Monday, March 23, 2015 9:29 am
By Colin Freeman/ Telegraph
Even by his own admission, General Muhammadu Buhari’s time in charge of Nigeria is not one to be misty-eyed about.
After seizing power in a coup in 1983, he threw critics in jail, kidnapped enemies off the streets of London, and ordered soldiers to whip Nigerians who did not queue in orderly fashion at bus stops.
By any normal standards, the ageing ex-dictator should now be a relic of the dark days of military rule, when the only way to stop the country falling apart seemed to be an iron fist.
Instead, he may be about to voted in again as president.
At an age when other politicians are considering retirement, Mr Buhari, 72, has emerged as the main challenger to President Goodluck Jonathan in Saturday’s vote for the head of Africa’s most populous state.
With Boko Haram still running rampant, 200 kidnapped schoolgirls still missing, and poverty and corruption still rampant, many Nigerians feel Mr Jonathan has not proved up to the job.
Hence the nostalgia for a dour ex-strongman like Mr Buhari, who is now running neck-and-neck with the incumbent.
“Given the option between a failed president and a former dictator with a track record, I think the choice is going to be pretty clear for most Nigerians,” Mr Buhari’s chief spokesman, Lai Mohammed, told The Sunday Telegraph. “You have to look at the challenges Nigeria is facing in security and corruption and the economy. Frankly Mr Jonathan hasn’t proved up to them.”
The last time he was in power, having ousted a hopelessly corrupt civilian government in 1983, Mr Buhari pursued his vision of a more orderly Nigeria with single-minded ruthlessness.
In what he dubbed the “war on indiscipline”, he beefed up the country’s secret police, prosecuted hundreds of officials for corruption, and threw journalists and anyone else who dared criticise him into jail, including Fela Kuti, the legendary pioneer of Nigerian “high life” music.
Notoriously, the long arm of his law also reached out for Nigerians who fled abroad. In 1984, his government despatched agents to London to kidnap Umaru Dikko, a minister in the previous government accused of embezzlement.
The plot was only rumbled when a Customs officer at Stansted Airport became suspicious about a crate marked “diplomatic baggage” that was due to be picked up by a Nigerian airliner.
Inside, he found an unconscious Mr Dikko, as well as the professional anaesthetist who had drugged him. The incident sparked a major diplomatic fall-out with Britain and saw four men jailed for kidnapping.
At home, such outlandish gambits won Mr Buhari grudging respect. He is also seen as relatively clean of corruption and his efforts to clean up Nigeria’s civil service, an Augean stables of graft and incompetence, also won him praise. At one point he punished civil servants who turned up late for work by making them do frog jumps.
For the upcoming election, he has had to polish his democratic credentials a touch.
In a recent speech at London’s Chatham House think tank, he described himself as a “converted democrat”, who had realised the futility of one-party rule after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I cannot change the past, but I can change the present and the future,” he said. “So before you is a former military ruler, who is ready to operate under democratic norms.”
A remarkable photoshoot also saw him pose with his children and grandchildren in a range of costumes, from traditional tribal to a dinner jacket and bow tie.
Some are unmoved. “Buhari is instinctively not a democrat,” said Osita Chidoka, an aviation minister in Mr Jonathan’s government. “It is a sign of the desperation of the opposition that they have to fall back on someone like him.”
Born near Nigeria’s semi-desert border with Chad, Mr Buhari comes from one of Nigeria’s aristocratic northern Muslim families, who have traditionally punched well above their weight in national politics. But while his following crosses Nigeria’s Muslim-Christian divide, his less-than-charismatic speaking style is not suited to the showmanship required in electoral battles: hence his defeats in a number of previous presidential contests.
Buhari posed recently for an impressive photoshoot in traditional garb
This time around, though, he is level-pegging with Mr Jonathan on 42 per cent of the vote, profiting from his rival’s weakness over Boko Haram. On Friday, a new mass grave was discovered, the latest example of a massacre by the Islamic extremists.
He also has his wife, the formidable Mrs Aishat Buhari, at his side, who is touring the country in a bid to reassure people that her man has turned a new life. Among those who need convincing is Mr Jonathan’s wife, Patience, who claimed recently that Mr Buhari would put her husband’s entire goverment behind bars were he to gain power.
“General Buhari coming back to sanitise the system,” Mrs Buhari told a crowd last week. “Those who are saying that he is coming to jail people shouldn’t be afraid, because we are all yearning for change from the insecurity.”
The polls are now close enough to worry diplomats, who fear post-vote violence if the result is disputed by one or other side.Both sides have pledged to settle any dispute peacefully, but one official said: “There is a concern that the loser might take their grievances on to the streets rather than into the courts”.
A defeat for Mr Jonathan would also be the first time in Nigeria’s brief democracy that an incumbent leader has not won a second term or handed power to a nominated successor. However, a graceful exit could prove to be his most lasting act of statesmanship.
It would also set a good precedent for Mr Buhari, who may find life as a civilian government rather harder than life as a civilian opposition leader. Nigerians may be prepared to give Mr Buhari himself the benefit of the doubt, but there are fears that many of the people around him are somewhat “indisciplined” and corrupt themselves. As one diplomat put it: “People that might help him win an election are not necessarily the ones to help him govern.”