Let’s begin with this story a retired Colonel of the Nigerian Army told me recently about the man Muhammadu Buhari, who was assuming duty as General Officer Commanding (GOC) 2 Mechanized Infantry Division, in January 1981.
“I was a Captain then,” the retired Colonel said.
“General Buhari had just been posted as our GOC. We had heard a lot about his sense of duty, timeliness, fairness, and discipline. We soon saw it on display in a way we never forgot.”
It was an evening to host the new GOC to a welcome cocktail reception. The event was billed for 8 p.m.
“By 7.45 p.m., the new GOC arrived, and began to walk round the precincts of the venue. On the dot of 8 p.m., with just a handful of officers in the reception hall, he stepped in.
“Having surveyed the hall, he went back to the gates. There were two. He ordered the Sergeant-major there to lock the inner one firmly, with strict instructions to let nobody in again. He went back in, and the reception began.
“The senior officers, Majors, Lt Colonels, Colonels, all arrived, and asked to be let in. The Sergeant-major politely told them where the lock-up orders came from.”
Throughout the duration of the cocktail, the senior officers were outside the inner gate, watching proceedings. And when the event ended, the GOC walked briskly to meet them, and said: “All of you, see me by 8 a.m. in the office tomorrow.”
The Colonel ended the story this way: “Of course, most of the officers were standing by the office of the GOC as early as 6 a.m the next morning.”
I laughed till my ribs ached.
From 2 Mechanized Infantry Division, Buhari was posted to 3rd Armoured Division in Jos, and from there, he emerged head of state on December 31, 1983.
In the next 20 months, the country knew that a new sheriff was in town. A strict man. Disciplinarian. A man who detested corruption, and all forms of evil acts. Of course, some people, ever abhorrent of discipline and order, described it as tyranny. They said a tyrant was here, and tried to make the false label stick.
As it is said, base coin tends to drive good coin out of circulation. Forces of reaction got rid of the Buhari regime in August 1985, demonized it to no end, and the man went into limbo of some sorts.
Then in 2002, the General came back to national reckoning, waving the flag of democracy. He asked to be an elected President.
Tyrant, tyrant, some people chose to scream, till they shouted themselves hoarse. They deluded the larger number. Buhari couldn’t emerge President in 2003, in 2007, and in 2011, though vastly popular.
And during the prelude to 2015 election, he made landmark declarations about his having become a “converted democrat.” He did so twice, and it resonated round the country.
The first was at a lecture he delivered on February 26, 2015, at Chatham House, United Kingdom. He declared: “I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. So before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigors of democratic elections for the fourth time.”
The second time was on March 17, 2015, about two weeks before the general elections. It was at a meeting with the Nigerian Press Organization, where he submitted: “I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. Dictatorship goes with military rule, as do edicts such as Decree 4. However, I am a former-former, note the emphasis on the word ‘former’-military ruler and now a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms.”
Those who had always maligned and de-marketed him shouted tyrant, tyrant again. But Nigerians were no longer listening. They elected Buhari as their President with massive votes. They repeated the same feat in 2019.
Now, five years down the line, has Buhari kept faith with his avowal as a converted democrat? Or is he still a tyrant in Agbada, instead of the military uniform he used to wear? Is it only the clothe that changed, with the real man as anti-democratic as ever?
In this Democracy Day season, it provides fortuitous opportunity to examine the man Buhari as a genuine or pseudo-democrat.
What are the hallmarks of a true democrat? Many. Let’s itemize them, and we then ask the man Buhari to stand before the mirror. It was Michael Jackson who sang: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways.” Are we going to ask President Buhari to change his ways, or to continue as the good democrat he is? Let’s go:
Transparency and accountability are the lifeblood of democracy. No opacity. A true democrat does not fear the shining spotlight. No dark corners in his actions and activities.
Again, a true democrat must subscribe to the following, among others. Inclusiveness, working with and carrying along diverse interests; men, women, young, old, boys, girls. There must be broad participation.
Rule of law is a bedrock of democracy. The democrat must respect separation of powers. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the Press. Freedom of choice, for people to elect the leaders they prefer. Freedom of religion and assembly. Equality of all before the law. And readiness to face the rigour of election.
How does President Buhari fare in the light of these hallmarks?
Transparency and accountability. World over, he is known for this. Let me give out this information. The Anyim-Osigwe Foundation holds annual lectures, in which they bring world leaders to Nigeria as Guest Speakers. In 2016, the theme was anti-corruption, and they were shopping for a speaker. Their board of trustee members round the world asked them why they were looking for a speaker, when the man of the hour was with them in Nigeria. They said no one else fitted the bill better than President Buhari. That was how he was the one who delivered the 2016 Lecture at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.
Inclusiveness and broad participation. Look at the campaign structure for 2019 elections. Men, women, old, young, boys, girls, all were part of it. And they all have a place in the government that has been put together today. The work continues.
Respect for rule of law. Those who want to cavil had two things they pointed to. Former NSA, Sambo Dasuki, and Sheikh El-Zak Zakky. National security considerations didn’t matter to them. Sambo Dasuki is now out on bail, Zak Zakky is in the custody of the Kaduna State government.
They forget crucial court rulings that went against the governing party, which Buhari belongs to, but which were obeyed. Zamfara, Rivers, Bayelsa, and other states were lost through court pronouncements. And for Buhari, the law was supreme, and remains supreme.
Separation of powers. We had a hostile National Assembly between 2015 and 2019. Buhari let them be. Yet in this country, we had a President who worked with five Senate presidents. He kept removing them, because he couldn’t manipulate them.
Freedom of the Press. Guaranteed. No journalist is hounded or detained for what he has published.
Freedom of speech. Also guaranteed in the country, even when some of the speeches are incendiary in nature. Civil society remains outspoken, even when some of the views expounded are uncomfortable and toxic to national cohesion and amity.
Freedom of choice. Unassailable. Before the last elections, President Buhari told the country. Go out and elect people of your choice, according to your conscience, across political parties. That’s a democrat at work.
Freedom of religion. Rock solid. Except for those crying wolf where there was none, Nigeria remains a plural religious society. Everyone is free to practice his or her religion.
Equality before the law. Guaranteed. No high, no low. Do the crime, do the term. No double standards.
Rigours of election. Buhari believes. He contested four times before he won in 2015, visiting all states in the country. Last year, at 76, he did the same, feats that much younger opponents could not match.
We can begin to wind down, can we? Okay. Let’s hear what state governors and personalities outside the President’s All Progressives Congress have said of him, which affirm the man’s democratic credentials:
“I use this opportunity to thank Mr. President and to say one of the greatest things that will move this nation forward is forthrightness, which President Buhari has been displaying. In our meetings. Every governor is pleased with him. It is not a question of being in this party or the other. He displays rare sense of humility, honesty and the willingness to carry this country forward. And that’s what we are looking for. We are not interested in this party or other party; we are interested in the man who has the welfare and the interest of the nation at heart.” – Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State.
“Never in the history of Nigerian politics has Cross River State benefited this much from the gale of appointments that have come to us… This is a president who is an APC member while Cross River is a PDP state. This is a man who did not look at all biases and made a choice of Cross River State as the first state to perform his first working visit; this is unprecedented.” – Governor Ben Ayade, Cross River State.
“The recent elections in Anambra and the results show that President Buhari deserves a loud ovation. A landmark statement has been made. The roots of our democracy have been entrenched and your name has been inscribed in Gold forever in the hearts of Ndi Anambra.” – Chief Ifeanyi Ubah.
“I am grateful and appreciative of the seriousness of President Buhari in fighting corruption, affirming the rule of law and also stopping corrupt individuals from using illegally acquired wealth to buy immunity from prosecution through the backdoor. My administration will continue to support the war against corruption as I am convinced that corruption, wherever found, is antithetical to peace and development of our people.” – Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State.
“I must observe that today, no fewer than 122,000 children are feeding daily under the school feeding programme, which employs a total of 1,040 caterers for 1060 schools, across the 21 local governments, courtesy of President Muhammadu Buhari.” – Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State.
What more shall we say? Six new Federal Colleges recently approved by the President in Bauchi, Benue, Ebonyi, Osun, Sokoto and Edo states. Four of these are PDP states.
All states in the country have enjoyed more than N2.5 trillion in bailouts, irrespective of party affiliations.
And now, the clincher: June 12 is now Democracy Day, in honor of Bashorun MKO Abiola, who won an election on that date in 1993, but denied by the military. He eventually died in military detention. After more than 20 years, with many Presidents who benefitted from the sacrifice looking the other way, it was Buhari who expiated the sins of his predecessors.
Shall we still look for another democrat? Doubtful. A converted democrat is here!
Femi Adesina is a Nigerian Journalist and Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to President Muhammadu Buhari.