The newly elected president of Africa’s biggest democracy is a former military dictator and political prisoner who once waged a draconian “war against indiscipline” but now insists he is a born-again democrat.
Muhammadu Buhari, a 72-year-old Muslim, managed to persuade Nigerians he is a reformed character who respects civil liberties yet still wields enough of an iron fist to beat corruption and the insurgency by Boko Haram.
His first spell in power was a generation ago in a very different, pre-internet era, when democracy had a less steady foothold on the continent. Buhari, who served as a minister in the 1970s, ousted elected president Shehu Shagari on New Year’s Eve in 1983 and ruled a military government until August 27 1985.
The strongman sent soldiers into the streets with whips to enforce traffic regulations and ensure commuters formed orderly queues at bus stops. Civil servants arriving late at their offices were forced to perform frog squats. Tens of thousands of immigrants from other West African nations were expelled. About 500 politicians, officials and businesspeople were imprisoned in a populist campaign against waste and corruption.
Critics of the regime, including Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, were also put behind bars. Buhari passed laws allowing indefinite detention without trial and imposed a decree to restrict press freedom, under which two journalists were jailed. The execution of three young men, retrospectively convicted of drug trafficking, led to an international outcry.
The war against indiscipline was carried to “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people”, wrote Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.
In one bizarre episode, Buhari fell out with Britain, the former colonial power, after attempting to smuggle Shagari’s former adviser, Umaru Dikko, from London to Lagos. Dikko, who had fled to Britain after the coup, was found drugged in a crate at Stansted airport.
Imprisoned for 40 months
As part of antigraft measures, Buhari also ordered that the currency be replaced. Prices rose while living standards sank, leading to a palace coup by General Ibrahim Babangida. Buhari was overthrown and imprisoned for 40 months.
After the restoration of democracy in 1999, Buhari fought and lost three elections, including one in 2011 against Goodluck Jonathan of the dominant People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Yet when four opposition parties merged last year to form the All Progressives Congress (APC), it offered Buhari, from the largely Muslim north, a second crack at Jonathan, who is from the predominantly Christian south.
His campaign drew huge crowds, with many people wielding brooms, the party symbol. The former army general, now wearing traditional robes and thick-framed spectacles, worked hard to bury his reputation. He said: “Before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigours of democratic elections for the fourth time.”
Buhari made bold promises such as the introduction of universal healthcare. But his past also came back to haunt him, including statements in the 1980s that he would introduce sharia law across Nigeria. A moderate form of sharia was introduced in the northern states in the 1990s, but it operates alongside secular courts.
Sceptics warned that he could return to his autocratic ways and human rights abuses. Sonnie Ekwowusi, a columnist at This Day newspaper, said: “I voted for Jonathan because of fear of going to the unknown. Nobody seems to know what Buhari has up his sleeve. He can spring a surprise like taking Nigeria under sharia law. Once a dictator, always a dictator. He’s tried to be a born-again democrat, but we have not seen that in his utterances. Many people are afraid that if he wins, they will go to prison.”
But Bola Tinubu, the national leader of the APC and former Lagos governor, said: “I think leaders must take responsibility, not like Jonathan today, who says he has never done anything wrong – he will give you excuses for why, blame it on somebody else. Buhari has taken responsibility for that and apologised that he did that as a military dictator.
“He has now demonstrated that he is a converted, born-again democrat. Why? He has contested the presidential election three times and lost, and ended up in court. So that is the demonstration of commitment to the rule of law. What else? He has clearly stated that he cannot change the past, who he was – a professional, being a soldier, then a dictator – but he could change the present and better manage the future.” – ©?Guardian News & Media 2015
Nigerians are thirsty for change
Muhammadu Buhari has just been elected as Nigeria’s next president by a margin of more than two million votes, defeating current President Goodluck Jonathan.
Corruption and insecurity dominated the agenda of Nigeria’s most competitive presidential election since its return to democracy in 1999. Both Buhari and Jonathan vowed to tackle these issues, especially with regard to Boko Haram.
Buhari’s record as Nigeria’s hard-headed military ruler from 1983 to 1985 lent credence to his promises to crush Boko Haram’s insurgency. His reputation as an incorruptible, modest-living politician made his pledges to tackle government graft believable.
Jonathan, on the other hand, couldn’t escape the fact that Boko Haram has grown in strength during his five years as president.
Only six weeks ago, the Nigerian army, with soldiers from neighbouring countries, launched operations to recapture territory lost to the Islamists who had declared a caliphate on Nigerian soil. The recent military successes, though welcomed, left many Nigerians wondering why Jonathan waited until the eve of an election before getting serious about terrorism.
Numerous financial scandals involving government ministers and allegations of billions going missing from public coffers in recent years made it difficult for Jonathan to convince Nigerians to vote for him.
The president’s campaign did what it could to discredit Buhari, but haphazardly. One day Jonathan’s people would accuse Buhari, a Muslim, of wanting to introduce strict sharia law to Nigeria; the next they’d insist he wants to legalise same-sex marriage. Buhari exhibited grace under fire during the campaign, maintaining an air of dignity.
Nigerians responded in their millions to Buhari’s unoriginal yet effective slogan of “change”.
Nigeria has suffered from mediocre leadership for as long as I can remember. Most heads of state have been corrupt, small-minded men, incapable of seeing further than the ends of their own nose. A principled man in Nigeria’s presidential office is nothing short of revolutionary.
The excited reactions to Buhari’s victory in various parts of the country attest to the hope he inspires in many.
Nigeria will never be the same again. Something has changed in its citizens’ psyche. For the first time since independence in 1960, Nigerians have defenestrated a sitting president. The masses now realise the might they can wield collectively. The era of Nigeria’s rulers taking the people for granted is over. – Remi Adekoya