When Muhammadu Buhari led his Congress for Progressive Change to merge with other parties to form the All Progressives Congress in preparation for the 2015 election, critics saw it as purely opportunistic. One particularly scorching critic wrote then that Buhari is a single-minded person who would use anyone to attain his purpose. Buhari’s apparent inability to articulate sophisticated thoughts lends credence to this claim. And then there is the more widely-held view that he is an Islamist.
I remember thinking then that in combination the three attributes would spell disaster for Nigeria if Buhari was elected.
But then I found a measure of assurance in the views of supporters who attested to Buhari’s nationalist spirit. I especially recall the account of a former army officer, an Igbo, who narrated how Buhari, as a senior officer, mentored and assisted him. Another former Igbo officer argued more abstractly that Buhari can’t possibly be an Islamist because socialisation in the officer corps rids members of such inclination. I very much hoped that Buhari’s critics were mostly wrong and his defenders mostly right. But events soon literally flipped my hopes.
To begin with, though the argument about officer socialisation is true in principle, it is by no means a guarantor against religious extremism. The fact that Boko Haram has supporters and sympathisers in the Nigerian military says it all. As to Buhari, events have proven his critics correct in all respects. It didn’t take long before it became starkly clear that he is, indeed, single-minded and Islamist.
The question now is, in charting strategies, did he miscalculate? Or was he so single-minded that he didn’t mind if the barn burned down? On that, one can only conjecture. But a recount of some well-known events provides some clues.
The first is Buhari’s tenacity in pursuing the presidency. He has contested in all five presidential elections since the return to democracy in 1999. He campaigned unsuccessfully for the office in 2003, 2007, and 2011. While campaigning for the 2011 election, he threatened that he would make Nigeria ungovernable if he lost. He did lose, and his supporters made good on his threat and went on a bloodletting rampage.
In the first two attempts, Buhari ran with Igbo vice presidential candidates, thus seeking to build a coalition with the South-East. When that failed, he switched to the Yoruba and the South-West, and that got him elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2019.
Presidential campaigns are quite draining. That’s why when prodded to run for the US presidency in 1996, General Colin Powell (retd) famously declined by saying he did not have the “fire in the belly.” In contrast, Buhari has seemed propelled by fire from propane gas. The question is why?
Was it patriotic fervour, as he claims? Was it personal ambition, to satisfy the emptiness left by a truncated tenure as a military dictator from January 1984 to August 1985? Or was it an existentialist quest to fulfill a mission: fully empowering the Fulani and Islamising Nigeria? The evidence to date suggests that there is little of the first, quite a bit of the second, and a whole lot of the third.
Buhari’s single-mindedness became starkly evident soon after he took office and appointed nearly all-northern/Fulani advisers. These are the people whose views are most apt to flood the president’s ears and find favour in his mind. Because of constitutional constraints, he couldn’t do the same with ministerial appointments. So, he did the next best thing: assign virtually all security positions — both military and civilian — to the Fulani and other core-northerners.
Regarding Boko Haram, citizen Buhari criticised President Goodluck Jonathan in 2013 for supposedly employing harsh measures against the nascent terrorist group. During the 2015 presidential campaign, Buhari remained mum on the group’s escalating violence. It was only after mounting criticism that he issued a stinging condemnation of the group. Almost immediately after, he escaped an attempted assassination, most likely by Boko Haram operatives who saw his criticism as a betrayal. And then further down in the campaign, he turned from criticising Jonathan for being too harsh on Boko Haram to not being tough enough.
As president, Buhari aggressively launched a military campaign against the group, advancing the success that was already underway under Jonathan. But then Fulani herdsmen concurrently escalated mass murders in the North-Central region and beyond. And for long, little was done to stop them or bring the perpetrators to justice. Buhari also ignored calls that the security chiefs be replaced. That is, until recently.
Boko Haram has since regrouped and begun to launch recurrent attacks in the North-East and beyond. To make matters worse, armed bandits also began to wreak havoc in the North-West. There are speculations that they are actually an outfit of Boko Haram or their splinter group ISWAP. Now that the secessionist IPOB has begun a campaign of terror in the South-East and South-South, Nigeria is almost fully engulfed in insurgent terror. And Buhari seems baffled and impotent.
This all compels the questions: Did Buhari light a fuse or fan a brushfire without expecting a conflagration? Did he and other well-placed Islamists nurture Boko Haram initially with the goal of using the group for political purposes only to see it combust beyond their control? That might explain the apparent ambivalence toward Islamist violence. Over and over, it has been said that Buhari knows who are sponsoring the violence. Even Nasir el-Rufai, the controversial governor of Kaduna State, has said so. Yet until recently there have been no sweeping arrests, especially of military officers.
In any case, while Buhari has been ambivalent toward Islamist violence, he certainly hasn’t wavered on the programmatic approach to Islamisation/Fulanisation. He floated the idea of “cattle colonies” all over Nigeria quite early in his tenure. When that triggered an outcry against the agenda, he dropped the evocative term “colony” and proposed RUGA instead. In the latest proposal announced by Information Minister Lai Mohammed, the name is now “grazing reserves.” These all seem to be “cattle colonies” by different names. In this pursuit, Buhari’s single-mindedness is evident.
Here too, he miscalculated. Just as with Boko Haram, he is finding that he cannot manage the programmatic strategy as he expected. The resistance is much too fierce. Even then it seems that the “fire in the belly” that propelled Buhari’s unrelenting quest for the presidency is anything but extinguished. The Islamisation/Fulanisation agenda seems to be his strongly desired legacy. He may have turned against the violence of Boko Haram, but it is improbable he will give up the programmatic approach to Islamisation. And that spells escalating trouble for Nigeria — in whatever structure.