Don’t Fall for the Former Nigerian Dictator Playing Democrat

General Muhammadu Buhari. (Photo: Chatham House)General Muhammadu Buhari. (Photo: Chatham House)

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Western audiences are easily swept off their feet by promises of illusory change stemming from embattled democracies. What’s more, historical depth of thought has never been a staple of our increasingly real-time media. How else could we rationalize the West’s love affair with Nigerian presidential contender, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari?

Africa’s largest democracy, economy and oil producer, Nigeria, will hold its long-awaited presidential elections on March 28, after procedural voting problems and Boko Haram’s streak of suicide attacks forced the electoral commission to postpone the poll by six weeks. Immediately, the main opposition party, the All Progressive Congress (APC) cried foul and blasted incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan for manipulating the polls and orchestrating a coup to drum up support from his increasingly flaccid political base. The Guardian and The Washington Post joined in and ran headlines extolling Buhari’s virtues in contrast to Jonathan’s anti-democratic instincts. Even US Secretary of State John Kerry joined the bandwagon, issuing a stern statement in which he expressed his “disappointment” and hinted at a perverse strategy used by the incumbent to secure his re-election by hook or by crook, saying “It is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”

But who is General Buhari? Perplexingly, the 72-year-old retired general is no stranger on Nigeria’s political scene. After a long career in the military, when Buhari participated in the bloody 1966 overthrow of Nigeria’s first civilian president, the general took charge of the country in a bloodless coup d’état in 1983 by ousting yet another civilian president, Shehu Shagari. For the next two years, Buhari unleashed one of Nigeria’s worst reigns of terror, imprisoning opponents, activists, students and artists, and gagging the media under a controversial decree that made it illegal for journalists to publish “embarrassing” stories about government officials, even if true. His administration’s economic mismanagement shaved 30 percent off Nigeria’s GDP per capita and living standards plummeted. Buhari’s brand of leadership inspired a political ideology called Buharism, a mixture of neo-fascism and extreme nationalism focused on limiting personal freedoms in the name of banishing “unpatriotic” internal agents.

After his overthrow and a stint in federal prison, Buhari made a swift comeback to the forefront of Nigeria’s political life. An eternal runner-up, the general ran unsuccessfully in the last three Nigerian elections. It can be argued that his reckless comments, where he trumpeted that he would “die for Islam” and would not relent until Sharia is imposed throughout Nigeria, played a big part in his poor electoral performance with the country’s 49.3 percent Christian population. Moreover, Buhari will soon by brought before the International Criminal Court for his involvement in stoking the wave of bloodshed that followed his 2011 defeat, which left 800 people dead and more than 65,000 displaced.

Changing Faces?

Yet, fast-forward to 2015 and Buhari shows a different face. His vague platform focuses on “change” and takes a tough stance on Nigeria’s problems, warping the presidential election’s narrative around two issues: corruption and the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast. Rounds of warm applause precluded his 20-minute speech given at London’s prestigious Chatham House in late February, where he praised the importance of free and fair Nigerian elections and called himself a “converted democrat.” He defended his record in office, arguing that “dictatorship goes with military rule, though some might be less dictatorial than others … I take responsibility for whatever happened under my watch.” But taking at face value the rhetoric of a presidential hopeful would be a grave mistake.

Digging beneath the headlines, a different Buhari emerges. The general vowed after his last defeat that should he deem the 2015 poll to be flawed, “by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood,” a gory picture if there ever was one. After the elections were postponed, his party has upped the violent rhetoric, threatening to pull out of a peace pact that bound all presidential candidates to respect the outcome of the elections and condemn any violence. Party leaders have also made preparations to form a parallel government after the elections, an outcome that could set off ethnic killings in the north, as it happened before with the 1965 Biafran civil war.

Admittedly, the timing for the postponement of the elections initially seemed off. Jonathan is facing mounting opposition for his irresolute response to the Boko Haram crisis and his administration’s inability to do more to tackle Nigeria’s epidemic corruption. Not to mention that in recent months, his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has seen several high level defections, most notably Jonathan’s mentor and former president, Olusegun Obasanjo. But putting aside political passions, one would be quick to see that the postponement makes sense and does not seem to be a “pretext” at all.

Since May 2013, the country’s Boko Haram-infested north has been placed under a state of emergency and the army has been mobilized. This January, the violent insurgency shocked the world with its murderous assault on the town of Baga, leaving more than 2,000 people dead in one of the worst terrorist attacks in history. Since then, the number of suicide attacks and kidnappings has multiplied and the group’s leader recently pledged allegiance to ISIS, stoking fears that Nigeria will be faced with a flood of Islamic State operatives. Fortunately, thanks to a recently deployed multinational force overseen by the African Union, Boko Haram has registered several important setbacks as the security situation is slowly improving.

In times of troubles, voters are easily swayed by messianic figures who promise quick fixes to otherwise intractable problems. But capitalizing on emotions and appealing to the lowest common denominator makes such figures dangerous leaders, prone to authoritarian instincts. Buhari’s past is anything but democratic, and Nigerian voters falling for populist slogans of hasty change and transformation could very well send the country back to the times of outright military dictatorship.