Yesterday, I hung our with my buddy from our BUK days, Aliyu Ma’aji. Our discussion inevitably touched on Buhari and the current wave of disappointment with his stewardship. We talked about how awful it must be for the president’s Southeast and South-South supporters to be taunted by their kinsmen under the current climate of near-total economic collapse, hunger, unprecedented inflation, and general hardship.
In explaining Buhari’s confused improvizations on the economy, we floated several hypotheses, but Aliyu introduced an angle that is not often included in the menu of explanations for our souring love affair with Buhari. He piggy-backed on a point made by Max Soilum about Murtala Mohammed. Soilum had noted that Murtala’s death is responsible for elevating the former military head of state to a near-mythical status in Nigeria’s political discourse, which is riddled with nostalgia for Murtala’s tough, anti-corruption regime.
Murtala, Soilum, argued, did not rule/live long enough to manifest the inevitable errors of military men who try but often fail to manage a complex society like ours with a regimented military philosophy of command and control. Military people are rarely able to rise above their training, training being different from education and enlightened problem solving.
Did Nigerians accord Buhari the same nostalgic, retrospctive messianism, leading them to overrate his capacity to govern effectively, Aliyu wondered. Like Murtala, Buhari ruled for a short time. He manifested some errors common with military folks, but he did not rule long enough for his overarching deficit of governing capacity and temperament to emerge in sharp relief.
I concurred with the conjecture, quipping that in fact a whole myth grew around Buhari’s short military regime, a public narrative which papered over several of the General’s misdeeds and deficiencies and which expanded in correspondence to the governing disasters of the post-1984 period. Between 1999 and 2015, as the PDP systematically frittered away our resources and undermined whatever institutions of public restrain they encountered, a cottage industry grew around what one might call the Buhari counterfactual.
Many Nigerians wondered aloud what Nigeria would be like if Buhari’s military regime had not been overthrown. Soon, people were filling in the blank, mostly with fantasies that had little correlation to what Buhari did or failed to to as military head of state. If Buhari had not been overthrowned by the bad, evil Babangida, so the narrative went, we would today be another South Korea.
If he had not been overthrowned, corruption would today be a thing of the past. If he had been allowed to rule longer…bla bla bla. The speculative counterfactuals proliferated infinitely. These counterfactuals in turn led people to overstate Buhari’s governing acumen and to understate his governing deficits. They also activated Nigerians’ legendary capacity to forget the past, forgive its shortcomings, and engage in nostalgic mythmaking.
Until 2015, when it became plausible to imagine him as a civilian president, people were speaking of Buhari as some often speak of Awolowo: the best president Nigeria never had. But Jonathan’s misadventure in power maginified Buhari’s mythical competence, whitewashed his inadequacies, and enabled his victory in last year’s elections.
Which leads me to the point I made even in agreeing with Aliyu’s thesis: that Jonathan’s misrule made Nigerians desperate for any alternative and that desperation usually leads to the suspension of critical judgment, to cognitive dissonance.
With Buhari floundering, improvising aimlessly in several zones of governance, and generally looking confused and ill-prepared for Nigeria’s many challenges, some of his supporters are now saying that it would have perhaps been better if he never won, if he remained the messiah that never got a chance to save the nation. That, they argue, would have preserved the myth of his competence. It would have maintained the illusory axiom that he is the best president Nigeria never had.
I have personally heard this from a couple of people who claim that political exigencies, the intricacies of power, and elite manipulations have soiled Buhari’s reputation, exploded the myth of his messianic abilities, and exposed him as a prisoner of power and as just another politician.
Some of these devotees never even wanted Buhari to run for the presidency in 2015, believing that power would dilute the purity of Buhari’s moral capital. They would have preferred for him to remain the philosopher and custodian of political morality in Nigeria, a transcendal figure unmoored to and above the messy contestations of politics and the complicated art of governance.