This much we can say about the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.): He is an enigma. People who are taciturn are invariably enigmatic. Add to that a Chief of Staff who was just as taciturn, and what we had was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Footnote: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union.
Now that the all-powerful Chief of Staff, Mallam Abba Kyari, has moved on to the next abode, might the conundrum unravel just enough to allow a glimpse into the real President Buhari?
Buhari’s loyalists have described him as a nationalist and non-tribalist, an astute leader and visionary, and, above all, a principled and incorruptible man. But critics have declared him inept, opportunistic, Machiavellian and, above all, incorrigibly nepotistic. In fact, other than his stint as a despot in the early 1980s, the greatest concern about Buhari as a presidential candidate was that he was an Islamist zealot.
Lo and behold, both loyalists and critics can point to supporting evidence. Any wonder that since Buhari became president in 2015, his policies have been confounding—to say the least.
The nepotistic pattern of his appointments, for example, is beyond dispute. He himself justified it early in his administration by stating that he had to appoint those who had been with him over the years. It apparently didn’t occur to him that that was a remarkably parochial argument by the president of a diverse and restive nation.
But then the trajectory of his career from an army field commander during the civil war in the late 1960s to an elected president in 2015 hardly makes the case of ineptitude and parochialism.
In January 1984, he led a diverse group of army officers to overthrow a fellow Fulani, President Shehu Shagari and appointed a Yoruba officer, Major General Tunde Idiagbon as his second in command. The ‘war against indiscipline’ the duo pursued had a nationalist fervour, draconian as it was.
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But then that Buhari chose a fellow Muslim as his second-in-command pointed to his fidelity to Islam. The pairing at the top of two people of the same religion flouted the prevailing — though unwritten — practice.
Fast forward to 2014. Even as he campaigned for the presidency, Buhari maintained a curious silence on Boko Haram’s menace in the North-East. It wasn’t until the silence came under fire and was interpreted as tacit support for the Islamist terrorists that he issued a statement of condemnation.
That notwithstanding, Buhari was able cobble together a coalition of northern and south-western politicians to form the All Progressives Congress, with him as the presidential candidate. That of itself was no minor feat.
Then, even as many in the Christian South doubted that a man with the image of a dictator and Islamist could possibly win the presidency, Buhari successfully re-invented himself. He had a lot of foreign help, notably from the US and UK. Even then, he was the candidate and he had to sell himself to the electorate, including his doubters. He succeeded remarkably, especially for someone so lacking in oratorical skills.
Once elected, however, Buhari left no doubt via his policies that his primary loyalty lay with his Islamic and ethnic kin. His appointment of personal advisers— for which he was unencumbered by law — was so lopsided it screamed parochialism.