Why Distilling Buhari’s Legacy May Not Be That Straight Forward
Leadership, especially in a fractious country like ours, is not easy. Jeff Boss, an executive coach and author of the book, ‘Navigating Chaos: How to Find Certainty in Uncertain Situations’, tells us that in “addition to the responsibility of making tough decisions every day, there is another critical component that pervades a leader’s thinking, something that he or she can’t help but wonder from time to time, and that is: what will be my leadership legacy?”. Essentially, legacy is something of value, a goal or mission, that a leader wants to be fondly remembered for long after that leader has left office. How will Buhari, who will hand over power to Bola Tinubu on May 29 2023 be remembered?
While a leader’s legacy is supposed to be a by-product of carefully thought-out historical decisions based on personal values, it is not always so. Nelson Mandela became almost a living political saint not by any ‘solid’ achievement as President of South Africa but by a mere act of choosing to forgive those who jailed him for 27 years (an act that, initially enraged many Black South Africans); Goodluck Jonathan became larger than life for conceding defeat after losing the 2015 general election to Buhari and Obasanjo became a global statesman during his first coming as a military Head of State simply for handing over power to elected civilians at a time such an act was a rarity in Africa. Political leaders sometimes embark on white elephant projects like building airports and universities hoping they will be remembered for such projects.
But people are sometimes selective in what they want to remember about a leader. For instance, though Babangida completed the 11.8km Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, most of the Yoruba from the Southwest would rather remember him for annulling the June 1993 election won by their son, MKO Abiola. Jonathan was embraced by the Igbos despite not having any major landmark project in Igboland but because of the way most Igbos felt he made them feel.
For all his aloofness and emotional distance, indications are that Buhari cares about how he will be remembered. Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said recently at the launching of two books written on his assumed legacies that posterity will be kind to Buhari. The two books are ‘State of Repair: How Muhammadu Buhari tried to transform Nigeria for the better’ written by Anthony Goldman, a former journalist and ex- Africa editor of the Financial Times of London and ‘The Legacy of Muhammadu Buhari’ written by Abu Ibrahim, former representative of Southern Katsina Senatorial district.
Since legacy is what a leader will be remembered for long after he or she has left office, by its nature distilling a leader’s legacy is a subjective enterprise. In a country like ours, where the sense of national identification is very low and the basis of nationhood remains contested, one leader might be adored for acts for which he or she is hated by other sections of the country and vice versa. In essence, no matter how hard any leader tries, to aspire for universal adulation in a highly fractious society like ours where no individual or institution enjoys legitimacy across the fault lines, is to aim to the clouds.
By the law of unintended consequences, any leader who has spent a certain amount of time in office is bound to record some achievements and some failures. A leader simply has to operate from his or her notion of what is right and wrong and a vision to make the country better than he or she met it – and leave the judgment to history.
Another challenge in measuring a leader’s legacy is that every leader has constituencies of support and opposition. Even within a broad constituency of support or opposition, there are sub groups – each supporting or opposing a leader for different reasons. For instance, among Buhari’s early supporters were those who believed that as a retired military General he would take the fight to Boko Haram and other triggers of insecurity in the country. There were also those who saw him as the nemesis of their social class enemies who would herd most of the corrupt Nigerian elite into jail. There was equally a sub stratum of his support base who saw him as the person to restore the assumed lost glory of the Muslim North (presumably upended under the presidencies of Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan). Each of these constituencies of support will have a different opinion about his legacy.
In the South-east which could be regarded as the bastion of the opposition against his government, while there is a generalized belief that he deliberately set out to ‘inconsequentialize’ the people by his actions and utterances, his building of the Second Niger Bridge is something he will most likely be fondly remembered for after the current emotions toward him have receded with time. In the South West, he will most likely be remembered for the sheer number of appointments and infrastructural developments the region benefitted from his government alongside feelings that he deliberately laid all manner of banana peels on Tinubu’s path to prevent him from emerging as the country’s President.
Using ‘objective’ metrics may not necessarily make the job of distilling Buhari’s legacy easier. For instance, if we use the ‘before and after metric, (i.e. how the country was before he became President and how it is at the time he is leaving), there will be a wrong assumption that the ‘before’ would have been frozen in time. The truth is that things had already begun to go awry in many respects under Jonathan and no one can say precisely whether they could have gotten better or would have gotten worse if Jonathan had remained in office. The important thing is that for most Nigerians, life has become harder under Buhari and this hardship is amplified by the burden of expectation that heralded him to office.
It is also difficult to assess a leader’s legacy when the leader is still in office and emotions and feelings around the leader are still very active. People also tend to be fatigued with leaders in their second term in office, hence the notion of ‘second term curse’. Feelings and emotions towards a leader are affected by the level of insecurity and relative cost of living under the successor. If a successor performs far better than his or her predecessor in office, the predecessor’s perceived incompetence would be amplified while the reverse will be the case if people suddenly feel they were better off under the leader’s predecessor. This has been the lot of most of our past leaders who are often dressed in borrowed clothes because our past tends to be rosier than the present.
However different constituencies choose to remember Buhari, for most Nigerians, he mismanaged the herdsmen crisis, which in turn created non-state actors like Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho who moved to promise people protection from the terrorism of the herdsmen. He equally mismanaged the country’s diversity – just as he allowed several independent centres of power in his government to operate at cross-purpos