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Muhammadu Buhari: 'The converted democrat?'


Text by Brenna DALDORPH

Latest update : 2015-04-13

Fourth time’s the charm for Muhammadu Buhari. After losing the last three times he ran for president, the former military dictator made democratic history by beating incumbent Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in the March 28 general election.

General Buhari, 72, ran as the candidate for the All Progressives Congress (APC), a grouping of four opposition parties. A Muslim Northerner with disciplinarian credentials, he had been touted as the man to stem rampant corruption and end Boko Haram’s bloody five-year insurgency in the North.

Buhari has personally experienced the horror of the Islamist insurgency in July 2014, he narrowly escaped an attack on his convoy in Kaduna, which was almost certainly a Boko Haram assassination attempt and resulted in the deaths of 82 people. He has promised to end the insurgency within months if elected.

It won't be the first time he has tackled an unwanted presence in northern Nigeria. Many Northerners remember how, in 1983, he drove out Chadian soldiers who had annexed Nigerian islands in Lake Chad, according to Maw Siollun, a historian who wrote about Buhari’s time in power. Though Buhari may have swapped his military garb for traditional robes and sandals, many hope he will demonstrate the same resolve in routing out Boko Haram.

“The military came in when it was absolutely necessary”

Buhari was born on December 17, 1942 in the northern Nigerian state of Katsina, which borders Chad. The last child in a family of 23 children, Buhari was raised Muslim.

At age 19, he joined the army. A few years later, in 1966, Buhari participated in the coup that upturned the regime of then-military leader Aguiyi Ironsi.

On the last day of 1983, General Buhari joined several other military men to launch another coup, toppling President Shehu Shagari and taking over the reins of the country. He ruled until August 1985 when he was in turn ousted by General Ibrahim Babangida.

Though he calls himself a “converted democrat,” Buhari still defends the coup that carried him to power.

"If you choose correct leadership, there won't be any need for the military regime. The military came in when it was absolutely necessary and the elected people had failed the country," he said in October 2005.

Frog-jumping civil servants, ministers in suitcases

During his 20 months in power, Buhari clamped down on corruption and indiscipline, which earned him a lasting reputation for honesty. However, while some applaud Buhari’s iron fist in a chaotic time, others criticise his bizarre, draconian methods --tardy civil servants faced corporal punishment or, according to the BBC, had to do frog jumps, while cheating university students faced the possibility of up to 20 years in prison.

In his “War on Indiscipline,” he tried to instill ideas like orderly queuing and refraining from littering into the Nigerian mindset.

Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign resulted in the imprisonment of 500 politicians and businessmen. He also jailed several journalists after passing a law restricting press freedom. Legendary afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, a well-known human rights activist, was among those thrown into prison for criticising the regime.

Buhari’s war against indiscipline reached “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people,” wrote the Nobel laureate for literature Wole Soyinka.

The biggest scandal to mark Buhari’s presidency was the Umaru Dikko affair. A transport minister in the government deposed by Buhari, Dikko fled to London to escape corruption charges. Nigerian Intelligence officers tracked him down and kidnapped him on July 5, 1984. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain sounded the alarm, heightening security on all Nigerian-bound flights in hopes of finding the minister.

Finally, a customs officer at Stansted Airport discovered the unconscious minister and a doctor responsible for medicating him in a crate marked “diplomatic baggage.” The affair led to a diplomatic crisis between Buhari’s Nigeria and Britain and the suspension of diplomatic relations for two years.

Three fails

After his 1985 ousting, Buhari spent 40 months (double the amount of time he spent in power) in prison.

The former dictator made his return to politics in 2003, a “born-again democrat,” as the Guardian described him. Once again calling for a clean-up in Nigerian politics, Buhari ran for president against Olusegun Obasanjo. However, Buhari failed to win the support of the largely Christian south. He would also lose bids for the presidency in 2007 (to Umaru Yar’Adua) and 2011 (to Goodluck Jonathan.) In post-election violence following Buhari’s 2011 loss, about a thousand Nigerians died.

Buhari’s religious beliefs and support for Sharia law were one reason that he failed to rally support across the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

"I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria," Buhari said, quoted in 2011 press reports. "God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country.”

However, in January 2015, he rescinded his previous statements, defending freedom of religion. He also reminded voters that he had not enacted countrywide Sharia law the last time he ruled.

In December 2014, Buhari was chosen as candidate for the main opposition party, the APC. In a strategic move, the Muslim Northerner chose Yemi Osinbajo, an evangelist Christian from the south of the country, as his vice president.

The formula proved to be a winning one and Buhari sailed to victory with 15.4 million votes against 13.3 million for Jonathan, becoming the first Nigerian to defeat an incumbent president by democratic means.

Date created : 2015-04-01


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