The opposition presidential candidate, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, is a complex figure who attracts fanatical support and opposition in near-equal measure. As historian Max Siollun explains in profiling Buhari, this election represents the last chance for the perennial election loser, who ruled Nigeria by military decree in the 1980s, and was involved in his first coup nearly 50 years ago.
The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate Major-General Muhammadu Buhari is a rarity in Nigerian politics; a man with a reputation for probity in a country where politics and corruption are synonymous. A former People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government official told me that during a previous election, he tried unsuccessfully to unearth evidence of corruption by Buhari. He did not believe corruption to be among the general’s shortcomings.
Buhari’s supporters, especially young and grassroots northerners, and southern reformers admire and defend him with intense zeal. Despite his popularity, Buhari’s task is formidable. In order to become president he must do something that has never been done in Nigeria: defeat an incumbent president in an election.
On paper, President Goodluck Jonathan should be the underdog in this month’s presidential election. He has been president during the worst bout of terrorism in Nigerian history, is unable to rescue teenage schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram ten months after they were taken, bungled ceasefire talks with Boko Haram, and his government has been dogged by corruption allegations. Buhari has impeccable security credentials as a retired army general and former military head of state.
The calm manner in which he stepped out of his car and surveyed the damage after a failed bomb assassination attempt on him last July reinforced his “iron man” image.
In other countries, a president whose term in office was marred by insecurity and corruption allegations would stand no chance in an election against a retired general with a reputation for having “clean hands”. But likewise, in other countries an opposition candidate who lost three presidential elections in twelve years would be considered unelectable. However, this is Nigeria, and predicting political events is not an exact science.
Muhammadu Buhari was born on 17 December 1942 in Daura in north-western Nigeria, present-day Katsina State, to a Fulani father, and a mother of mixed Kanuri and Hausa ancestry (Buhari’s maternal grandfather was a Kanuri from Kukawa in modern-day Borno State, and his maternal grandmother was Hausa). Buhari was the youngest child and was raised by his mother after his father died when he was only four years old. He attended Katsina Provincial Secondary School.
It was there that he met and befriended Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who would later serve as the number two in Olusegun Obasanjo’s 1976-79 military government and whose brother, Umaru, was president (2007-2010) following Obasanjo’s 1999-2007 elected civilian government.
In 1963, Buhari was commissioned as an officer in the Nigerian Army. Buhari was one of the young northern officers who staged the July 1966 coup, which overthrew Nigeria’s first military government led by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. He fought in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70.
Buhari came into the political limelight in 1975 after he participated in another coup; this time helping to overthrow the military government of General Yakubu Gowon. He served in the succeeding military governments of Generals Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo (1975-1979): first as military governor of Northeastern State, then as Commissioner for Petroleum and Natural Resources. Buhari returned to army duties in October 1979 after the military government ceded power to an elected civilian government led by President Shehu Shagari.
Four years later, Buhari and some other officers who ceded power to Shagari returned to take it back from him when they overthrew the government in the New Year’s Eve coup of 31 December 1983. Now a major-general, Buhari became the leader of a new military government. It was during his time as military head of state that Buhari made his name and reputation.
War Against Indiscipline
In March 1984 Buhari’s administration launched a campaign called “War Against Indiscipline” (WAI), aimed at promoting environmental sanitation, patriotism, a strong work ethic, punctuality, and civic virtues such as queuing for buses, not littering, and not urinating in public. WAI also gave birth to “Sanitation Saturday” (a day when Nigerians are supposed to stay off the roads in order to clean their neighbourhoods and homes), which lasted into the 21st century. WAI introduced military barracks discipline into Nigerian civilian life. Civil servants who arrived late to work were often forced to complete frog jumps as a punishment.
Buhari’s government also launched the most intense anti-corruption campaign in Nigeria’s history. Several ministers were arrested, tried by military tribunals, convicted of corrupt enrichment, and given lengthy jail sentences.
Buhari’s government pursued its anti-corruption campaign with such zeal that it sparked a major diplomatic conflict with Britain. In one of the more extraordinary and notorious incidents in Buhari’s administration, the former Minister of Transport, Umaru Dikko, was kidnapped from a London street, drugged, and bundled into a crate in an attempt to bring him back to Nigeria to face trial for corruption. Nigerian diplomatic and military intelligence officers were implicated, damaging UK-Nigerian relations.
Buhari was overthrown by a military coup on August 27, 1985 and kept in detention for several years. He was replaced by General Ibrahim Babangida – who ironically has endorsed him for this month’s elections.
Return to government and politics
Despite being out of power Buhari’s anti-corruption credentials remained unblemished. He returned to national administration when appointed chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund created by the military regime of General Sani Abacha, a ringleader of the 1985 coup that overthrew Buhari.
Buhari has made three unsuccessful attempts to be elected president; in 2003, 2007, and 2011. On each occasion, he was defeated by Presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, and Jonathan respectively.
Pre-election promises to tackle corruption are routine in Nigeria and usually ignored because of an unspoken understanding that such promises will not be acted upon. However, Buhari’s previous record on graft gives the impression that he means what he says. An academic once told me that things would get “messy” for corrupt officials if Buhari ever returned to power. While promising to tackle corruption will resonate with the Nigerian public, it might make powerful figures nervous.
This includes not just those in the government, but also those in Buhari’s own party with tracks to hide.
Anti-corruption trailblazers who rock the boat are often shunted aside. Just before the 2007 presidential election the head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency Nuhu Ribadu announced that he was investigating 31 of Nigeria’s 36 state governors for corruption. Some of those being investigated by Ribadu pre-emptively rallied against him and orchestrated his removal from his job before he could act upon his investigations. Buhari can also learn lessons from his overthrow in a palace coup in 1985; by his own subordinates after he turned his anti-corruption searchlight on his own constituency: the military.
The Nigerian public desires change and a new leadership. That does not necessarily mean that Buhari is the change they desire. A large proportion of the electorate does not want Buhari or Jonathan since both candidates are flawed. In some ways it is surprising that the APC chose a man that has already been beaten by the PDP three consecutive times, and decided to stage a “rematch” of Nigeria’s last presidential election in 2011.
It says much about Nigerian politics that the best candidate the opposition could find to challenge President Jonathan is a 72-year-old former military leader who was overthrown nearly 30 years ago, who was commissioner for petroleum almost 40 years ago, who took part in a coup that deposed a previous military government nearly 50 years ago, and who has lost three presidential elections in the past 12 years. The candidate that the public dislikes least may win this election, rather than the one they most admire.
This presidential campaign must surely be Buhari’s last. If he loses for a fourth consecutive time, he will almost certainly retire from politics. This is Buhari’s last chance. It is win or bust for the