To many in Nigeria the needs of man are food, food and food. Anything outside of food is luxury. It is the reason they live, move and have their being, and bless the Lord, o my soul that I live in luxury. Under this category of people are categories, castes, creeds, races, and humans on both sides of literacy, from the plate-clutching Almajiri on the streets of Kano to the file-clutching unemployed graduate on the streets of Lagos (a proverbial mimicking of circumstance), both united by blinding sunshine and searing heat from the unforgiving sun, both haunted by the crowd of millions of colleagues awaiting water from Moses’s striking of the same rock and both united by their nagging desire for elusive food. To those as these (basically, majority of Nigeria’s population) the scariest picture in the Bible would be the third horseman of the apocalypse whose advent would usher in severe food scarcity. But chaos is a ladder, and severity a tool-to destroy men or put them in line, and Nigerians have learnt to live with both, but more than that one man, Muhammadu Buhari, has for the umpteenth time seemed to be the poster boy of severity in Nigeria, it has seemed to be his answer to chaos, his carrot and stick, his smacking right arm and cuddling left arm. But severity, in whatever synonym or for whatever intention is no less severe, and Nigerians, again, have learnt to live with it.
The worst of his haters would agree that on every occasion the circumstances that lead to the emergence of Mr. Buhari as leader have always been circumstances that demanded the emergence of a deliverer or a hero, and that the popular emotion that follows his ascension is always something short of a Budhist monk watching the Lord Maitreya descend upon the Himalayas, or a Marian apparition to a Catholic faithful. At this point many would repeat the holy phrase ‘a new sheriff is in town’, they would raise their expectations of the man in whom is no guile and in whose cup is no strong drink, for wine is a mocker and strong drink a destroyer, but Buhari was always a reformer. With sanctimonious promises piling up many would say that of a truth this would be the rider on a white horse, crowned by the goodwill of Nigerians and his bow ready to conquer every ill of society. However, on each occasion the circumstances which have led to Mr. Buhari’s emergence have proven insurmountable, at least by him, and in most cases worsen under his watch.
His first coming on the last day of 1983 was as timely as it could be. The preceding administration was replete with all manner of corruption. The General made the world believe that his coming would be a departure from the larceny of the Shagari years, and that the indiscipline in the system could only be smothered by brute force. Alex Ekwueme was put in prison, while Shehu Shagari was put under house arrest, the ethnic import of their respective treatment was probably lost on observers who were either too busy adulating over the new sheriff who had come to clean the mess that they didn’t notice when the new sheriff began to add his own mess to the potpourri. Draconian decrees saw backdated judgements passed on people and folks sentenced to decades or life in jail, whichever came last. For the first time, we saw the government plot and almost successfully execute the kidnap of her own citizen from another country, yes, who remembers Umaru Dikko? We wouldn’t say there was no war against indiscipline, but this war was soon expanding its syllabus, it was soon becoming a war against everyone. As economic severity festered we queued to buy milk, bread, and just about everything. The slightest default from order was met with brute punishment, minor offences carried long sentences; exam malpractice was punishable by a 21 year prison sentence, and counterfeiting and arson could lead to death. We were disciplined but more than that we were humiliated. Also Decree Number 2 of 1984 saw to it that strikes and popular demonstrations were banned, and those who broke the interdiction on strikes were intimidated, harassed and jailed. Prophet Fela Kuti, a vocal critic of the government was arrested and jailed upon the most spurious of allegations. Things had become so unbearable that when the ‘Evil Genius’ IBB took over in August of ’85 the jury was out on a stressful task determining how severe history should be in vilifying the ousted General. Was he the rider on a white horse who rescued us from the corruption of Shagari’s era or was he the rider on a black horse with his pair of balances who rationed our food and hiked their prices? Or was he the spirit of both riders, the allotropes of same carbon?
Not much was heard of or from the man of Daura till General Sani Abacha came to power in 1993, and in 1995 appointed him the chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund, a body that was created to pursue developmental projects around the country. Buhari’s PTF was transparent, and deserving of some ovation especially from the education sector as the body subsidized textbooks and aided the purchase of school equipment and infrastructural development. Yours sincerely cannot possibly forget having to purchase highly subsidized textbooks with the label ‘PTF Edition’ boldly inscribed on the front cover. But as with everything something, nothing is hardly ever without blemish, Mr. Buhari’s PTF has at some point or the other been criticized for covert corruption and questioned for allocating 20% of its resources to the military. In all Mr. Buhari’s performance at PTF was A+, and made not a few review their view of the man whose previous outing in government was nowhere near pleasant.
Fast track to the fourth republic, and we find our man casting different shades at different times, if he wasn’t declaring his dreams of a nationwide implementation of Sharia, he was questioning Lam Adesina, a Yoruba governor for, in his view, the unjust treatment of ‘his people’ in Oyo State. Was he coming into the new millennium, an ethno-religious warlord ready to speak out at all times for ‘his people’ be it creed or race? Whichever the case, his people loved him, and saw him as a defender of the weak, the champion of the Talakawas, a pious upholder of the faith and the truth: and upon the ground of these virtues, Sai Baba was born. Throughout his years of failed presidential contests, he was always the other guy in a two horse race, and when election time was over, he was that man that always had a better idea how things could have been done, the one man who knew the problem with Nigeria and who believed that the solution to all the problems had taken flesh in him.
Coming into the 2015 General Elections Mr. Buhari’s cult followership was building more and more among a demography of young northern youths, politically, the North had become his ‘conquered’ territory. For one, this was a homogenous region, more united than any other region in the country, and would always remain faithful to their own, come what may. And in this election more than ever before, Mr. Buhari was their own and the easy going man of Otuoke, GEJ, wasn’t. Add to that the fact that like Shagari’s, GEJ’s tenure was drowning in the sea of its corruption, with GEJ’s stealing is not corruption statement being a historic own goal and the classic highlight of impunity. Side by side with GEJ, many southerners were soon beginning to believe that Mr. Buhari was fit for beatification; and with a very efficient PR machine oiled by the political mastery of the Jagaban Borgu; Bola Tinubu, Sai Buhari became Saint Buhari in the South. Soon we were made to forget the ills of Mr. Buhari’s first coming, and to believe that a coupe plotter would be the champion of democracy. With proper alignment from the south, Mr. Buhari defeated GEJ, and Nigeria would never remain the same again.
The proverbial repetition of history, we were back at December 31, 1983, only that this time GMB was PMB. Expectations were high, people began to adjust to these expectations. Suddenly there was stable power supply, there was news of recovered loot here and there, and these without a cabinet, we were told the famous body language was working, and it worked but only for a time. The announcement of a cabinet, and several other appointment raised many eyebrows, as the lopsided nature was inconsistent with expectations of a multi-ethnic and religiously bipolar Nigerian state. We were seeing the first prances of prebendalism but we didn’t want to believe it. It was still too early for Mr. Buhari to be wrong. Oil prices fell and Mr. Buhari followed up on the legacies of GEJ in the area of agriculture: with the highlight being that 'local rice' became 'rice' especially as importation reduced. One silver lining on the dark cloud under which the country sat. Then fuel subsidy, whose existence had been notoriously doubted by you-know-who was removed by you-know-who and fuel pump price rose, dragging the price of everything along with it. More appointments followed, and as before it was evidently lopsided. Charges of bigotry and cronyism by the opposition were shouted down with excuses of ‘the President appointed those he trusts.’ A lame excuse it was, but we swallowed hard and offered our benefit of doubt. Then the war against Boko Haram was intensified and not long afterwards the terrorists were declared technically defeated. IPOB who had been a nagging pain in the president’s behind was dealt a fatal blow in that bloody day at Umuahia and Aba. But a monster was feeding fatter in the middle belt, inspired by the third horseman, the rider on the red horse, the horse of bloodletting, (the victims saw Fulani Herdsmen, so I wouldn’t be politically correct here) Fulani herdsmen went on rampage destroying farms, and communities, plants and humans alike. The horror was spreading its fangs, over a hundred persons were killed in Agatu, Benue State, and about a similar number in Nimbo, Enugu State were killed. What followed was silence, a deafening silence from government. And as this silence lingered, many began to quote it as a tacit support of the herdsmen. Was this the height of PMB’s weakness; a total allegiance to his kith and kin, come what may? Nigerians waited for a brute response, relative to what was done to IPOB but when a response came, it was nowhere near the response Nigerians wanted. And true to our fears, the army of the dead have continued their march south, and the response still is relative silence. On another hand (there are several hands), nepotism and ethno-religious bigotry are alive and well in the polity. Corruption cases involving perceived political opponents are pursued with vigor, while that of cronies are pardoned or ‘cleared by the presidency’ like in the case of the relieved but yet to be prosecuted SGF. Corrupt elements with the broom are overlooked while those under the umbrella are hunted down, and any man who managed to swap the umbrella for the broom, to him it would be said ‘when I see the broom I will pass over you.’ On another hand, there is severe hunger in the land and on this we are made of questions. What have we not seen? Is it a cauldron of weak porridge stolen gallantly from the fire place? Is it a father strangling his son over half a loaf of bread? Is it a mother borrowing a measure of rice with her baby as collateral? More than our love for food is our love for survival but now we have been dealt a huge hindrance to both. We ask more questions, are we getting a free lesson, an introduction to primitive severity? Why should tales not suffice for we the progenies of those who witnessed his first mounting of a horse? Yes, it is an introduction to primitive severity but have we not met the introduction halfway? Yes, we have staggered, and we have fallen, fetching the ground with out skinny bums. He that is down now needs fear no fall, but who knows of this ground soaked in blood, the blood of Agatu people, and all other people slain and burnt while the rider rode along with especial disinterest.
In the face of all these, good and bad, there are those who would exculpate Mr. Buhari from the issues that Nigerians have witnessed under his tenure. Some believe he is a saviour always coming back to dig the country out of mess, and that he has simply been unlucky: unlucky to have become the president just at the edge of a recession (based on the thesis that GEJ's government was about throwing the country into recession just before Mr. Buhari took over). These also believe that the global fall in oil prices, and not Buhari's government, worsened the recession. They believe also that Mr. Buhari is unlucky for being the president at a time desertification had forced herdsmen to migrate more than ever before downwards and thus leading to a 'clash' with their southern hosts. Some in this category of Nigerians would always absolve Mr. Buhari of any responsibility, and would even help purvey the infamous 'the president is not aware' excuse. They, however, would not agree that Nigeria can as well do entirely without a presidency that is either unresponsive, 'not responsible', or for the most part unaware, that we can as well switch to autopilot and achieve as much success as Mr. Buhari's regime.
As 2019 approaches Nigerians prepare for another election year. The question on minds that are not yet made up is 'who really is Mr. Buhari?' Yes, another four years from 2019 might be his last ride, we might see it out and either forget he ever came or wish he never had to leave, but in the event of another four years of Mr. Buhari's presidency who does he ride as? The first and second horsemen that we saw in 1983-85? All four horsemen, (adding the grim reaping second and fourth horsemen) that we have seen so far in his second coming? Would he ride as a savior, a true deliverer? Or would he ride as a fifth horseman, his horse covered in surprises and colours that we haven't seen before?
Sadly, many Nigerians do not care what he would be in his last ride, to them there should be no last ride, or Mr. Buhari may end up handing over to his successor the ashes of Nigeria and Nigerians.
But still among many of those who share faith or race with Mr. Buhari, 'Sai Baba' has become an article of faith, an emblem with the permanence of a forehead scar from excessive prayer, unaffected by sun or rain.
Whichever way things go, scribes would pull out their pens to write about a man who ruled Nigeria twice and the question would remain: 'Who really was Buhari?'.
Iti Akwu is a dry cleaner based in Marrakesh, Morocco.