In the pantheon of Nigerian rulers, President Buhari occupies an uncontestable stool. He is the first leader to return to power on the strength of a faulty myth rather than on a record of demonstrable achievements. The political marketers of the Buhari candidacy in the count down to the 2015 elections were armed mostly with nothing concrete beyond a lingering myth. Somehow a Buhari myth had accumulated in our public consciousness. It was a myth of honesty, personal discipline, considerable integrity, Spartan lifestyle, patriotic commitment, fidelity to transparent and effective governance with minimal tolerance for corruption.
Above all else, the Buhari myth was predicated on a certain perception of strong leadership, the will and courage to do unpopular but necessary things in the national interest. In the popular mind, Buhari’s two-year tenure as a military dictator and mindless authoritarian between 1983 to 1985 was remarkable for his appeal to a certain patriotic spirit and the ignition of a higher nationalism in a more disciplined society. These were the driving tools of the Buhari myth. The political entrepreneurs of the nascent All Progressives Congress (APC) tapped into and marketed this myth to Nigerians in the run up to the 2015 presidential race. It worked. Buhari got elected principally to re-enact the content of the myth around him. The nation wanted the opposite of Mr. Jonathan’s flaccid presidency. In the absence of any other serious contender, Buhari seemed a logical choice. And so, he won. But six and half years down the slope, has the reality of the Buhari presidency lived up to the myth that propelled him into Aso Rock? That is the critical poser for those now desperately searching for a Buhari legacy.
In recent times, the myth of the strong leader has emerged as a major category in political thinking. It is predicated on the consideration that the triumph of liberal democracy in most parts of the world has not erased the yearning in some societies for aspects of authoritarian leadership. It seems to be the case that societies that have passed through periods of authoritarian rule and transited to democracy occasionally relapse into a craving for elements of strong leadership. This yearning comes calling in times of social and economic distress. Sometimes, when current problems overwhelm the slovenly ways of democratic rule, societies with a memory of more brisk times can use the instruments of democracy to invoke strong leadership. The most authoritative source book on aspects of the myth of strong leadership as a political phenomenon is Archie Brown’s remarkable book, The Myth of The Strong Leader.
Leaders that thrive on myth either inherit or create their own myths. It is rare for persons to have national leadership thrust on them based on myths of doubtful veracity. Buhari would seem to be lucky to have had national leadership literally conferred on him because the mob were made to believe he was a good man. Once Buhari’s originating myth was force fed to the electorate, his limitations were accommodated. His shroud of messianism was a good camouflage for his deficiencies.
If he said little, it was not the result of obvious oratorical limitations but because he is a man of few words and loud actions. If he could not set up a cabinet after over three months in office after his election, it was because he was being meticulous to avoid mistakes and to exclude bad people from his government. If he seems frequently lost in the complexity of national problems and shows little understanding of issues, it is because you do not need to be a professor to rule Nigeria with problems that seem so obvious to ordinary street folk. His acolytes were on hand at every turn of the road with sacks full of alibis and a torrent of excuses.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Buhari’s draconian two-year tenure was nothing but an opportunistic commandeering of the legacy of the illustrious Murtala Muhammed regime. In fact, the coup d’etat that brought Buhari to power in 1983 introduced itself to the Nigerian public as a successor regime to the Murtala era. Therefore, the emphasis on patriotism, nationalism, discipline, and aversion to corruption became standard fare and fell into place. Buhari and his frowning deputy, Tunde Idiagbon, deafened the airwaves with loud noises about patriotism, discipline, law and order, and anti-corruption. A fake Murtala regime was in town and a nation suffocating under a corrupt political dispensation was poised to swallow anything that resembled authoritarian discipline.
Perhaps, the impulses that made the return of the Buhari myth appealing to the Nigerian populace are rooted in our national history. We are a struggling young democracy of less than two and half decades with a backdrop of over three decades of military dictatorship. So, when our democratically elected leaders fumble and shuffle, they create some nostalgia for the tolerable authoritarian episodes in our past. The lingering myth of the strong leader is therefore part of our political consciousness. Democratically elected leaders tend to be rather sedate and less dramatic while their authoritarian counterparts seem more earnest, brisk and dramatic.
Nigeria is not alone in allowing an existing popular political myth to drive subsequent leadership selection. In South Africa, black nationalism throughout the Apartheid era was driven by the myth of Nelson Mandela as the epitome of black virtue, courage, leadership and redemption. There was a belief transmitted from generation to generation of black South Africans that somehow all the wrongs of Apartheid will be righted once Nelson Mandela was released and assumed leadership of the country. It all came to pass once Mandela was released and became elected president of a multi racial South Africa.
Mandela understood and exploited the burden and power of the myth around him. From the onset, he insisted that he would ‘reign’ while his younger deputy, Thabo Mbeki, would ‘rule’ the country. And ab initio, Mandela clearly stated that he would be a one term president. So, he spent his years in office flying the banner of his leadership myth. Integrity, principle, moral rectitude, racial pride, forgiveness, inclusiveness, reconciliation and respect for human rights and racial diversity were the hallmarks of Mandela’s mythic presidency.
Above all, he carried the burden of restoring the respect and dignity of the black race from centuries of denigration and global insult. Beyond South Africa, the Mandela myth travelled the world to garner respect for the black race in the imagination of the world. To come face to face with Mandela was to meet the mythic essence of all great African historical figures and the illustrious trajectory of the black race. Even after he left office, Mandela remained a pilgrimage personage, an approximation of man become god. Let us be clear. Invoking the Mandela myth to enliven discourse on Buhari and his faulty myth is not intended to diminish the towering stature of the great Madiba.
Now that the Buhari presidency is entering an inevitable lame duck phase, tentative appraisals of the man’s legacy are in order. For Buhari 2.0, power point presentations have begun. A few roads and bridges here and there are being dusted up and projected. Rail roads from Abuja to Kaduna, Ibadan to Lagos, Port Harcourt to Maiduguri and one from Kano to Maradi in Niger Republic are being showcased. The ever lingering Second Niger Bridge is likely to be completed under Buhari’s watch.
But the worsening internal security situation and phenomenal corruption remain worrisome and embarrassing. Matters like the quality of national leadership and overall governance remain outside the purview of Buhari’s inhouse assessors.
There is a worrying mismatch between the elements of his enabling myth and the results now glaring the nation in the face. Buhari’s 2015 and 2019 campaign footages have made a copious comeback on social media. The public seems lost in the lack of alignment between what was marketed as the Buhari myth and what is emerging as the reality of his legacy. His previous virulent attacks on previous governments have resurfaced as the direct opposites of what has become of Nigeria under his watch.
The public is more perplexed by the sheer hypocrisy of the man of illustrious mytholgy. The apostle of patriotic sacrifice and crude ‘Nigeria first’ has spent more time in London hospitals for earaches and unknown ailments and hardly a few minutes of consultation at the Aso Rock clinic. The president’s numerous health vacations have frequently sometimes been amid endless strikes by doctors and other medical personnel at home who are asking for paltry allowances and other routine remuneration. The preacher about personal frugality and modest lifestyle has ended up staging lavish royal weddings for his offspring mostly at state expense. The pontiff of family values and discipline in the first family has watched helplessly as his own First Lady virtually relocated to the opulence of Dubai only to make periodic reappearances at convenient showy occasions.
As a crusader for anti-corruption, Buhari has so far managed to keep his own hands off the public till. Yet there are too many rumours that he could be surrounded by all manner of crooks who are allegedly associated with all manner of deals and rackets. Reported instances of official malfeasance under Buhari’s watch tumble out in the news with a frightening rapidity. The accountability of government agencies is best measured by the nearly a thousand government agencies and departments that have not had their accounts audited for the better part of the last 5 years. The conflicting accounts of the NNPC directly under Buahri as well as the lorry loads of disclosures of stealing and fraud in the NDDC mostly under Mr. Buhari’s tenure say something of the plight of corruption under this anti-corruptionadministration.
Insecurity under Buhari is in a class by itself. For a presidency that thrives on shifting blames for national travails to his predecessors, the frightening insecurity of life and property under this mythic presidency is perhaps the highest in the history of the nation. Not even in the years of the civil war was the life of Nigerians as insecure and cheap as in Buhari’s ‘peace time’ Nigeria. The Boko Haram jihadist insurgency has been alive for 10 years, 6 of them under Buhari. Assorted squads of so-called bandits and brigands have since joined jihadists and terrorists to create a Hobbesian state of nature in most of our northern states. An unrelenting double-digit inflation now ravages the country just as the national currency has eroded terribly in value. We are witnessing the largest migration of Nigerians into poverty under any one administration since independence.
Worse still, an army general whose public reputation derives partly from having participated in a civil war of national unity has spent the better part of the last six years as an elected leader literally ripping the same nation in bits in what many agree is the most divisive government in the nation’s history. In 2015, we were simply Nigerians united by a rejection of Jonathan’s bumbling presidency. It was not a perfect union or a paradise. But we were better than this miserable present.
Today, we find ourselves bitterly divided. We are now Northerners versus Southerners, Christians versus Moslems, Biafrans, Oduduwans, Niger Deltans, Middle Beltans, Fulanis, Hausas, Idomas etc. Our partisan divides pale into insignificance because our political parties are no more than a collection of incoherent acronyms and random assemblage of letters and silly symbols.
Perhaps, the myths that propelled the Buhari presidency are unconscious expressions of the religious essence of the Nigerian public consciousness. We are a nation of believers. A certain compulsive penchant for unquestioning belief in myths and superstitions defines us. We question no long held assumptions. We hardly interrogate claims of miracles. We subject few things to either scientific or empirical verification. In this place, claims constantly repeated soon become items of faith. Dubious beliefs and false items of faith bandied around long enough become treasured communal truths. The distance from a respected and shared lie to myth is short indeed. In politics, myths are appropriated and weaponised by political entrepreneurs to form the basis of movements sold to parties and used to prop up ambitious individuals. At election time, a weaponized myth of leadership prowess can propel an ordinary man to dizzying heights of national power.
On our way to the terminal date of 2023, we seem to be witnessing a tragic reversal and unraveling of the leadership myths that brought Buhari back to power. What we are witnessing is not a strong leadership wrecked by the burden of strength. It is instead the tragedy of epic weakness and incompetence mistaken for strength.
Even the most sedate rationalists and nationalists among us are now searching aimlessly for some basis, some common ground to anchor our optimism.
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