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Published On: Mon, Jan 26th, 2015

Beleaguered, Nigerians seek to restore a general to power

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Buhari in Kaduna

Buhari in Kaduna

By Adam Nossiter

Kaduna, Nigeria — Boisterous crowds packed the streets for the retired general, while young men climbed lampposts, walls and billboards to glimpse his gaunt face. Others danced on careening motorcycles, brandishing homemade brooms, symbols of his campaign.

With Nigeria’s presidential election only weeks away, Boko Haram’s unchecked rampaging here in the country’s north is helping to propel the 72-year-old general, Muhammadu Buhari, to the forefront.

After ruling Nigeria with an iron hand 30 years ago as the country’s military leader, Mr. Buhari is now a serious threat at the ballot box, analysts say, in large part because of Boko Haram’s blood-soaked successes.

“The state is collapsing and everybody is frightened,” Jibrin Ibrahim, a political scientist with the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, said of Boko Haram.

A Buhari victory over President Goodluck Jonathan would be a rare upset for an incumbent in a country where petrodollars have long flowed and the presidency has great latitude to distribute them.

But oil prices have crashed; attacks on schools, markets and entire villages continue unabated; and Nigeria’s army has been thoroughly incapable of stopping Boko Haram, which now controls substantial portions of the northeast and regularly sends the country’s soldiers fleeing.

“We have to solve it; it’s the first problem of the country,” Mr. Buhari said tersely about the battle with Boko Haram during a long day of campaigning this week.

“This should have been an easy one,” added the former general, who is believed to have been a target of bombings in this city over the summer in which dozens were killed. “But it has been allowed to develop over five years.”

There is much at stake in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, even as it falters — the currency has dropped sharply, questions are swirling about the ability to pay civil servants and the country’s oil-money reserves have withered. The campaign has become a vociferous, at times violent, joust between Buhari partisans in the mostly Muslim north and supporters of Mr. Jonathan in the largely Christian south.

Mr. Buhari’s tenure as Nigeria’s military ruler was brief: a 20-month stint in the 1980s, ended by another military coup. Yet it is remembered with trepidation by many Nigerians.

His self-proclaimed “war against indiscipline” was carried to “sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people,” wrote the Nobel laureate and writer Wole Soyinka. Mr. Buhari forced tardy civil servants, even older ones, to perform frog jumps, jailed journalists for critical articles, and expelled tens of thousands of immigrants from other West African countries, blaming them for the country’s problems.

The current president and his party, which has held power since military rule ended more than 15 years ago, have made this past a central part of Mr. Jonathan’s re-election strategy, hoping to fan old fears about the general.

Full-page newspaper ads suggest that Mr. Buhari is eager to introduce Shariah law all over the country, beyond the northern states where it already exists (in the campaign, Mr. Buhari has not said that).

Other ads remind readers of the retired general’s coup-prone past. (Historians say that even before Mr. Buhari came to power in a military coup at the end of 1983, he played an active role in the coups that marked Nigeria’s early years.)

But Mr. Buhari’s supporters are far more interested in the instability shaking the north, urging a total overhaul of the lackluster fight against the Islamists. Many of them turned out in this northern metropolis this week for a glimpse of the general, who has traded his medal-bedecked uniform for traditional robes and thick-framed spectacles.

Hadiza Bala Usman, the main campaigner for the return of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last spring, was waiting for the general at the airport here. She helped start the group that pressed the government on the girls’ fate, demonstrating for weeks in a public square in Abuja. Nine months after their abduction, the girls remain missing.

“The resources meant for the military don’t go to the military; the bullets and boots don’t go to the soldiers,” Ms. Usman said. “And what is happening to security, you see it in all the sectors.”

“The support we’re giving” to Mr. Buhari “is for ending the insurgency,” she added. “And so no more children are abducted.”

A retired general in the crowd of supporters, Alhassan Usman, who is not related to Ms. Usman, agreed, expressing anger that Boko Haram had gained the upper hand over Nigeria’s soldiers.

“The issue is lack of discipline; the commander has eaten his money,” he said, arguing that officers take money meant for soldiers, who then see little reason to obey orders.

Mr. Buhari stood as ramrod straight as he had in the days when he rose in a coup against Nigeria’s fledgling, but corrupt, democracy. After taking power, he soon instituted what he called his attempt to straighten out a chaotic nation.

That tarnished past has been, if not forgotten, at least pushed aside by many in the tumultuous jumble of Nigerian history. Mr. Buhari is expected to do particularly well in the Muslim north, his home turf, on Election Day, as he did in an unsuccessful run four years ago.

Still, his campaign faces stiff obstacles. Tens of thousands of people in northern Nigeria have been displaced by relentless violence, and many of them will be unable to vote in the Feb. 14 election. Even if they can, Nigerian elections are prone to violence and fraud.

This week, the streets of Kaduna were packed three-deep with people, many waiting since early morning or trekking miles from nearby villages to see him. Partisans yelled as they climbed on the general’s vehicles, frenetically brushing windshields with the symbolic brooms.

Mr. Buhari spoke only briefly to the packed stands in a downtown stadium, vaguely promising greater security, prosperity and better education. But the words appeared not to be the point. It was his presence, and an implicit promise of austerity and military action, that the crowd seemed to want, after years of scandalous stories in the Nigerian news media about missing oil funds and high living by officials in Mr. Jonathan’s administration.

“The enthusiasm for Buhari is almost like a religion,” said Nasir el-Rufai, a former government minister running for governor of Kaduna State.

“Look at all these people,” he said, pointing at the crowds pressing up against his own car before the general arrived. “They are all waiting just to see Buhari.”

As military ruler, Mr. Buhari showed little respect for the democratic process, rising to power in a coup that swept aside a civilian government and promising to include the political participation of Nigerian citizens “at some point.”

His government also carried out a bizarre kidnapping plot targeting a former minister who had fled to London. It involved Israeli secret agents, giant packing crates and anesthetic drugs.

In an interview, Mr. Buhari said that the times had changed and that he had changed with them.

“I operated as a military head of state,” he said. “Now I want to operate as a partisan politician in a multiparty setup. It’s a fundamental difference. Whatever law is on the ground, I will make sure it is respected.”

Yet it is Mr. Buhari’s long military career, not the respect for civil liberties he has proclaimed later in life, that will ultimately swing voters wary of his past, analysts say.

“You’ve got the Boko Haram in the northeast, where they bomb churches and marketplaces, and slaughter children,” Mr. Buhari said.

But he also noted the security problems in the nation’s south, where militants at oil fields have created havoc for years. “No highway in the country is absolutely safe,” he said.

Though supporters insist he will knock out the Islamists “in a month,” as Mr. el-Rufai put it, the retired general is far more cautious. He spoke of a methodical approach, declining to say whether he would fire the country’s top military chiefs.

“We have to see the whole picture,” Mr. Buhari said. “We’ll ask them to brief us, one by one. Why haven’t they been performing?”

“Let them justify the use of funds,” he said. “What is the intelligence community doing?”

Referring to Boko Haram, he added, “Where do they get weapons?”

He focused on the individual failures in confronting Boko Haram — the misspent money, the lack of weaponry for the soldiers, their lack of motivation for the fight — rather than on an overall condemnation of the army.

His jaw muscles tightening, he said, “This is not the Nigerian Army I knew.”

For most of Buhari’s supporters like Aliyu Abdulrazhi had been on his feet since 6:00 am but had no intention of leaving Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential campaign rally in Kaduna, northern Nigeria.

Pressed up against barricades and corralled by police, he was one of thousands in the mostly male crowd who had waited since dawn in the sun and the dust for a glimpse of the former army general.

The crowd shouted slogans calling for political change in between appeals for water from anyone on the other side of the barriers.

“Can’t you see the people are here?” Abdulrazhi yelled from the crowd. “He’s the man who’s always been here for the masses.”

Buhari’s popular appeal, particularly in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria, has been taken as a given: at the last election in 2011, most of the 12 million votes he won were from the region.

But this time, analysts predict that he may have wider support and with the backing of a more powerful four-party alliance known as the All Progressives Congress (APC), it could just propel him to the presidency.

The February 14 vote is expected to be the closest-run since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has won all of the last four elections. Buhari stood in three of them, in 2003, 2007 and 2011, for smaller parties.

Some in Nigeria have hailed the return of Buhari, who seized power in a December 31, 1983 military coup. But like most of the country’s leading politicians, he never really went away.

The PDP has sought to portray the 72-year-old as yesterday’s man, pointing to his tough — some say autocratic — line on corruption and indiscipline during his 20 months in office.

One party political advertisement even ran this week: “Once a tyrant, always a tyrant.”

But for Nigeria’s first-time voters — who weren’t born at the time or were too young to remember his time in charge — Buhari has taken on almost mythological status.

In particular, he is seen as a better bet to take on Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that has seized swathes of the country’s northeast and is now threatening Nigeria’s neighbours.

He has campaigned hard on the government’s failure to end the insurgency, its alleged lack of action in tackling endemic graft at the highest level and its stewardship of the economy.

– Ethnicity –

Adamu Garba said insecurity was one of the main reasons that he was backing Buhari.

He also hoped he would improve the lot of his Fulani people, a traditionally nomadic group whose cattle herdsmen have often clashed with farmers over grazing rights.

“I believe all the masses are suffering,” said Garba, who arrived at the square at 1:00 am and planned to follow Buhari’s campaign. “But I believe Fulanis are suffering most,” he added.

Garba wasn’t alone in linking his support for Buhari to a particular ethnicity — a key driver in voting intentions in a country of more than 250 tribal and linguistic groupings.

Dressed in traditional “buba sokoto” (hat and robe), Samuel Aloko said he represented Buhari supporters from the southwestern Yoruba — one of the country’s three largest ethnic groups.

Traditionally, the Yoruba have allied themselves politically with southern Christians such as Jonathan.

“We believe Buhari for now will be able to affect the present of economy, security and infrastructure,” said Aloko, who lives in Kaduna.

– New broom? –

The rally followed a familiar pattern: speeches from the “big men” — the local party grandees and national officials — music from an ear-splitting sound system and regular chants of “APC”.

The crowd brandished the wicker brooms that have become the APC’s symbol, swishing them in the air, hoping Buhari, as he has promised, will be the new broom to sweep Nigeria clean.

A fine film of dust filled the air — blown in by the seasonal Harmattan winds from the Sahara desert — as Buhari pulled up to the stage in a convoy of black four-wheel drive vehicles.

Police crackled Taser stunguns to keep the surging crowd back as the cars inched towards the stadium grandstand, where many APC honchos had waited hours for Buhari’s arrival.

Buhari, dressed in white, gave a speech, its content increasingly familiar, before heading off to a plush hotel nearby.

As a separate convoy of APC officials pulled out of the arena, children clung to the sides of their cars, hoping for a handout of cash from the opposition politicians to their faithful.

Source: Yahoo news


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