While hosting State House correspondents to a lunch recently at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, as part of the activities to mark his one year in office, President Buhari reportedly said he never expected that former President Goodluck Jonathan would concede defeat so easily after the March 2015 presidential election as he did. The President reportedly said:
“For him to have conceded defeat even before the result was announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission, I think it was quite generous and gracious of him.... Gen. Abdulsalami recognised the generosity of Jonathan to concede defeat and said we should go and thank him immediately and that was the first time I came here.”
I was really touched when I read this. For me, it shows a conciliatory side of the President that did not exactly flourish during his first year in office. Buhari, it should be recalled, had gone to court to challenge the outcome of each of the three previous elections that he lost. He therefore knew what he was talking about, including the sort of pressure that Jonathan as a sitting President probably had to withstand to make that historic concession. It is precisely because of that noble gesture from Jonathan that several Nigerians, (including my humble self), felt that whatever his other shortcomings, Jonathan deserved to be treated as a statesman (even if he had to be asked to account for his time in office). True, conceding defeat is no big deal in climes where both the democratic and nation-building processes have matured. But in climes like ours where such a gesture is a rarity, it becomes an act of statesmanship. It is like telling the truth or having integrity in climes where such are scarce commodities. What could be normal in other climes could be revolutionary acts in others.
There was another glimpse of the conciliatory side of Buhari when he famously declared that he belonged to everybody and to nobody. He also promised that he would not look into the past but would draw a line on what people did from the time he was sworn into office. It appeared that this putative Mandela-like side of Buhari had to contend with the ‘tough Buhari’ personage of his first coming, which is apparently very much beloved by his fanatical supporters. The tough Buhari personage was expected to cart as many people as possible into jail, to be single-minded in fighting corruption using the sort of ‘gragra’ that characterised his first coming and to brook no nonsense and dialogue with no one (as such would be signs of weakness). From all indications those pushing for Buhari to live up to his tough man personage triumphed in his first year in office, for shortly after being sworn in office, he reversed himself and announced that he would probe the Jonathan regime. He also refused to grant bails to Sambo Dasuki and Nnamdi Kanu – despite their reportedly meeting their bail conditions. He equally reversed himself and declared that it would be unrealistic to expect that those who gave him five percent votes would get the same treatment as those who gave him 95 percent support. Alienated groups like agitators for Biafra and Niger Delta neo militants were given notice that they did not know who they were dealing with. With these, those pushing for Buhari to live up to his tough man image triumphed over those who felt that given his age and experience, the role of a Mandela would come natural to him. Mandela, it should be recalled forgave those who drove the Apartheid system in South Africa and jailed him for 27 years. He disappointed many Blacks who felt that his ascendancy would be used to right historic wrongs and seek vengeance. It is Mandela’s singular effort in unifying a deeply fractured South Africa that made him a living saint even among White South Africans. He also became one of the greatest moral authorities in the world until his transition on December 5 2013.
For me Buhari’s one year in office will be better assessed by the extent to which a particular brand of Buhari which dominated the period succeeded or failed.
When Buhari apologized to Nigerians over the illegal sacking of some vice chancellors by the Minister for Education, I argued in an article entitled ‘Buhari’s apology: Opportunity for another re-invention’ (Daily Trust, March 31 2016), that it was an opportunity to re-invent the President so that his softer side would drive his policies. Buhari has since ‘softened’ up on several other key policy issues that people, who still have the notion of ‘a tough and inflexible’ Buhari of his first coming would never think is possible: He has approved huge increase in the pump price of fuel after opposing such a measure for years, he has given implicit consent to the devaluation of the naira and reneged on several campaign promises. Buhari is likely to be concerned whether his concessions to realities means watering down the Buhari personage his supporters deify. But I believe he needs not be a prisoner of supporters’ conception of him.
Buhari needs to free himself from the control of the hawks and become a reconciler because I sincerely believe that the triumph of the ‘tough man’ side of Buhari in his first one year in office has been at a huge cost. For example when Nnamdi Kanu, leader of one of the Biafra agitation groups, was incarcerated and denied bail, very few people had ever heard of his name. Some of us warned that holding him in detention for a prolonged period would only turn him into a mythical figure among his followers which would aggravate the separatist agitation he champions. The fear of such unintended effect is precisely why in advanced democracies hate groups like the British National Party or the KKK in the USA are never banned or their leaders incarcerated but rather efforts are made to draw the ideas they espouse into the market of political ideas and outcompeted. But those pushing for the ‘tough’ Buhari personage apparently triumphed and today Biafra agitation, which has been there since the 1990s, as, at best, a largely non-violent irritation, has metamorphosed into something else. I still feel the government’s response was mistaken because we have a template on how separatist agitations are dealt with and defeated in other places.
What can be said about Nnamdi Kanu can also be said about the continued detention of Dasuki – despite court orders to get him released. Despite the mind-boggling sum Dasuki is said to have embezzled, will the country really lose anything if he is granted bail as ordered by the courts, with perhaps his passports seized? For the Niger Delta Avengers and other insurgents, it was long predicted that there would be a resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta if Buhari won and a prolonged post election violence in parts of the Northeast and Northwest if Buhari lost because of the politics of identity. A common recommendation by analysts was that whoever won should reach out to the loser and treat him like a co-winner. There are indications that a part of Buhari wanted very much to do that (for example from his opinion of Jonathan cited earlier in this piece and from his statements that he belonged to everyone and to no one). Somehow the hawks and hardliners seemed to have held Buhari captive in his first year in office. .
For the hawks and hardliners pushing for a final solution against all the obstacles on the President’s way, they should be reminded that it will take just one major international newspaper to label the President a dictator or accuse the army of human rights abuses for the remaining goodwill we have in the global community to be squandered.
I believe that most Nigerians want President Buhari to succeed - at least with the hope that such success will trickle down to their dining tables and pockets. For me, the tough Buhari personage who ruled in the first year of the regime’s four -year tenure only recorded commendable success in fighting Boko Haram. In my opinion, the ‘gra gra method’ of fighting corruption has not only de-marketed the country but is also generally counter-productive – despite figures of recovered loots from EFCC. The tough and unyielding Buhari also failed in my opinion in the areas of rebuilding the economy and uniting Nigerians. Even the commendable success against Boko Haram is vitiated by the fact that as Boko Haram recedes in the Northeast, it is being reconstituted in other parts of the country - through groups like pro-Biafra activists, Black Avengers in the Niger Delta and murderous herdsmen across the country.