In the unfolding narrative of Muhammadu Buhari’s second coming to power, one point is remarkably under-acknowledged for now: That he is the first elected (and sworn-in) head of government who truly aspired, long-suffered for and patiently waited to be leader of Nigeria! Surprised? Well, here are the facts: He ran for the office four times, winning the fourth time. Before him, other Nigerian presidents were either led by hand, nudged by circumstance or stumbled their way into the office!
Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa,was reportedly a proxy of the powerful Sarduana of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello. In the murky politics of the late 1950s when the Northern People’s Congress won elections to form the country’s post-Independence government, Bello, who was leader of the party, chose to “stay home” as Premier of the North and nominated Balewa to proceed to Lagos to represent the region. The calculation then was simple. The regions at the time had more real powers and clout than the central government; it was not expedient to give up the tangible grassroots influence at the region for the uncertainties of an evolving national arrangement. And should things go wrong in Lagos, the North was safer under the watchful eyes of the Sarduana. Balewa subsequently became Prime Minister.
Shehu Shagari was a school teacher who only wanted to be a senator. That was until he was approached by party stalwarts and other power brokers in the National Party of Nigeria to go for the top job. He subsequently spent over four years as president and Commander-in-Chief. MKO Abiola would have been different. A highly connected multi-millionaire, he strolled the corridors of power and soon developed an appetite for the inner chambers of power. When his chance came, he ran for and won the 1993 presidential election but was never sworn in as president. He died in detention.
Olusegun Obasanjo was cooling his feet in prison and contemplating life in the hereafter when he was rescued by a coalition of military politicians. Following mass discontent about the fate that befell Abiola, the retired general was fished out of jail, cleaned up and presented for the Presidency as compensation to the South-West zone. He spent the next eight years as president. Umaru Yar’Adua was happy to be governor of Katsina State. He was packing his bags to go home, get some rest and nurse his ailing health when President Obasanjo by-passed several enthusiastic candidates to hand-pick him for the job. Goodluck Jonathan was similarly “chosen” to be Yar’Adua’s running mate. In two years, Yar’Adua was dead and Jonathan had taken over.
By contrast, Muhammadu Buhari first shot his way to power in the late 1983. When he was pushed aside in another coup in 1985, he went into a long hibernation, occasionally serving as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund. That hiatus obviously gave him time to ponder the dialectics of power. Emerging from that, he subsequently ran for the Presidency in 2003, 2007 and 2011. After failing in the latter bid, he tearfully announced he was done with the quest. But the itch was too much. In 2015, he ran again and won this time. That makes him Nigeria’s equivalent of Abraham Lincoln who lost eight elections before eventually becoming president.
Buhari holds another record as the oldest democratically elected first-time president of Nigeria. At 72 plus, many would say a man’s best days are behind him. For the former army general, they may well be ahead of him.
Beyond the records however, what are the likely implications of Buhari’s unique resume for the job at hand? First, it makes him the most prepared for the role – mentally, emotionally at least. Few things, if any, prime a man for success like passion and waiting. Experts say when you do what you are passionate about, you need no extra motivation. You keep going when others would have given up. Sleepless nights energise rather than wear you out. Like a child with a new toy, you spend every waking moment playing with the object of your passion and every other moment fantasizing about it. That helps, except that the job of leading a complex country like Nigeria is no kids’ stuff.
There is little patience (sorry, no pun intended) for the slow-turning wheel of governance. More than any other Nigeria leader before him, Buhari was expected to hit the ground running. For a 72-year-old, this is somewhat of a paradox. Why would such athleticism be expected of a man at that age? Well, because Buhari’s handlers said he was the special one. And right now, Nigeria needs a special one to do a special job. With Boko Haram slaughtering people like cattle every day, global oil price at its lowest in decades, the national economy on its knees (the President himself said in India the country is broke) and unemployment at its highest, Nigerians know that they need either a magician or a miracle worker to turn things around. Buhari’s well-laundered persona fitted either or both descriptions at the time of elections. Magic and miracles don’t need a long time to manifest. It’s time to deliver.
The retired army general is also the first Nigerian to run a government without the full complement of ministers for close to five months! Although this was reportedly to allow for a thorough search for fresh, clean talent, it has had the unintended consequence of demonstrating that “ministers” may actually be a luxury in governance, what he called “noise makers; that the process of governance could even be simpler and less cumbersome without their constant jostle for public attention; and that, in any case, a nation does not necessarily grind to a halt without men and women who go by that title. These realisations should make the new set of ministers a little humbler than their predecessors.
Whatever happens, President Buhari will be 76 at the end of his four-year tenure. That sets him up for another challenge: what to do with the issue of succession. If he attempts to run for a second term, he will, like FIFA’s Sepp Blatter, be considered too old for the job. Even a sparkling performance in the current term may do little to alter that perception. That leaves him with little choice than to lay down his legacy early and fully activate his succession plan from his first day in office. I do not envy you, Mr. President. But I sure wish you well for all our sakes.
Anazonwu, a communication strategist and public affairs analyst, wrote in from in from Lagos via [email protected]