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APC, Buhari and the caricature

By The Rainbow
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GENERAL Muhammadu Buhari's article in The Guardian of September 5, 2013 is quite interesting and instructive. Writing under the title 'It is about Nigeria; not Buhari,' the former military head of State and 2015 presidential hopeful gives the rationale for his involvement in the new dispensation which gave birth to the All Progressives Congress (APC).

'My involvement in the political process,' he volunteered, 'is another call to duty and my desire to give back to Nigeria a little of what it gave me, by joining hands with others to provide viable options to our fellow citizens and evolve social and economic policies that are sustainable and all inclusive, by a caring leadership that is dedicated to the efficient management of the economy, social justice and individual liberty.'

Quite aptly, Buhari argued that democracy was not just about free and fair elections but also a mechanism to foster fresh policies to move the country forward. He expressed a preference for the presidential system with some historical insights into the flaws of the parliamentary system. He expressed fears about single-party tendencies and its potential for corruption and dictatorship. He thus justified the emergence of the APC as 'a platform for Nigerians to have an alternative to fulfil their potential with a party that is strong and nationally based.'

Even without calling names, Buhari's innuendoes were not lost on his readers. He spoke of the failed third term attempt and efforts to subvert the system. He also alluded to an elected president who 'doesn't give a damn about public opinion.' By now, you must know the objects of the erstwhile general's subtle attacks.

But perhaps most importantly, Buhari stressed that the issue was not about him, 'but something greater than Buhari or any individual or parts of its whole, it is about Nigeria - its future, progress, and prosperity of its citizens, living in peace, harmony, its evolution and integration'.  He invited other Nigerians and groups including the National Assembly, the judiciary, the security agencies, the press and civil society groups to play their respective roles 'to ensure checks and balances, protection of all under the law and accountability.'

Buhari's treatise is quite refreshing as Nigeria embarks on yet another march to general elections nearly two years away. Though some might argue that 2015 is still far way, Buhari has broken no rules by sharing with the public about his credentials and implied intentions. Besides, the political atmosphere is already thick with electioneering in various guises. With the emergence of some new parties, the resuscitation of some old ones and the jostling for control by politicians, the pre-2015 electioneering seems to have been, unwittingly, jump-started. Buhari's personal manifesto or the first part thereof, via the article in The Guardian, is therefore most welcome.

But many Nigerians familiar with the General's antecedents may view the re-branded Buhari with great suspicion. A Buhari that speaks so copiously about democracy, peace, national harmony and a robust role for the press and civil society groups is out of tune with the stern and uncompromising General that ruled Nigeria with an iron fist between January 1984 and August 1985. His posture and utterances since losing presidential elections in 2007 and 2011 spoke little about  national cohesion. Prior to those elections, he limited his campaigns to mostly the northern part of Nigeria and a few spots in the South. Before the merger that led to the formation of the APC, his Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) came across as a party for radical Northerners who saw him as the messiah. The CPC did not even have a pan-Northern Nigeria appeal as some politicians in the zone could not come to grips with the dictator-turned democrat.

So, what has changed? Can the leopard really change its skin? Or is it mere political expediency for Buhari and the APC to have him re-branded? To be sure, however, Buhari's rebranding did not just start with the APC. For running mate in 2011, he chose eloquent Pastor Tunde Bakare - a political dark horse - who was later to become the convener of the Sovereign Nigeria Group (SNG) that has championed the opposition to unpopular government policies. The permutation at that time was that the General and his party wanted to douse his perceived strong pro-Islam and anti-Christian sentiments and occasional utterances. But the pro-Christian Buhari was not fully tested as the CPC enjoyed limited national spread and did not extend its campaigns to Christian-dominated states in the North and South. Even in Northern states with large Christian populations where he took his selective campaigns, the CPC impact was negligible

Many politicians across the North-South divide, some of whom tasted Buhari's post-coup wrath in 1984, also doubt his democratic credentials. Without any fair trial, he clamped many politicians into jail and sought to foist a new ethical agenda on the nation. Under him, Nigerians learned to form orderly queues for essential commodities, reported punctually at duty posts and did everything possible to avoid punishment. Corruption did not really abate but open solicitation gave way to more subtle extortionist strategies in both the private and public sectors. There was little internalization of the Buhari-sponsored ethos by Nigerians. Much of the order and discipline of that era was borne out of fear of incarceration and other punitive draconian measures.

Not only politicians seem to distrust the new Buhari. The Press does. The memories of imprisonment of journalists are still fresh among practitioners and veterans. Under him as military head of state, Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson of The Guardian were jailed for about a year for failure to disclose the source of a true story on impending diplomatic postings. Buhari's attitude to the judiciary and legislature has also not been put to test in a democratic setting. Under military rule, such as he presided over, the executive and legislative roles were merged. The Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) and its other variants exercised executive and legislative functions. The judiciary was obviously constrained as it could not adjudicate between the two other arms - executive and judiciary - as demanded by the doctrine of separation of powers. A Buhari whose regime was characterised by retroactive decrees such as the one under which hard drug offenders were executed and journalists jailed would need a lot of unlearning and learning about the role of the judiciary in governance.

Above all, the pre-APC Buhari was not seen as a true Nigerian, detribalised and well accepted by all, irrespective of tribe, faith or socio-economic status. It would take a great deal of learning and practice to change these public perceptions of him. It would involve travelling to and making acquaintances with people in every part of Nigeria. The story is told of his fellow Katsina-born Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, the late elder brother of the late President Umaru  Yar'Adua against whom Buhari lost in 2007. He (Yar'Adua) had travelled to a village in the interior of South West Nigeria to visit a political associate. But the associate, unaware of the trip, had also travelled out of the state and was to be away for a couple of days. Despite all entreaties by his associate's family that he should leave since the environment was not considered sufficiently comfortable for him, he remained until his friend returned. While awaiting the return of his friend, he went from house to house, making friends and acquaintances of erstwhile strangers. It was no wonder that the party delegates from that part of Nigeria voted enmasse for the late Yar'Adua at one of the pre-1993 party primaries which he won but was annulled by military President Ibrahim Babangida.

APC is not short of coaches who could re-brand Buhari into a pliable partyman with the airs of a democrat. And even a better speaker and writer. But how much and how well can Buhari learn at 70? As often said, a horse can be forced to the river but cannot be forced to drink. Can Buhari learn to be left-handed in old age or is the caricature being made of him good enough to lead Nigeria in the 21st Century?

• Isiekwene  is a writer and public commentator.