He might be miserly with his smile, but he is considerably better than his former side-kick, the late Tunde Idiagbon, for whom smiling was an ordeal. That he doesn’t possess the charm of a family doctor, the type with which Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida has seduced us for years, should be viewed in the right context. Same should apply to his inability to get as wide-mouthed as Goodluck Jonathan, the man with whom he is set to duel again for the presidency. Contrary to what many would have you believe, Buhari is a lovable chap. I suspect that it must upset him a bit that we do not fondly call him “the gap toothed general”. Just why we’ve failed to notice that he is gap-toothed eludes me. He also looks like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. Not a bad one, given that the Rwandan president is perceived to have done well for his country.
There is a strong belief in certain quarters that Buhari will do well for his country, too. By all accounts, credible and otherwise, Buhari is an advertisement for parsimony. He appears to live modestly, wearing modest clothes and owning a modest home. He is unlike many who get into public office broom-thin, but leave with pendulous stomach. Buhari looks trim and fit, exactly how we want our leaders to be.
In a society in which public office demands that its occupier must smash all gluttony records, Buhari is a breath of fresh air, something we need in commercial quantities. We also need our leaders to be parsimonious, not spending like sailors on a shore leave. How Buhari’s decision to take a N27.5 million loan for the purchase of his nomination form fits his profile of frugality is what I am still trying to work out. How he’d pay back if he does not win the presidential election also has me mystified. Perhaps, the loan was collateralised, which would make him considerably less skint than we think he is. But that is small beer.
There are grounds to love Buhari, who is affectionately called “mai gaskiya” (the forthright one), a sobriquet that is evocative of his presumed honesty and frugality. It is difficult, if not impossible, to contest the view that Buhari is frugal-if you are talking about frugality with the truth. In his world, Sani Abacha, whose dark sunglasses and conduct darkened the country’s mood, remains a candidate for beatification, despite the evidence that tumbled out of many courts during the trial of his son and his family agreeing to return money to the country’s coffers. “All the allegations levelled against the personality of the late General Sani Abacha will remain allegations. It is ten years now. Things should be over by now,” said Buhari on the tenth anniversary of the death of Abacha, who he also credited with initiating many developmental ideas that moved the country forward-to the edge of a cliff.
Somehow, that gets ignored in conversations about Buhari aka mai gaskiya, something which has ensured that our favourite (not best-known) “gap-toothed general” keeps trading on a reputation of chastity. That reputation, in turn, has bred the view that he is very capable of fighting corruption.
Perhaps. But can he fight stealing (including of staggering sums), which we were recently told is completely different from or totally unrelated to corruption? He seems like he’d succeed at fighting corruption, not stealing, an art in which the beatified Abacha excelled.
On many occasions, I have argued, with eyes bulging, that Buhari’s reputation as a disciplinarian is a sturdy one. Here is a man whose regime sought to banish our dodgy sanitary habits by introducing a sanitation exercise. Here is a man whose government was minded to ensure we became considerably less unruly with the launch of a War Against Indiscipline. Buhari, it must be said, was, and I believe, is a lover of discipline-as long as he is not required to set examples of disciplined conduct. The story of the 53 suitcases, featuring an emir and Buhari’s aide-de camp, may need a bit of retelling.
Back in 1984, when Buhari was head of state, the government decided to change the national currency. As part of the exercise, movement of money out of the country was prohibited. But the prohibition did not apply to the then Emir of Gwandu who, abetted by soldiers that included Buhari’s aide-de-camp, found a way to take 53 suitcases of naira notes out of the country. This was in spite of the fact that the customs officer on duty, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, wanted the suitcases seized. Years later, when he was asked about the saga, he directed journalists to ask Abubakar, then vice president, about the movement of the suitcases.
His response, if it had any validity, suggested that Abubakar abetted gargantuan illegality, but got away with such-under a government we continue to advertise as a synonym of discipline. There is no way in the world I’d not love a man that gives me a licence to do as I wish.
Under the same man, a permanent secretary, the rhythmically named Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, was relieved of a huge amount of money by a service provider (read prostitute) in Austria. This was at a time there was a decree against the operation of foreign accounts by public officials. It later turned out that Alhaji Alhaji kept a number of undeclared foreign accounts. The press and critics sank their teeth in, demanding that Buhari should make an example of Alhaji Alhaji. To their eternal chagrin, no such thing happened.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, our favourite Indian hemp smoker, assumed he possessed more gravitas than he did. He got a 10-year jail sentence under the same decree that should have put Alhaji Alhaji’s whale-sized frame out of circulation. Fela’s offence was to be in possession of foreign exchange, legitimately earned, for the welfare of his Egypt 80 on an international engagement. Nothing more, nothing less. But a judge pressured to do the bidding of Buhari’s government equated it with culpable homicide and jailed Fela, only to apologise to him later.
Miscarriage of justice or not, Fela got the message that Buhari was all for discipline-as long as you are not his friend. Discipline is discipline.
That was the lesson many of the actors in the second were taught by Buhari, who led the coup against the civilian regime of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Buhari’s idea of fairness saw Shagari, the head of a government he considered as dire, famously kept under house arrest. For his deputy (or mannequin), Alex Ekwueme, accommodation was found at the Kirikiri Prisons.
I won’t be tempted, as some have, to attribute this to sectionalism. Never. Not when we got to know that despite the Buhari regime’s declaration of intent to round up those who ran the country aground. Chief Akinloye, chairman of the ruling party, and Richard Akinjide, Second Republic Attorney-General (both Yoruba) slipped through the regime’s net. The recently deceased Umaru Dikko and Uba Ahmed, both universally reviled, also slipped through.
Ahmed, a man with a penchant for non-stop chatter, was the Secretary-General of the ruling party, the National Party of Nigeria. The country’s airspace was closed on the orders of the Buhari regime. Ahmed, oblivious of the fact that that the freak show headed by Shagari had been ended, was returning from abroad.
Being a big shot, he demanded that his pilot request a special landing permission, something that was gladly granted by the airport commandant who knew Ahmed’s value in the scheme of things. He was arrested and detained. But under a regime that persuaded itself that it was chasing the major actors of a grotesque administration and all of that, Ahmed, probably flying on a broom like those European witches, was back overseas a few days later.
Members of the opposition had no such luck. The late Chief Adekunle Ajasin, governor of Ondo State, was perhaps too old to fly on a broom or had no inclination to do so. He was tried for corruption by a tribunal and was acquitted. But Buhari wanted an outcome different from what the tribunal produced. Evidence did not matter. He ordered Ajasin, who was in his 70s, retried. But as before, the tribunal acquitted him. For having the good fortune of being acquitted the second time, Buhari detained him despite being found sinless.
Buhari is like the rest of us. All of us, with the possible exception of those with a fondness for psychotropic substances, know that cocaine is bad for our society. Buhari wanted our society to enjoy coke, not cocaine. Those who thought otherwise got it-right in the face. The trio of Bernard Ogedengbe (29), Bartholomew Owoh (26) and Lawal Ojuolape (30) thought otherwise and became victims of legal murder.
Legal murder? Yes, that was what Buhari did with his Decree 20, under which the three were executed for drug running. It did not matter that the offence was committed at a time when the law did not prescribe capital punishment. This was pointed out by the press, social critics and religious leaders. It was a waste of time; the equivalent of transfusing a corpse.
Our dear Buhari has been seeking to be a civilian since 2003. Not once has he espoused ideas different from what the average office seeker espouses. He tells us our problems as a country-as though we don’t know-but never tells us how he intends to fix them. We love him still. And obviously, he loves us too. He deserves our affection. Frankly, anybody who can make us think highly of him enough to want to make him president, despite his squalid record, deserves to be loved and will love us in return-for our unwillingness to interrogate the claims he happily makes.