GMB 1.0 and 2.0

Major-General Muhammadu Buhari is heading into political leadership in Nigeria on the crest of a wave of euphoric jubilation. With Nigeria's economy reeling from a big drop in world oil prices, corruption scandals in the government, and security challenges, Nigerians hope that Buhari can simultaneously fight corruption and insecurity, and revive the country’s flagging economy. The New York Times described Buhari as “tough, self assured and somewhat austere”.

The scene described above is January 1984, not 2015. While researching my book on Buhari’s first tenure in government Soldiers of Fortune: Nigeria from Buhari to Babangida, I realised that in Nigeria, the further back you look, the further ahead you can see. Nigerians have seen this movie before; with the same plot-line and same star actor. However will the ending be different this time?

Incoming governments routinely make empty promises to fight corruption; with an unspoken understanding that such promises will not be acted upon. However, Buhari’s previous track record on corruption suggests that his promises to tackle corruption should be taken seriously. Several years ago an academic told me that things would get “messy” for corrupt officials if Buhari ever returned to power. That “messy” moment has arrived.

In 1984 Nigerians also wanted discipline, a war on corruption, and a clean public environment. Buhari’s military government closed Nigeria’s borders (trapping politicians inside), arrested nearly 500 politicians and businessmen and sent many of them to long prison terms for corruption. Buhari essentially “put Nigeria’s political elite in jail for life”.

The zenith of Buhari’s war on corruption was the spectacular kidnap of the former Minister of Transport Umaru Dikko in 1984. Nigerian military and diplomatic officials hunted and pursued Dikko to Britain, kidnapped him on a London street in broad daylight, drugged him into unconsciousness, and locked him inside a crate in a spectacular attempt to bring him back to Nigeria to face trial for corruption. The kidnap triggered the involvement of the British police’s anti-terrorist squad, and caused a massive diplomatic and security crisis with Britain that lasted for several years.

However what Nigerians say and what they really mean are not always identical. They revolted against Buhari’s “War Against Indiscipline” (WAI) which as I wrote in Soldiers of Fortuneaimed to turn the country into a giant boot camp for spoiled and unruly adults” by forcing Nigerians to queue, work hard, and turn up to work on time. Buhari fought corruption with such intensity that Nigerians grew weary, and decided that they preferred making money and living ostentatious lifestyles without anyone looking over their shoulder or asking questions. They jeered Buhari for being repressive and cheered when he was overthrown in 1985 by General Babangida.

In the intervening thirty years without Buhari, Nigeria experienced the “unaccounted” $20 billion at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, bribery and corruption scandals in the National Assembly and federal ministries, the governors of Bayelsa, Ekiti, Oyo, and Plateau states being impeached during corruption scandals, the Inspector-General of Police arrested and publicly paraded in handcuffs for corrupt enrichment, as well as the “misappropriated” $12 billion Gulf War windfall of the 1990s which neither the President nor the (Central Bank of Nigeria) Governor accounted to anyone for. Even worse these massive extra budgetary expenditures...were clandestinely undertaken while the country was openly reeling with a crushing external debt overhang...”.

Buhari’s return to power is an implicit “you were right, we were wrong” confession by Nigerians to Buhari. Nigerians now understand the devastating consequences of not having someone to curb their and their leaders’ appetite for the corrupt acquisition of wealth. They have turned back to Buhari like a person returning to a childhood sweetheart, after having their heart broken in multiple abusive relationships.

Buhari can also thank demographics for giving him a second chance at leadership. 70% of Nigerians had not yet been born the last time Buhari governed Nigeria. He is lionised as a folk hero by young Nigerians who are too young to remember him as a military ruler, but viewed with apprehension by older Nigerians with scorched memories of his military regime conducting public executions and sending journalists to prison for criticising the government.

Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Theophilus Danjuma (both of whom served in the army and a previous military government with Buhari) have noted his iron will and unyielding temperament. Danjuma described Buhari as “completely inflexible”. The challenge for Buhari’s advisers will be to steer him away from taking bad decisions to begin with; given that he rarely takes a backward step from a decision, once taken.

However Buhari 2.0 is likely to be less bellicose than Nigerians expect, and will govern with the circumspect pragmatism of the 72 year old that he is. Nigeria circa 2015 is a far more politically complicated place than the Nigeria that Buhari governed 30 years ago. Back then Buhari and the military could get away with far more because they did “not have to worry about becoming unpopular enough to lose elections”. He could get his way by giving orders to 19 military governors and 21 members of the Supreme Military Council. He will find it much harder to get his way this time around with 360 federal House of Representatives members, 109 Senators, and 36 state governors, all with their own agendas, fiefdoms, and issues to protect, lobby, and squabble about. He will have to govern by consensus rather than by coercion.

Some senior All Progressives Congress (APC) members have a long history with Buhari. In 1984, strict screening of luggage was ordered at airports in order to track illicit currency trafficking by corrupt politicians. However over 50 suitcases belonging to the entourage of the Emir of Gwandu were allowed through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos without being searched. The Emir was the father of Buhari’s then aide-de-camp Mustapha Jokolo. The area comptroller of customs in charge of the airport at the time was one Atiku Abubakar; who is now a senior member of the APC.

Abubakar and Bola Tinubu were instrumental to Buhari’s election campaign and victory. Last time he was in power, Buhari was overthrown by members of his own government who “were aggrieved that having brought [Buhari] to power, they were not permitted to exercise that power and enjoy the wealth and patronage associated with it”.

Over the next four years, Nigerians will find out whether what Abubakar and Tinubu did for Buhari was a gift, or a loan that must be repaid with collateral.

In Soldiers of Fortune I wrote that “The Buhari regime had zeal and identified the correct areas for reform. But it lacked the finesse and tactical flexibility to effect those reforms without creating opposition for itself”.

Buhari himself can determine how the Buhari 2.0 story will end. Has he learned lessons from his previous tenure as leader? Those who do not heed history are doomed to repeat it.

Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian and author of Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture 1966-1976 and Soldiers of Fortune: a History of Nigeria (1983-1993). Follow him on Twitter @maxsiollun


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