On 31 December 1983, Sani Abacha, then an unknown Brigadier in the Nigerian Army, went on radio to announce the overthrow of the elected civilian administration of President Shehu Shagari, claiming that the military had done so “in the discharge of our national role as promoters and protectors of our national interest” because of “the great economic predicament and uncertainty, which an inept and corrupt leadership has imposed on our beloved nation.”
The following day, Nigerians learnt that the new military regime was to be led by Muhammadu Buhari, a wiry Major-General with a reputation for asceticism, serving as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Third Division of the Nigerian Army in Jos. Commissioned into the Nigerian Army in January 1963 following training at the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, England, Buhari was not just the senior-most among the officers involved in the Coup, he was also the most experienced. His contemporary and would-be nemesis, Ibrahim Babangida, who emerged as the Chief of Army Staff, was commissioned eight months later, in September, 1963.
Buhari served out his tour of duty in the Nigerian Civil War in the Third Marine Commando Division (3MCDO) under the command of Olusegun Obasanjo. Alani Akinrinade was Obasanjo’s second-in-command in the last twelve months of the war after Head of State, Yakubu Gowon tapped Obasanjo to replace Benjamin Adekunle as the GOC 3MCDO in 1968.
Five years after the Civil War, on the 9th anniversary of Gowon’s regime, Buhari was one of the officers who engineered his removal in a palace coup in July 1975. At the time, he headed the Transport Corps in the Nigerian Army. This was not exactly the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) of the Army but it gave a clue as to his duty schedule.
Following the coup, Buhari emerged as Military Governor of the North-Eastern State, with Maiduguri as his duty station. He was also a member of the Supreme Military Council (SMC). After the assassination of then Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, in February 1976, Olusegun Obasanjo moved up to become the Head of State and the position of second-in-command in the regime fell vacant. Buhari was one of the two candidates considered for the job.
On the recommendation of Theophilus Danjuma, a three-Star General and then the Army Chief of Staff, the job went to Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Buhari’s friend and fellow Daura native, whose political skills were considered more suitable for the demands of the position. Musa Yar’Adua, Shehu’s dad, was Chairman of the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and later Minister for Lagos Affairs after Independence. Shehu may have learnt in his political family, life and leadership skills that the ascetic Buhari lacked. In the re-shuffle that followed, Buhari emerged as Petroleum Minister. His last successor in the position of Military Governor in Maiduguri before the military handed over power to President Shagari in October 1979 was one Tunde Idiagbon, a Lieutenant-Colonel.
When he became military Head of State at the beginning of 1984, Buhari appointed Tunde Idiagbon as his second-in-command. Forceful and unsmiling, Idiagbon so became the public face of the era that it came to be called the Buhari-Idiagbon regime. He remains unique as the only Nigerian military ruler who did not promote himself to a four-star General.
As a government, the Buhari-Idiagbon regime knew what it stood against but could not say what it stood for. It arrived with indiscipline as a single-issue diagnosis for the Nigerian condition but was unprepared to question or understand the causes of this symptom. Its prescription was a War against Indiscipline (WAI). Everything radiated from this core. As part of WAI, the regime through the Miscellaneous Offences Decree (No. 20) of 1984, made drug trafficking punishable by death, backdating the sentence by eight months.
When they were arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking at the end of 1983, Bartholomew Owoh, Bernard Ogedengbe, and Lawal Ojuolape, were 26, 29, and 30 years old, respectively. They were subsequently arraigned for felonies but Buhari retrospectively changed the crimes to capital offences triable by a tribunal chaired by a High Court Judge, the only civilian in a panel including four soldiers. In less than five minutes, on 8 April 1985, Buhari had all three men executed by firing squad, their remains poured into a hole at the Atan Cemetery in Lagos.
The gratuitous savagery of the executions framed the regime in public imagination. When, four and a half months later, on 27 August, 1985, Joshua Dogonyaro, a Brigadier from the pioneer intake of the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), accused Buhari of “stubborn and ill-advised unilateral actions” whose tendency was to meet advice with resistance or to view it “as a challenge to authority or disloyalty”, no one shed a tear for him.
Retired prematurely from military leadership, Buhari was herded into regimental detention in Benin, where he survived what he believes was an assassination attempt when his cell was machine-gunned, eventually emerging to seek a return to power as elected civilian president. In three unsuccessful attempts over 12 years, Buhari proved that he could be fierce in pursuit of power; tenacious when the object mattered to him; adaptable as an opponent; and single-minded when he needed to be.
Three things could be said about the Buhari who survived all these to be elected civilian president. First, when he eventually succeeded in 2015, these characteristics did not suddenly desert him. Rather, he ran for the presidency on a prospectus for whose delivery he did not have skills in his repertoire. The Buhari who promised “Change” in 2015, was incapable of making it constructive. 30 years after being forced out of the military, he had not run a business, nor returned to school, nor authored a book, nor run a foundation, nor embraced statesmanship. The young people who powered him to victory had no interest in history lessons.
Second, on winning the presidency in 2015, Buhari arrived accompanied by a long memory bearing grudges from a lifetime of slights. Characteristically, his diagnosis of what ailed Nigeria had hardly changed from his last time in the position even if in his framing the problem had changed name. This time, he could not fall back on the regimental structure of the military and Tunde Idiagbon had died over 15 years before. To capture power, he had made deals with politicians of exactly the kind whom he would have sent to the firing squad on his first tour of duty. So, he sacrificed any hopes of progress on his single programme of eliminating corruption long before the votes were even counted.
Third, many of Buhari’s critics describe him as “clueless”, an adjective that falls into the error of under-estimating him. Buhari is capable of being acutely focused but only on things that matter to him. In 2015, only two things mattered: becoming president and, on getting there, preventing a repeat of August 27, 1985. As in 1984, Buhari arrived incapable of formulating governance in terms of an affirmative proposition: he defines himself with reference to what he is not or what he against. When the youths did #EndSARS, all he could see was “young people that wanted to march here and remove me.” His response was a history lesson: he asked soldiers to shoot them.
Godwin Alabi Isama, the son of Igbo Christian father from Delta and a Yoruba Muslim mother from Kwara, whose tour of the north in 1961 persuaded Buhari’s generation of Northern students to join the army, titled his account of the Nigerian Civil War “The Tragedy of Victory”. This could easily describe the life of Muhammadu Buhari at the most rarefied levels of political leadership.
Anyone who can achieve the leadership of his country not once but twice, first as soldier and then as civilian, is far from dumb or clueless. But leadership at the highest levels requires not just asceticism and discipline; it is also about coalition building and judgement behind affirmative propositions. Buhari has the former but lacks the latter. He is governed in visceral vernacular by his grudges which make him a compelling psycho-drama of a candidate; but those do not translate into a governance programme, which makes him a vacuous leader.
If Buhari’s second coming were to be summed up, it would be about the “harsh, intolerable conditions under which we are now living. Our economy has been hopelessly mismanaged; we have become a debtor and beggar nation. There is inadequacy of food at reasonable prices for our people….; health services are in shambles as our hospitals are reduced to mere consulting clinics without drugs, water and equipment.” These are exactly the reasons for which he overthrew Shagari at the end of 1983. We would never know what could have happened if the man had been willing to forego his grudges.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, a lawyer, teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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