sense of justice.
This is Buhari’s third and last stand. At 69, he is unlikely to offer himself for the highest office a fourth time. Even if he wins he is unlikely to go for a second term. But nature and its curious alchemy have conspired to sell the retired army general to the electorate beyond his own political gifts and accomplishments. His rally in Kaduna pulled an incredibly large crowd, never before seen in the city. On the day of his rally, it was perilous for anyone to identify with any other candidate, particularly the PDP’s. The venue of the rally itself was jam-packed, and so too were adjoining streets on which thronged fierce, fanatical Buhari supporters looking for a fight. The rage of the general’s supporters in Minna, Gombe, Yola, Jalingo and Maiduguri was palpable, with Gombe signposting the looming disaster and dilemma facing the ruling party. The PDP has often been regarded as a rigging machine, a reputation they rehearsed in 2003 and secured for all time in 2007. They are suspected to be minded to rig the elections again in 2011, if not at the ballot, then in the courts where they appear to be neutralising the Appeal Court and disingenuously setting up the Supreme Court, with the active help of court insiders, to predetermine the outcomes of governorship petitions.
But given the fanaticism of Buhari’s supporters, their intolerance of and impatience with the PDP, particularly its presidential ticket, and the intensity of the frustrations and alienations they have had to endure for more than a decade, it is hard to see how balloting can be successfully subverted in the region. The ruling party, which is fomenting trouble in the Southwest, with plans to incarcerate progressive leaders, has obviously failed to gauge the mood of much of the North and the whole of Southwest. But thanks to Buhari, the ruling party is meeting more than its match. Whether it likes it or not the PDP is fighting a war in the North, a war declared by Buhari’s supporters, a war unwittingly encouraged by Buhari’s statements that he would not contest any rigging in court nor dissuade his supporters from lynching election riggers. If the PDP, therefore, decides to fight war on two fronts, the voters seem eager to furnish the party its desire.
Buhari has become the North’s hero, not because they think he can win or because other parts of the country see him as competent to rule, but because they have simply fallen in love with him. After running for the presidency twice, he has demonstrated that losing twice was not enough to lure him into the sort of depressing compromises rife in Nigeria. As presidential candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party in 2007, he insisted on going to court against his party’s wishes, and denounced the Government of National Unity which his party embraced to its peril. He has proved to be reliable, dependable, honest, self-assured and has shown he has the character to rule Nigeria with a steady, confident pair of hands. He is probably one of the few leaders in the world whose charisma has little to do with his speeches or erudition, or even his antecedents. If the turnout in the April polls is heavy in the North, it will be because of Buhari.
Given the massive and tumultuous crowds that welcome Buhari at every stop in the North, it is unlikely any governor in the region, no matter which party he belongs, and no matter what promises he has given his party’s standard-bearer, will openly and defiantly work against Buhari. I suspect, for the sake of peace, they will be relieved to see their people vote for Buhari. I suspect too that the PDP and its standard-bearer, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, know that they will have to look for fishes in other waters. However, in all the talk about Buhari’s acceptability and the growing fanatical support for him, there has been little or no reference to his programmes, his suitability for high office, or even his political competence. They talk about his character, and he has it in abundance. They talk about his honesty, and he is unimpeachable. They talk about his courage and fearlessness, and they are right. And then they talk about his experience and discipline, and they are also right. Had these been the only qualifications required to rule this fractious, wasteful and undisciplined country, Buhari would have received my enthusiastic endorsement.
If we are going to get it right, however, it is important we really get it right. In addition to the many qualities a Nigerian leader must have, it is inconceivable that these qualities, like an adverb, are not modified or qualified by other qualities. Of course it is alright to be disciplined, but it must be blended with a delicate mixture of humanism that enriches rather than vitiates. To be otherwise is for the lofty potentials and artistic endowments of the people to be stifled and regimented, the effect of which is to create an immeasurably dull society, probably even philistine, and clearly unprepared for the future. After all, discipline is a means to an end, not an end in itself, as Buhari sometimes unfortunately gives the impression. It is true we need someone with courage and character, such as he showed in trying to probe defence contracts when he was Head of State and in his military campaign against Chad shortly before he became ruler, but these qualities must be enabled by politics and sound judgement. Buhari is neither a politician, as his inability to forge an alliance against the PDP indicated, though he would have been the greatest beneficiary; nor is his judgement always sound, as his execution of drug couriers under iniquitously retroactive laws showed.
Modern Nigeria is an amalgam of boisterous and sometimes disruptively competitive ethnic and religious groups in need of carefully measured but firm handling. However, if the country is not restructured, the contradictions it is groaning under today will explode in the long run. We need an iconoclast with a sublime understanding of how to situate these futuristic but urgent requirements within a wider framework of a flexible society anchored on disciplined but responsive values. Can Buhari be that man? I am not certain. Though he is not gregarious, and needn’t be to be a successful leader, he is a perfectly usual man, an honest, predictable and dependable person, but without the depth or scope of vision for a 21st Century society.
By far the most important reason he cannot get my endorsement is that he appears to me, through his words and deeds, to be uncomfortable with democracy. He and his supporters have projected his honesty and character almost to the exclusion of his views on democracy. What are those views? It is safe to say they are neither deep nor uplifting; they are indeed as ordinary as the views projected by the ordinary Nigerian. I think for us, the next leader must not only have a deeper and concrete appreciation of the centrality of democratic fundamentals in social, economic and political development; as candidate for office and potential custodian of democracy, he must be quite comfortable with the concept, and his enunciation of it must not depend on whether it is convenient for him or not. When a candidate admonishes the lynching of election riggers, he demonstrates poverty of ideas, a disturbing streak of authoritarianism and a fatally inchoate understanding of the direction the society should be heading. The fact is that at 69, Buhari has remained admirably an honest and capable leader, but he has not outgrown his unease with democracy, nor has he developed a consistent idea of what kind of society he has the ambition to lead and what freedoms to allow it even if it hurts his private and public interests.
The emphasis, for most of those presenting themselves for high office, has always been to adumbrate a body of programmes for the improvement of the material conditions of the people, something a leader of modest gifts can do. No thoughts, deep or superficial, are spared the constitution or the framework of our togetherness. The American constitution would have been an uninspiring document had its framers been obsessed with the material conditions of its people. Of course the Nigerian constitution, like a speech worked and reworked by many experts, has no soul. And so we have a responsibility to rise to the higher levels of existence and to stand and fight for something much nobler, something extraordinary, something more filling than food and clothing. I am angry that none of those aspiring for office has spoken to this special need. Buhari has not, and indeed cannot, for his limits are too worrisome to be ignored. Of course he towers far and above Obasanjo or the late Umaru Yar’Adua, and any day, anytime would trounce Jonathan in the province of governance. Buhari in the State House, I must add, would be far better than the three. But there is a limit to what he can give because there is a limit to what he has got.