Between Buhari And His Supporters By Moses E. Ochonu

For one thing, the stakes are higher this time, with Nigeria
teetering. For another, there are many more people in Nigeria
today who are willing to give the candidate of the opposition a
serious look than there were in 2011, what with the current
state of the nation. The country’s repertoire of problems has
expanded since 2011, and President Jonathan has squandered
the goodwill he enjoyed in 2011.
Given this convergence of factors, for this writer and many
Nigerians, any alternative political path is preferable to the
failed PDP paradigm. Yet, that does not mean that General
Buhari, were he to emerge as the APC’s presidential candidate,
would automatically get their votes. The General cannot win by
default; he will have to earn the votes of those who are
disenchanted with the status quo. He will have to give them a
reason to embrace change, to choose an unknown future over a
known, if tortuous, present. It is not enough to convince people
to abandon Jonathan; you have to give them a reason to
support and vote for you.
Buhari’s supporters — most of them — are escapists and
habitual evaders. They don’t recognize the importance of
outreach and platform. For them, you win an election by simply
presenting yourself as an alternative to a failed status quo.
They trade in their candidate’s inevitability to boot. In 2011
they even created alternate arithmetic universes in which, we
were told, Buhari only needed the vote of the Northwest and
parts of the Northeast to win the presidency since the two
zones are, according to official census figures, Nigeria’s two
most populous regions.
This strange arithmetic convinced many of the General’s
supporters that their man could win even without campaigning
in the rest of the country, that the only way he could lose was
if he was rigged out by the infamous rigging infrastructure of
the PDP, and that, given this certainty, if he lost he would
have been denied an office for which he was solidly poised.
It was a narrative of entitlement. It informed the swagger,
arrogance, complacency, and subtle threats that became
commonplace in the less enlightened physical and online corners
of Buhariland. A bellicose army of Buhari supporters strutted
cyberspace with a huge chip on their shoulders, declaring with
finality and certainty that their man was destined for Aso
Rock. Realists wondered about the preemptive triumphalism.
Those not sold on the General and those who supported then
candidate Goodluck Jonathan sniffed something offensive and
presumptuous about the tenor of that curious campaign tactic
of the General’s supporters. This attitude was puzzling because
the electoral map and the shenanigans of a failed opposition
merger barely a week before the election put Buhari at a
marked disadvantage, making a Jonathan victory all but
certain. Given the real, as opposed to the imagined, electoral
calculus of 2011, Jonathan, who at the time commanded much
goodwill as a relatively fresh face, would have won the election
fair and square, but typical of the PDP, they could not let
their rigging arrangements go to waste so they rigged a
clearly winnable election and tainted a clear and imminent
victory. By rigging, the PDP confirmed the fantastical theories
of Buhariland, enabled the General’s supporters to shift the
blame of their candidate’s loss, and prevented Buhari and his
camp from engaging in the necessary soul-searching.
It is always the case that Buhari’s supporters take his support
among the electorate for granted, and work from the premise
that their man is entitled to the presidency because the
incumbency is putrid and because Buhari is magnanimous
enough to put his vast reservoir of integrity and can-do
energy at Nigeria’s disposal. How could Nigeria’s beleaguered
masses not recognize a messiah when they see him? How could
they, Buhari’s supporters always seemed to wonder, not
gravitate enthusiastically to the very antithesis of the ongoing
corruption bazaar? Convinced of the General’s inherent
goodness, his supporters have always reasoned that a good soup
does not advertise itself — except that, contrary to their logic,
in politics, it is goodness that often needs to prove itself as an
alternative to a familiar badness and not the other way round.
In politics a familiar badness is often preferred to an
unfamiliar, untested goodness.
Buhari is a political lightening rod in Nigeria, and as long as he
harbors the ambition of governing the country again, he will
continue to be scrutinized, as he should be. Many of his
supporters are usually unquestioning and sheepish in their
adulation of their man. As a result they loathe hearing some
truths about the man and his political methodology. In this
respect, Buhari’s most ardent supporters are, ironically, similar
to the hardcore Jonathan supporters they loathe with passion
— the so-called Jonathanians who are receptive to praise for
their man but resent criticisms of him.
I often take a philosophical view of this monologic approach to
political conversation in Nigeria. The behavior of Buhari’s
supporters is, in my opinion, a reflection of the desperate
order of things (apologies to Michel Foucault) in Nigeria today.
They are projecting messianism and their own anxieties and
hopes onto Buhari because he is a different kind of politician,
and because, whatever you may think of Buhari, you cannot
question his personal integrity. As corruption has ravaged
Nigeria, the moral aptitude to discern and resist corruption
has become a rare political asset, considered metonymic,
rightly or wrongly, for other political qualities like competence,
vision, statesmanship, and sound governing temperament. But
Nigeria has regressed to a degree that personal integrity alone
cannot salvage her. Buhari’s supporters have yet to catch on
to this reality.
Then there is the dissonance between the past and the
present. Certain myths have become associated with both the
Buhari of 1985 and the Buhari of today. In a sense, many of
his supporters think that the Buhari of 2014 will, should he
become president, govern like the Buhari of 1985, forgetting
that as civilian president he would not have the instruments of
administrative fiat that were available to him as military head
of state. His supporters have, moreover, not pondered the
question of what Buhari of today would do when he realizes
that he cannot rule by decree, when he cannot decree a thing
and expect it to be done. The General’s supporters have
proffered scanty, unsatisfactory answers to this question.
And that, precisely, is the problem with the growing personality
cult of Buhari. His supporters cannot understand why some of
us even have the audacity to pose these questions to their man.
They cannot understand why Buhari’s personal integrity, in a
cesspool of political corruption that is Nigeria, is not enough,
and why we are asking for plans, manifestoes, and evidence of
a civil, democratic temperament in Buhari. When we point to
Shehu Shagari as an incorruptible civilian president who
presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in Nigerian
history, and who was surrounded by loyal but corrupt allies,
against whom he was impotent, Buhari’s supporters resent the
comparison without offering anything reassuring about their
principal’s departure from the Shagari model.
When we tell them that, like Shagari, Buhari’s most pronounced
weakness is that he is a sucker for loyalty, and that, just like
Shagari who valued loyalty and allowed it to blind him to the
corruption of his closest allies, a president Buhari, for whom
loyalty and an unquestioning adulation means everything, may
be ruined by the actions of his rapacious aides and political
allies, his supporters simply say, as a retort, that their man will
not be captive to corrupt but loyal allies.
When, as my friend, Pius Adesanmi, did in a recent essay, we
raise the uncomfortable question of Buhari’s association with
and reliance on the financial largesse of corrupt characters to
conduct his political campaigns and surmise, reasonably, that
these investors would populate and insidiously hijack a Buhari
presidency to recoup their investments from the government
of a beholden, impotent, Shagariesque president, his supporters
say this scenario is farfetched and that their man is
impervious to quid-pro-quo arrangements.
We are basically supposed to just take their word about Buhari
and hope that the man will do the right thing. We are supposed
to get on board on account of this blind faith. They want us to
simply trust Buhari to do right by us if or when he gets into
Aso Rock. In other words, they want everyone to emotionally
connect with Buhari as a messianic figure and to stop asking
questions and demanding substantive programmatic items.
The affliction of the typical Buhari supporter is the same,
whether he is a Northerner desirous of “power shift” to the
north, a Muslim enamored of Buhari’s early and consistent
support for Sharia, or a Southern or Middle Belt Christian
longing for the discipline and vigorous anti-corruption regime
of Buhari’s military regime. The typical Buhari supporter is
paranoid about people being out to get their man and is hardly
receptive to anything resembling criticism directed against the
Most of us who have no direct personal stake in Nigeria’s
political game clearly see the problem with Buhari and we will
continue to say it even if his supporters resent us for doing so
or do not want to hear it. Given the desperate need for an
alternative to the current PDP oligarchy, it would be a crime
not to scrutinize, and in doing so, better position the opposition
candidates that are emerging to challenge President Jonathan.
So, in that spirit of refining and challenging the opposition to
be better than the status quo, here, below, are my itemized
contentions on how Buhari’s political career, since his entry into
elective politics in 2003, has been largely mismanaged. Implicit
in this analysis is what he needs to do differently to improve
his standing with Nigerians.
Brand (Mis)management
Buhari has been poorly managed and has not been well served
by his aides and handlers. I’ll give an example. When the
General came on the political scene he and his team made a
foundational political error right out of the gate. He was
reported by a newspaper to have remarked at a small political
rally somewhere in Sokoto State that Muslims should vote for
Muslims. His supporters and handlers completely denied the
story and alternately accused the reporter who covered the
event of lying and of not understanding Hausa, the language
in which Buhari had spoken. Unknown to them, the reporter had
the tape and spoke Hausa with almost mother tongue
proficiency. In fact Buhari’s people had a point about the
distortion of what Buhari had said because the newspaper
story made it seem as though Buhari had asked Muslims to vote
for only Muslims and not to vote for Christians. He had not.
What Buhari had said in fact was that as Muslims (he was
addressing Hausa/Fulani Muslims) they should vote for people
who would uphold and defend their values — the values that
they held dear. The newspaper put its own spin on it. Had the
Buhari folks simply gotten ahead of the story and explained
what the General meant, that incident, from which his
undeserved reputation as an Islamic bigot arguably emanated,
would not have done the damage that it did.
What the General said and meant was actually fairly
mainstream and progressive — that his audience should vote
their conscience and that they should vote for people who
embodied and would uphold their values — values such as
probity, fairness, justice, consultation, etc. These are not just
Muslim values but also Christian, traditional African, and
humanistic values. A more experienced messaging team would
have seized a wonderful opportunity to spin this as a compelling
values argument, which it was, and not allowed the General’s
traducers to interpret it as a religious one. It was an
opportunity missed.
Had that incident been managed properly, it would have been a
net plus for the General and not a minus. Instead, when the
newspaper revealed the existence of the tape and
mischievously leaked it to a few people, Buhari’s (and his
team’s) credibility went south. When he and his people
attempted to do damage control and to re-explain the
comment, they actually did more damage and solidified in
many minds the notion that Buhari was indeed a Muslim
chauvinist. Even when he went from one church to another to
dispel the fast spreading perception, it did not work.
Some people who initially doubted that Buhari had made the
reported comment and thought the entire thing was a
fabrication flipped on Buhari. Were they fair to the General?
No. But that is politics. It’s not a game of civility, honor, and
fairness. That’s why it calls for good communication, a capacity
for self-critique, and good crisis management skills. Buhari
and his people saw no need for these, believing, as many of
them still do, that his name recognition and his populist policies
as head of state would be enough to endear him to Nigerians.
A Knack for Self-Destruction
Buhari is often his own worst enemy. When he talks, he often
sounds like a sectional leader cultivating a parochial
constituency more than a statesman. He is always defending or
wanting to be seen to be defending the North and Islam
against perceived and imagined anti-Northern and anti-
Islamic policies.
In the context of Nigeria’s dueling narratives of ethno-
religious victimhood, this message is a winner in a section of
the country. The General became a darling of the Northern
political grassroots precisely because of this unabashed
willingness to align with the prevailing social anxieties and
aspirations of the Northern Muslim grassroots. In 2000, Buhari,
unlike many of the North’s Muslim elites, boldly and proudly
supported and identified with the implementation of criminal
Sharia, earning himself the title of Jagoran Musulunci
(champion/defender of Islam) among the masses. He was
unequivocal about his support. That singular act turned him into
an instant political hero to Northern Nigeria’s Muslim
grassroots, from where agitation for Sharia as a divinely
ordained solution to society’s polyvalent problems, had
From then on he could do no wrong. He was invincible. As he
parlayed this popularity into politics, however, Buhari
committed a grave error. He continued to pander to the
Northern grassroots by repeatedly talking about Sharia and
defending it, forgetting that, rightly or wrongly, Christians
and even some Muslims in both North and South, were suspicious
of Sharia politics or “political Sharia,” given how divisive and
volatile it can be in a multi-religious country like Nigeria, and
given our previous experiences with the subject.
Buhari could have backed off the Sharia and religious rhetoric
and retained his popularity with the Northern Muslim
grassroots. Instead, he made the choice to continue to
consolidate his base of support at the Northern grassroots by
talking about things that they wanted to hear, things that
establishment Northern politicians, for pragmatic political and
selfish reasons, were not talking about. It worked wonderfully
for the General, and solidified his messianic stature among the
Northern Muslim masses, but it also alienated moderates,
Christians, and Southerners and fed the perception that he
was a religious fanatic who would implement an Islamic agenda
— or at best an insensitive provincial politician.
He won the North but lost the South and the Middle Belt. He
effectively became a sectional leader, and he has been trying
ever since to escape that label, to no avail. I don’t see how he
can escape this pigeonhole without a willingness to occasionally
disappoint his Northern base because the very thing that
makes him popular in the North is what makes him unpopular
A Victim of Self and Circumstance
This all brings me to my final point about Buhari’s penchant for
soiling his own brand. Whether it is his quasi-military style of
unnerving bluntness or he is merely pandering to his Northern
Muslim base, he is fond of making shocking and controversial
statements about national issues that help confirm prejudiced
opinions of him as a parochial political leader. For instance,
when he was interviewed on the Boko Haram insurgency a
couple of years ago, he said the government was killing
Northern youths, that the killing should stop, and that the
government should implement for Boko Haram insurgents the
kind of amnesty that was implemented in the Niger Delta. This
was when the sect was killing civilians and abducting and
raping women left and right. I couldn’t believe that he would
say such a thing in a newspaper interview, especially given the
widespread perceptions about him, but he did.
President Jonathan had a similar moment a few years ago
when, after the October 1 2010 bombing carried out by Henry
Okah and his MEND Niger Delta militants, the president came
out and declared, even before investigations had commenced,
that this was not the work of Niger Delta militants. Not only
was he skewered for this reckless and unpresidential behavior;
he was embarrassed further when it turned out that the
attack had been the work of those he had sought to exonerate.
Jonathan only managed to recover from that blunder because
he was a rookie to whom Nigerians were willing to give the
benefit of the doubt and, more crucially, because, unlike
Buhari, he had no prior perception baggage as a sectional or
sectarian champion.
Buhari has made other public comments that may be construed
as being soft on Boko Haram or as feeding some of the
conspiracy theories about Boko Haram being an anti-North
machination hatched by the Jonathan government. In critiquing
Buhari on the same point, a friend of mine, a visible Hausa
Muslim journalist, testified recently on my Facebook wall that
he had actually heard Buhari say or imply in closed Northern
circles that Boko Haram is a ploy by some people he would not
name to destroy the North. Buhari has basically being echoing
the same illiterate theories about Boko Haram being an anti-
North and anti-Islam scheme, a sentiment with surprisingly
widespread purchase among uninformed Northerners.
The General’s comments and speeches are enthusiastically
received in the North, in his base, and add to his popularity
there, but they spook people in other parts of the country,
further confining him to the status of a sectional candidate.
I have noticed that in the last year or so, as 2015 beckons,
Buhari, apparently heeding the advice of more savvy advisers,
has toned down his rhetoric, has issued statements and
comments on the terrorist attacks and on the
counterinsurgency that are statesmanlike and thoughtful. He
has also only spoken sparingly, and, after the Nyanya bombing,
came out forcefully for the first time to unequivocally
condemn the Boko Haram terrorists. Perhaps we’re witnessing
the emergence of a new Buhari, Buhari 3.0, if you will, who is
more refined, more circumspect, and more of a statesman than
a Northern grassroots hero. Nonetheless, the enduring legacies
of bad political choices that limited the appeal of a great
brand needs be overcome as Buhari unveils his fourth campaign
for the presidency.
It should be said that Buhari has also been a victim of
Nigeria’s charged ethno-religious political public space, which
became particularly fraught in 2011 with both sides making
patently parochial appeals to religious and ethnic affiliation in
that year’s general elections. That tactic delivered victory and
inflicted defeat at great human and material costs, but it is
unfortunately now being reconfigured as a key component of
the Jonathan reelection playbook. Buhari’s misfortune has been
to try to advance integrity and moral clarity in a political
context in which identity permutations have supplanted those
qualities as baselines of electoral mobilization.
Buhari has thus been a victim of the political circumstances
that have emerged and ossified in the last decade. Even so,
Buhari is not a passive victim, for he has in the last few years
often insinuated himself needlessly and through his utterances
and silences into this cauldron of religious and ethnic politics.
His bluntness has not always served him well and has often
provided ammo to his detractors, who are all too happy to give
mischievous legs and wings to his pronouncements.
When he invoked the metaphor of blood soaked dogs and
baboons (kare jini biri jini) to illustrate how his supporters
would checkmate the rigging and intimidation project of the
PDP, a gory metaphor that, to be sure, was a poor choice of
expressive device in a charged political atmosphere like
Nigeria’s, his detractors, lacking knowledge of the linguistic
and metaphorical subtleties of the Hausa language and intent
on mischief, ran with it to associate the General with violence.
When the General urged his supporters to protect their votes,
the PDP folks reinterpreted this democratic pronouncement
about vigilance and civic responsibility as a code for violent
electoral vigilantism.
Buhari’s political enemies are many and are relentless, but the
General often makes their job easy for them. I read an essay
on a listserv recently with the headline, Why are They Against
Buhari? When the question is framed in this way, perhaps the
answer should be that, 1) they — whoever they are — are not
the only problem of Buhari, and 2) that Buhari, along with his
team and hero-worshiping supporters, is perhaps the biggest
problem of Buhari.
Some people have raised the specter of Buhari’s age being a
liability. I disagree. Recent events have shown that
incompetence, corruption, and governing acumen are
distributed equally across the age spectrum. In fact the
biggest offenders in our national parade of larcenous
establishmentarians are mostly folks possessing youthful
energies, not elderly types. Besides, you govern with brains not
brawn. So, for me the age of Buhari is not his biggest challenge
— if it is a challenge at all. It’s the need to reintroduce
himself to Nigerians — all Nigerians — as a serious national
candidate with a platform beyond his familiar, appreciated,
but by itself, insufficient personal integrity.

The author, Moses E. Ochonu, can be reached at meochonu@


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