Buhari fights corruption with nostalgia

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PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari is considerably besotted with nostalgia. Whenever he speaks with the Nigerian community in the diaspora anytime he travels, he is even more voluble and revelatory. During a visit to South Africa a month after he assumed office, he bemoaned the inevitable limitations age would place on his performance as a 72-year-old president. “I wish I became Head of State when I was a governor,” he grumbled, perhaps to the exasperation of his aides and media managers. “Now at 72, there is a limit to what I can do.” President Buhari was governor of the then North Eastern State when he was a 33-year-old military officer. Now he is president at 72. Last week in Iran, again speaking with the Nigerian community, the president regretted that democratic strictures, especially the rule of law, limited the swiftness with which he would have loved to tackle corruption.


President Buhari must learn to move on. He must strenuously begin to resist comparing the present with the past, particularly his past, if his present and his presidency are not to be stymied by policy and bureaucratic distortions and anachronisms. The extent to which he can escape his past will, however, be connected with how effectively his handlers and critics can coax him to reassess his extempore speeches and break down and remould his ossified worldview. It is indeed an urgent task for him.

Proof that he needs to move on to the present is contained nowhere else than in his last interaction with the Nigerian community in Iran. His audiences in Iran and South Africa were reportedly  animated by his presence, and might have been inured to the inconsistencies and inappropriateness of his personal comparisons. But for those who had the luxury of analysing his references and even psychoanalysing the hidden meanings of his messages days after he had delivered them, they would be flummoxed  by the dangerous import of his views, not to say the suggestive messianism that sometimes crept into them.

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In Iran, according to his media aide, Garba Shehu, the president had told his fretting and questioning audience that the need to comply with the due process of the law was responsible for the delay in prosecuting looters. That statement sounded apologetic. But complying with due process should be routine, one of the ennobling essences of democracy and modernisation. It should not be an issue for discussion or reference, let alone be a subject of emotive distress. By suggesting that due process delayed prosecution, the president came across as stigmatising that aspect of the law as an inconvenience, a hindrance in fact. Yet, due process helps to check prosecutorial excesses, tame judicial exhibitionism, and curb the general predilection for lynching and mob tyranny.

It appears President Buhari is inherently impatient, and for a man who sets great store by his famed slowness and meticulousness since he assumed office in May, he is paradoxically unaccustomed to the beatifying deliberateness of the millstones of justice grinding slowly and grinding fine. In 1984, he had baffled Nigerians by railroading three drug traffickers to the gallows, one or two of whom suffered the corollary of the then Gen Buhari’s application of retroactive justice. The world was astounded, and Nigerians were shocked. Decades later, during his presidential campaign in 2015, the electorate graciously overlooked the misapplication of justice in 1984 and voted for him. The president didn’t see any reason to be contrite, and it seems that even if he had been punished by the electorate’s withheld  votes, he still wouldn’t be penitent. All he said to questions asked on his peremptory application of military justice was that he accepted responsibility.

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It is impossible to return to that freewheeling era when the head of state’s word was law. Things might have been done quicker and, as they used to say in those days, with immediate effect and automatic alacrity. But comparatively, things were not done better. By their brusqueness, the military bastardised the civil service, destabilised the polity and assaulted the people’s freedoms and liberties, and generally ended up weakening institutions and distorting and rending the fabric of civilised society. Had Nigerian heads of state been capable of the reflection and contrition necessary to properly evaluate the past, it is unlikely they would romanticise their fast but often destructive pace of doing things. The past may be the present’s rearview mirror, and may even be necessary for progress, but President Buhari sometimes gives the impression the past teaches far better lessons and signposts the future much more acutely than the present.

He regards his period as a military governor at the age of 33 as a time of great ebullition, a time of unlimited possibilities, when he was not constrained by age, fear and perhaps the pathologies of age. Conversely, he sees his advanced 72 years of age as a natural and irresistible constraint. It took his spokesman, Femi Adesina, to begin philosophising on the values and blessings of old age, rephrasing the president’s message and redacting his sentences to fit idiomatically into a newer and more ingenious interpretation of age and wisdom, and their symbiotic relationship. Mr Adesina made sense; but what he said had nothing to do with the original message of the president. President Buhari was simple and direct. He wished he had the energy and vibrancy of the past, and could apply both to the present and his presidency. He said nothing about the wisdom that comes with age, nor of the patience and control that frequently ennobles advanced years. His mind wandered along only one tract, of energy and zealotry, a tract that opens a disturbing window into his suspiciously narrow worldview.

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Rather than seem to mourn the constraining properties of due process and rule of law in his battle against corruption, rather than make his regular and depressing references to the past, it is time President Buhari looked optimistically to the future. Many commentators have suggested he should set out the rubrics of Buharinomics. Great. But more importantly, it is time we began to hear from him his original ideas of the modern society, of modern Nigeria in particular, and of how the law scrupulously applied, without abridgement of any sort, can be deployed to build a stable, just and equitable society. His economic team can help him build Buharinomics; but they cannot help him conceive an original and intuitive philosophy of a modern Nigerian society, better than any in Africa, and one of the best in the world.

But perhaps this column is investing President Buhari with a transcendental assignment far superior to anything he is ever capable of conceiving. Perhaps all he wants is just to arrest corruption or minimise it, knock insecurity into a cocked hat, get the economy on an even keel, and vacate office not as the failure his humiliating overthrow in 1985 presupposed, but as a fairly successful returnee and elected president who had served one term or two. Whatever his ambitions are, modest or vaulting, his constant and instinctive resort to the past will continue to hamstring his presidency, constrain his already limited elbow room, and widen the gap between his aspirations and capabilities. It is time President Buhari put a stop to rule by nostalgia.

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