Before Castigating General Buhari

by Banjo Odutola

My purpose and interest in this subject is not in the support of General Mohammadu Buhari and his foray into partisan politics but an attempt to defend what in parallel is tantamount to the words of S.G. Tallentyre’s summary of his attitude towards Helvetius following the burning of De l’esprit in 1759. These words are long attributed to Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

General Buhari in my opinion has a right to join a political party because in our constitution “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests: (Ch IV, s40). As his rights of association are guaranteed in the constitution, why castigate him for his recent declaration for the All People’s Party (APP)?

Many writers have expounded on the general’s venture and the consensus amongst our intelligentsia is that he does not deserve to become the President of a Democratic Federal Republic of Nigeria. I am confounded as to the timing of the condemnation of Buhari’s ambition when all the man has done is to exercise his rights as protected by the Nigerian constitution.

However, let us backtrack for the benefit of a constituency outside of our nation and proffer a background information on the Daura-born retired military general of the Nigeria Army. He is the disobedient one time one star general commanding the GOC, 3rd Division who mobilized the 21st Armoured Brigade and unilaterally closed the border, cutting off food and fuel supplies to Chad. As for his respect for politics and politicians, he has made known his disregard for them and their civil authority. He pursues his desires without regard for such authority and he defies due process as enacted by the same constitution he has once suspended and for the laws of Nigeria that he believes are enacted for lesser mortals than him. Ask the incumbent president and the previous civilian president before him.

As nemesis would have it, he became our Military Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces. A position he held for 20 months and thereafter kicked out by erstwhile co-coup plotter and sworn enemy: Ibrahim Babangida.

At the time of his governance he ruled dictatorially as military men before and after him and the collective amnesia of a group of Nigerian politicians encourages Buhari to talk about ‘if required by my people‘ to run for the presidency against the incumbent president, he will consider the invitation. It is safe to infer his membership of the APP is for the purpose of getting the nomination of APP as its presidential aspirant. If this is true then amongst divers of problems our political system faces, there are three types of inherent faults in party political selection of candidates for political offices.

Firstly, Buhari is courageous enough to demonstrate his dislike of the policies of the Obasanjo’s civil government and he criticises the administration for bad governance and many of its decisions. The attack on Obasanjo by Buhari is needed in such democratic dispensation as ours and on reflection, it is noted that Obasanjo demonstrated an unusual maturity in his ‘jamboree’ speech to run for a second term. The banter between an incumbent Head of State and a previous one is not peculiar to Nigeria. If we are to be reminded at all, Obasanjo himself was at the heels of President Shagari and his criticism of Ibrahim Babangida whose administration Obasanjo compared with a drunken sailor spending money carelessly. We may well find that many Nigerians support Buhari’s enterprise at criticising the lacklustre performance of Obasanjo’s government and this is not a support that can be inferred for Buhari’s presidential aspirations. It is healthy for our democracy that the likes of Buhari are willing to criticise this government openly. In fact, Obasanjo should count on such critic as Buhari as valuable than the sycophants who are ‘Yes Minister’ characters.

Secondly, our country is devoid of a class structure that presupposes there is a certain breed of our fellow citizens who should in practice aspire to political offices as against the theory of constitutional guarantees. The trend in other parts of the world is that of a class of citizens whose opinions, antecedents and character make them good candidates for political offices and we often find that the meteoric rise of such people in politics is generally not because of their money bags or criminal records as obtains in our country. If we had a clear structure in our society, the likes of the general’s name sake in the person of Alhadji Buhari would not have attempted to inflate his age and education achievements to become the Speaker of the House of Representatives and neither would we have a breed of crooks and 419ers whose right places should be at KiriKiri prison instead of our noble Houses of Assemblies of the country. In Nigeria, politicians aspire to elected offices not because of their strong political beliefs or a belief in a single issue but for self-aggrandisement and enriching themselves.

In the United Kingdom recent local government elections, two Mayors with little money for their campaigns who were not backed by the established parties were elected into office. Stuart Drummond, a call centre worker stood as an independent candidate in Hartlepool; the land of Peter Mandleson, the New Labour Party communications guru and friend of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Drummond paraded himself as a seven-foot monkey called H’angus and his election promise was for free Banana for every school pupil. However, upon his election he is now campaigning on the need to tackle crime in that part of the British Isle. Drummond demonstrates that the electorate will vote for a candidate because for his perseverance or as an angry vote against the establishment and incumbent government. In Hartlepool, the latter is truer than the former.

Nonetheless, the case in Middlesborough is different. Ray Mallon, a braces (suspenders to Americans) wearing, sartorial elegant Bill Clinton look-alike and a maverick retired policeman nicknamed Robocop stood as an independent candidate after a disgraceful career of zero tolerance as Head of Middlesborough CID. He admitted fourteen internal charges and resigned from the police to run for the office of the Mayor, an election he won.

These two examples demonstrate that the electorate does not need the candidates from established party because credible candidates can be elected in Nigeria if only we do not rig the election for the outcome desired by political rogues and neophytes. Accordingly, APP does not need heavyweights in the likes of General Buhari to augment its standing nor its presidential aspirations because “The idea that you merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal – that you can gather votes like box tops – is, I think, the ultimate indignity to the democratic process” (Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) American Democratic politician in his speech at the Democratic convention in 1965).

Thirdly, in many developed parts of the world, the loyalties of the candidates aspiring for political offices are tested through commitments to the ideals of their chosen political parties. It is either APP has no political ideals and accordingly, Buhari decided to court the party in fulfilment of his dreams or the Buhari factor is to forestall Abubakar Atiku/Ibrahim Babangida’s 2007 presidential ambitions. Nonetheless, APP and the country ought to heed Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), the 33rd President of the USA, when asked about sacking General MacArthur, he said: “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail (Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking (1974). Given such an utterance by an American president, APP had better reconsider its membership of Buhari among its ranks.

On a more serious note, Buhari’s heroic achievements may be the pristine qualities that dazzle APP. History is littered with military heroes who turned to politics and they as well as their civilian counterparts make good and bad politicians. An example is the antecedent of Dwight David Eisenhower, (1890-1969), American general and 34th president of the USA. He was the principal architect of the successful Allied invasion of Europe during World War II and of the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany. As president, Eisenhower ended the Korean War, but his two terms (1953-1961) produced few legislative landmarks or dramatic initiatives in foreign policy. His presidency is remembered as a period of relative calm in the United States. A professional soldier, he was not even particularly well known within the U.S. Army. His rise to fame during World War II was meteoric: a lieutenant colonel in 1941, he was a five-star general in 1945. As supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, he commanded the most powerful force ever assembled under one man. He is one of the few generals ever to command major naval forces; he directed the world’s greatest air force; he is the only man ever to command successfully an integrated, multinational alliance of ground, sea, and air forces. He led the assault on the French coast at Normandy, on June 6, 1944, and held together the Allied units through the European campaign that followed, concentrating everyone’s attention on a single objective: the defeat of Nazi Germany, completed on May 8, 1945. Further examples are in Winston Churchill (UK), George Herbert Bush (USA) and Charles de Gaulle (France).

This begs the question, are the qualities of a military dictator required in the Nigerian democratic dispensation? I think not. If such qualities were required then the mentality of Olusegun Obasanjo in the early days of his administration together with his lacklustre achievements and persistent careless utterances will be indicative that a successful military career equates a successful civilian presidency. You see, “The trouble with this country is that there are too many politicians who believe, with a conviction based experience, that they can fool all of the people all of the time”(Franklin P. Adams (1881-1960), American journalist and humourist in Nods and Becks (1944) It is hoped that APP in selecting its presidential candidate will shift the moral ground and veer from self destruct.

I submit in my conclusion that Buhari has a right to be considered by his party for the highest political office in so far as his constitution rights are protected but on a moral standpoint, it will amount to a political misjudgement for Buhari to be offered the presidential ticket for 2003 without him redressing the injuries and abuses of his past military administration. Buhari should use the next four years to appease the electorate and allow his draconian rule to be contrasted to Babangida’s corrupt government. I believe Buhari can be rehabilitated for his well meaning but misguided policies. Anyway, my sincere hope is that the man will take a stock of himself and conduct a life of statesmanship beyond partisan politics and adopt a spirit of reverence, inclusiveness, and tolerance so as to eschew arrogance and divisiveness because a leader in a democratic space must be able to listen and lead by example. However, beyond the person of Buhari, I suspect many well placed and corrupt Nigerian leaders particularly the ones involved in the malversation of General Abacha’s administration will face a reckless Obasanjo in his second term. For example, the accounts of PTF may be required of Buhari and my vatic position is that his supporters will regard such accountability as vindictiveness for challenging a victorious Obasanjo. Surely, if the General Buhari has nothing to hide, he should welcome such probe and discharge his stewardship to the Nigerian populace.

As for his party, I do not believe for a passing fleeting moment that Buhari will be its ticket bearer for the presidential elections of 2003. My tea leaves indicate that his membership of the party is for the purpose of 2007 and a design to deny Ibrahim Babangida a political home and springboard to return to power in Nigeria. It is becoming evident that in spite of the accumulated wealth and personal connections Babangida enjoys, there is a group of Nigerians scheming to tighten the net and close in on him in a way that his geniality and ‘evil genius’ will be tested and purged in a court of Law where he will answer for his past misdeeds. It also appears to me that in a toss of a coin, Babangida is going to find out that head you lose and tail you lose. Anyway, who am I to understand a national political system in which there is no honour amongst its political class.

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