Buhari at 80/Throwback: How he developed his stern discipline


President Muhammadu Buhari

Dear reader, do you know that the appellation of President Muhammadu Buhari who turned 80 on 17 December 2022, was “Leko” in Katsina Middle School?

In the article you are about to read, you will discover how he got his stern character traits. You will also read the contribution of his old teacher, Mallam Baraya Gombe, in instilling discipline in him, a virtue complemented by Buhari’s military profession, reflecting in his spartan life style.

It is a 1993 preface to a cover interview, entitled:


The Spartan’s Limit

By Dapo Olorunyomi

One sunny afternoon in 1953, first year pupils of Katsina Middle School were sweating it out in an arithmetic class. Mallam Baraya Gombe, the teacher who doubles as headmaster was prowling the narrow passage between the blackboard and the class, his hulky frame casting a frightening shadow on the class.

One of his pupils was missing and Gombe, without prompting knew who that  could be: Leko, the truant was at it again. Suddenly, as the teacher was trenchantly stressing his point, a tall, skinny, gangling frame burst into the class, his face plastered with smiles. Gombe was mad with rage.  Who was this lousy fellow, late to class, still grinning, still naughty? He thought. He reached out for Leko, the famous hockey player, soccer centre-forward and the school’s 800 metre record holder who had never hidden his disdain for school and delivered a horrendous slap on his face.

The 1993 cover preface page

Muhammadu Buhari, Leko for style, in later years an army general and former Nigerian Head of State, learnt his first lesson in discipline, order and rules. This too, was probably the water-shed in his life. Buhari grew up never to forget that encounter. Born 17 December 1942 to a Fulani father, Ardo Adamu (who died when he was four), and a Hausa mother Hajia Zulaihatu Musa, in Daura (present day Katsina State), he grew under the care of a firm uncle and a strict Islamic ethics of frugality and Spartan sensibility.

With this background of strict, austere propositions, Buhari , when it became necessary to choose a career saw the army as a logical platform “I was impressed with the discipline in the military,” he told TheNews in a rare interview at his Haliru Dantoro Street home in Kaduna.

His classmate, Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (now a retired Major General) remembered him as “reserved” one of the few boys trusted by his classmates…quite dependable”. Muhtari Zango, another classmate, recalled. “He was principled (who) always stood his ground and did not follow the crowd”. Buhari, today, is a continuity of his past.

As a stage actor, he would make a woeful failure, lacking in that dramatic, showy exteriorization so necessary in the theatre, a gift that probably unites a dissimilar nature like Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida. In strict typology then, Buhari is closer to Danjuma without the stern look and barking reception of the latter.

Yet this was the same Buhari, when as a student at Mons Cadet School in Aldershot took time off traveling to Famborough, to learn ballroom dancing – perhaps the most theatrical of all social engagements! It is doubtful if Buhari ever danced again after the course. These conflicting layers of articulations, represent an essential component of his character. So genial and reserved yet opting for the rough life of the military; so successful in many departments of life yet so humble, even so self-effacing as to deny the screaming validity of his achievements. Then the most profound of all; so selflessly patriotic yet so easily lacking in the subtleties that provide effective mediation between goals and methods.

The Buhari interview cover

That Buhari made a distinguished and brilliant military officer – one of the very best in the history of the Nigerian Army – is a sufficient testimony that the realm of the civil society is fundamentally at tangent with that of the military
Here was the man, perhaps the only officer yet, that commanded three of all the four divisions of the Nigerian Army and served as Adjutant General in the fourth; the same man who in the Nigerian civil war was so distinguished that his divisional commander, General Martins Adamu, described him as a “first class officer, resourceful, very brave, but very calm, even under pressure….of first class discipline, integrity and competence,”

Here was Buhari who tore through the impudent bragaddocio of Hissene Habre’s forces in April 1983 and beat the invading Chadians into a hurried and shame-faced retreat. Ironically, this was the same Buhari, in a different context of presidency who sets up a profoundly patriotic economic programme that promoted counter trade, commercialization (as against privatization), backward integration in industries, strict validation of debts, control of debt servicing and a principled opposition to the IMF. His undoing is that he failed to carry the people along. There is a sense therefore in which the present nauseating weariness of the civil society could be attributed  to the exhaustion from the battle against the Buhari regime.

The moral again here is that soldiers are soldiers. For a regime that interpreted its mission in the mode of social and moral laundry, racking off the muck of civilians, it is not strange to hear Buhari tell a biographer in 1984 that “military rule in Nigeria has come to be a necessity because civilians easily become hostage to interests that do not go hand-in-hand with national interest.”  Commenting on how to prevent new crops of politicians from messing up the nation again, Buhari insists on “stricter supervision of political funds, both party and personal.” If these are no indices of a veiled consciousness, they help advertise the philosophical foundation of that leadership which was at once patrioci and screamingly empiricist.

It is against this background then that the regime’s obsession with order, discipline and rules could be understood. An obsession so deep that the nation dissolved into one huge formal category as if all its contradictions could be resolved from a purely ethnical frame-work. Within this canvas, too, a valorization of the military ethics became an inescapable dilemma; a dilemma, however, that eight years of post-Buhari military adventurism has combusted for what it really stands for.

If the Buhari regime held the civilian culpable for ruining the economy and laying the foundation for vulgarising basic  ethics like honour, hard work, patriotism, and merit, and if the regime proceeded to tackle, not that elite alone but insisted on a contest with the popular spectrum of the society, (students, labour, lawyers, professionals etc) we are once more reminded that empiricism is the slaughter slab of unearthed dreams and visions especially when we fail to historicize our mandates and chosen platform.

The coup that brought Buhari’s government to power surely put the survival of other nation-states on the agenda. But as an act of regicide it also posed the problem of sustaining democracy. Thus by insisting to isolate a possible anarchy, the coupists substituted military “salvation” for a creaking democracy. Salvation, as it is now well known, is the pivot of the custodian theory that agitpropists of military rule are too eager to flaunt. Again, the most devastating salvo to this opportunistic theory is eight years of Post-Buhari social engineering.

For all its promise, and noble intentions, it is a great pity that the analysis and criticism of the Buhari regime must rest on its ethical imperative. Its political programmes was undeveloped before its extinction and its economic programmes were just taking shape.

As far as this ethical imperative was formulated, therefore, the regime must best be characterized in the mode of the rule-deontologists; the school of ethics which insists that what is good is what the rule says. Sadly our collective history of about a decade now has taught us otherwise, that there are moments when what is good represents the property of an act by enthroning, in a most pre-eminent manner, the fetish of rules, the regime displaced the objectivity of some acts which are noble, but go against the rules. Would it be right for a Jew to attempt murder on Hitler? Would it be right to commit a traffic offence in order to save a dying child? Should one overthrow a sclerotic regime to save his nation?

By insisting on the Prussian preference for rules, order, discipline, accountability as ends  in themselves, a regime which could well have gone down as perhaps the most patriotic, honest and sincere in Nigeria’s history blew up a historic opportunity under the tension of goals and methods.
The grand irony lingers for a regime that tirelessly sought to relate the acceptance of rules, order, discipline, and accountability to socio-political stability. It was more than a sardonic humor that the activities of fifth columnists, and an international alliance and local reaction were to play a decisive role in the collapse of his regime. This was the limit of excessive formalism and idealism, the terminus of patriotic empiricism.

  • Read Buhari’s Interview with TheNEWS here