May 29, 2020, marked Buhari’s five years in office – or the end of the first year of his second term in office.
How has Buhari fared so far? And what is likely to be his legacy?
Answering either of the above questions may not be as straightforward as it seems. There are several issues that will predicate the answers:
One, Buhari’s greatest strengths are also his Achilles heels: One of these was his first coming as military Head of State (December 31 1983 – August 27 1985). Some of his core admirers nurse a nostalgia of an unsmiling 41-year old Major-General who introduced the War Against Indiscipline, resisted pressures from the Bretton Woods institutions to devalue the Naira and herded most members of the political class and other ‘untouchables’ in the society into long jail terms for corruption and sundry offences, (some, for as long as 250 years). Though he stayed in office for only 20 months, he amassed a constituency of support from people who loathed the political class or saw them as their social class enemies. For this constituency of Buhari’s support base, the Daura Genera would have succeeded in righting many of the wrongs of the Nigerian society if only his government was not truncated by the Babangida coup of August 1985.
Two, just as Buhari amassed a constituency of support from his first coming, the seeds of many of the negative togas he wore today were also sown during his first coming. There are two broad categories of critics who oppose Buhari on account of how he governed as a military dictator: the first category are those who saw his regime as extremely brutal and repressive and based on that have continued to question his democratic credentials, and consequently view every move of his with suspicion. For this category of critics, since a tiger cannot easily change its spots, it will be dangerous not to perpetually see Buhari as a threat to our democracy and consequently be vigilant with every move he makes. This constituency of opposition will not buy the notion that Buhari is now a democrat.
The second category of critics that derived from his time as a military Head of State are those who judged his mode of governance from that era on the basis of ‘ethnic and religious balance’ and concluded that he was a religious bigot or Northern irredentist. There are numerous instances members of this group often give to buttress their argument such as that Buhari constituted a lopsided Supreme Military Council which was overwhelmingly dominated by Northern Muslims; that he was insensitive to the country’s diversity by choosing as his Deputy Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, a fellow Northern Muslim as his second in Command; and that in herding many members of the political class to prison, he favoured the Northern Muslim political class. In fact by the time Buhari was overthrown, he had become effectively de-legitimized in most parts of the South such that nearly all the politicians he jailed from the Southern part of the country came out of prison as heroes when his government was overthrown. This probably explains why throughout his four-time run for the presidency of the country (2003-2015), it was only in 2015, and largely through alliance with some regional political groups led by Bola Tinubu’s Action Congress of Nigeria, that he was able to secure 25 per cent of the votes in any state in the southern part of the country. Essentially, the allegation that Buhari is a “northern irredentist” or “Muslim fanatic” started from that era but has hardened by continuing allegations that he still favours the Northern Muslims in strategic appointments, including in leadership of the country’s security architecture. The government denies the charge, arguing that its data on political appointments paints a different picture.
Three, another of Buhari’s strengths, which ironically also works against him, is that he is generally seen as a regional hero in many parts of the Muslim north. In fact in all his five runs for the presidency of the country, he consistently polled over ten million votes from that demographic. This was one of the reasons he was favoured to be the Presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress in the 2015 election because the new party’s political strategists reckoned that with him as the party’s flag bearer, at least ten million votes would be in the kitty going into the election. However being a regional hero in a low trust society like Nigeria (where your name alone makes you a suspect) means that non-members of that in-group view him with heightened suspicion. This contrasts with Olusegun Obasano, whose non-acceptance by his Yoruba ethnic group paradoxically helped to burnish his nationalist credentials and acceptance.
Four, following from the above, it is possible to categorize Buhari’s supporters into two broad categories – those who admire him from his days as military Head of State and those who support him from his core Northern Muslim constituency. Within this latter category, it is possible to have further sub-divisions – those who see him as an anti-thesis of the Northern political elite with his self-discipline and austere life style; those who believe he is the one to restore the assumed lost glory of the North (presumably lost under the Obasanjo and Jonathan regimes), and those who do not particularly care about him but will support him anyway as a Northerner – because in Nigeria’s peculiar mode of allocating privileges, the South holds the economic power so the North needs to perpetually hold political power as a lever. Among Buhari’s constituencies of support, the most fanatical group appears to be members of the group who see him as the one to restore the assumed lost glory of the North while his most strident critics appear to be those who feel he is a Northern irredentist or Muslim fanatic.
Five, an important metric to be taken into consideration in any discussion of Buhari’s five years in office is that his victory in the 2015 presidential election led to fundamental re-alignment political forces along ethno-regional lines. For instance, while under Jonathan, the government was an alliance of the dominant factions of the South-South, South-East and Benue and Plateau political elite, under Buhari, the extant pattern of alliance was supplanted and the government became an alliance of the dominant factions of the Muslim North and the South-west. In essence when some describe Buhari as a ‘polarizing figure, it has to be seen in the context of the nature of the support and opposition constituencies he attracts, including the politics flowing from the re-alignment of political forces after May 2015.
Six, is Buhari interested in changing the pattern of the constituencies of his support? While he seems to have made some inroads into previously hostile constituencies, there are also suspicions that he may not really be interested in changing the sources of his support base as seen in the routine accusations that he pays little regards to the optics of governance. According to this view, each time Buhari is accused of clannishness or Northern bias in appointments it only valorises a sub-constituency of his support base – those who see him as the person to restore the assumed lost glory of the North, a constituency Buhari probably holds very dear to his heart. Some people infer that since all politics is local, Buhari probably believes that after his presidency, what matters most to him will be what certain constituencies think of him, and not necessarily what most Nigerians think of his tenure.
Seven, so how will we assess his performance in office? Given the hard-line approach of both his support base and opposition constituency, the answer to this question will largely depend on who will be doing the assessment. A Buharist will recount the numerous ‘achievements’ of the government including in the provision of infrastructure, support for agriculture and even fighting Boko Haram. A critic could focus on the increasing insecurity in the land, the fact that Nigeria has become the poverty capital of the world, Buhari’s alleged clannishness and Northern Muslim bias in strategic appointments and of course his kid-gloves approach to the Fulani herdsmen. In this sense truth is relative and whether Buhari has done well or not will depend on who is answering the question.
Eight, what will be Buhari’s legacy? Unfortunately the same contestations over whether the Buhari government has ‘delivered’ on its campaign promises or not will follow any attempt to peep into the nature of his legacy. Perhaps, for a leader like Buhari, where most people have very strong views of about him – either in support or in opposition – it may be better to talk about his ‘legacies’. This is because in a typical constructivist manner, what constitutes Buhari’s legacy will depend on whether the author comes from his support base, (and in fact which of the support bases) or whether he comes from the constituency of those who viscerally oppose him and his politics. .