I have never at any time hidden my soft spot for General Muhammadu Buhari. And I have good reasons. I have never met or interacted with any Nigerian who is more passionate about the progress of Nigeria than Buhari. I can testify that he is genuinely worried about the state of the nation and would love to be given the opportunity to put the nation back on track. “When you analyse our problems, you will come to the conclusion that we have been ruled by leaders who don’t have conscience,” he once told me. What’s more, he has been very disciplined in his personal life. You cannot fault his integrity. All attempts to link him to scandals or impropriety have been unsuccessful. There are insinuations and conjectures here and there, but there is yet no substance to any.
Having said this, however, I am also not unaware of his shortcomings and limitations as he seeks to become president of Nigeria. The most common accusation is that he is a religious extremist, having been quoted as saying Muslims should not vote for non-Muslims in the 2003 elections. He has denied the statement but it sticks till this day. He is also described as not very articulate, especially on policy issues. I have heard a few critics (including former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar) say Buhari always abdicates authority. “When he was head of state,” Atiku said, “he was not in charge. When he was PTF chairman, he was not in charge”. The impression is that he stays aloof while his subordinates call the shots. Some critics also use his “dictatorial” records as a military head of state against him.
Even as a Buhari admirer, I have also been bothered about his ability to win elections. Malam Nasir el-Rufai once described him as “unelectable”. I don’t really know what el-Rufai meant, but I have always worried about the ability of Buhari to gain the support of the critical stakeholders necessary to win elections. As presidential candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) in 2003 and 2007, most of the party’s governors were working for or with President Olusegun Obasanjo. Buhari did not have the necessary logistical and financial support. We all know the role governors play in mobilisation and logistics. They largely control the electoral machinery down to the ward level because of the enormous resources at their disposal. Without their support, you must be extremely strong to win elections.
In 2011, Buhari tried for the third time and lost yet again. In his own analysis, he lost because the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) colluded with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to rig. In my humble opinion, I would say he lost because of the failed alliance deal between the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and his party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). I am not ruling out rigging, mind you, but rigging apart, how was Buhari going to be president of Nigeria without a strong presence in Southern Nigeria? Buhari is very popular in the core North, no questions about that. He has the unalloyed, unpurchasable support of the majority of the masses. He also had the support of the clerics, who are closer to the masses than the emirs and the political leaders.
A successful alliance with ACN, which has a strong presence in the South-west, would have given the PDP and its candidate, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, a very good run for their money. The moment the alliance talks failed, I told myself: “Game over!” I did not expect Buhari to win the election. Why did the alliance fail? There were many reasons, but I think mistakes were made ab initio. According to ACN insiders, after the initial talks were held and a committee was set up to work out the modalities of the relationship, Buhari went on to enter into an agreement with the Save Nigeria Group to pick his running mate from one of its leaders. ACN chieftains were enraged. What would be their own gain? Politics is about horse-trading. Why would ACN align with CPC if they were not going to produce the candidate or the running mate? CPC, on the other hand, argued that the national leader of ACN, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, wanted to be running mate to Buhari. They felt it was not proper to field a Muslim-Muslim ticket (especially given the public image of Buhari among Christians). We can list a million other reasons why the talks failed. The failure of the alliance meant Buhari’s chances were mightily reduced while Jonathan was the biggest gainer.
What is Buhari’s strategy to become president of Nigeria? To be honest, I cannot really put my finger on it. I know that based on the figures in the voter register, Buhari can become president with the votes of the North—that is if the voters overwhelmingly support him and there is no constitutional requirement for “vote spread” across at least 24 states of the federation. According to INEC figures, the North-west zone, where Buhari comes from, has the highest number of registered voters, which is about 18.9 million. This is more than the combined figure of 15.9 million credited to the South-east and South-south. South-west, where ACN is very strong, has 14.2 million registered voters. An alliance between the core Northern states and South-west would have dealt a fatal blow on the PDP. But it failed.
The CPC real strategy, I guess, was to win the 19 Northern states by a wide margin in the first round. I believe they also calculated that Jonathan would not be able to score the majority of votes in the first round, even if 17 Southern states voted for him. So, without either of them scoring the required 25 per cent in at least 24 states, there would be a run-off. Then Buhari would win the run-off based on the expected large support of Northern voters. This calculation, unfortunately, did not work out as Jonathan won seven states in the North and Buhari could only win 12. Of course, I have always argued that the North has never voted for one candidate since elections started in pre-Independence era and I did not see that happening suddenly. CPC’s permutations were therefore wrong.
As we approach 2015, it is becoming obvious that Buhari wants to run again. That would be his fourth attempt. When he received CPC leaders last week, he said he would make his decision known “soon” whether or not he would run again. To me, that is a clear indication that he is considering giving it “one more and final” shot. This indication would have dented the hopes of el-Rufai, who is also rumoured to be eyeing the CPC presidential ticket in 2015. If Buhari decides to run, he will certainly pick the party’s ticket. El-Rufai, who has a massive following on the social media (facebook and twitter), may have to look at an alternative platform. Indeed, I have heard a lot of people say it would be better for Buhari to support el-Rufai than run again. They argue that el-Rufai is younger, has more national appeal and is more hands-on. That is a different argument altogether.
If Buhari eventually decides to run, I think he has scored another own goal even before kick-off. While I agree completely with him on the need for free and fair elections, his further pronouncement about “dogs and baboons” being soaked in blood is less than acceptable at this critical moment in our nationhood. The need for credible elections is something that can never be overstated (although, unlike many other commentators, I don’t believe it is only the PDP that rigs; from all that I have seen and heard, no party is clean, but it is more sexy to brand the ruling party the only riggers). We need credible elections like oxygen. There are genuine Nigerians out there who want to run for office but who are discouraged by the filthy electoral process. If we don’t clean up the process, we will remain stuck in political underdevelopment. Buhari can never be wrong on this. He needs our support, the support of all Nigerians who mean well.
I am, however, disturbed and disgusted about his reported threat of bloodshed in the event of rigging. We’ve had too much bloodshed in this country in the last one year to contemplate another one. Buhari is a leader, a former head of state, a presidential material any day. But part of leadership qualities is self-control. If indeed Buhari said it, I think he should just honourably withdraw the statement and apologise. He can make the same point about credible elections without the threat of bloodshed. That’s not cool enough, General.
Wonderful piece by Simon Kolawole (ThisDay)