By Sonala Olumhense
There is a strong possibility that one year ahead from this week, President Muhammadu Buhari will be at Eagle Square in Abuja looking considerably older and sadder.
The presidential election will be held on February 19, nine months away. When he takes the microphone for the fourth time in 48 hours, it will be the formal start to his campaign for re-election.
But it will be a difficult nine months, unless the All Progressives Congress does the unthinkable and denies him the re-run ticket.
As an observer, I am going to enjoy watching this effort to swim dressed in an agbada loaded with rocks, which is why his presence at Eagle Square in Abuja on May 29, 2019 may only be for the swearing-in of his successor.
But the issue is not in the idea of his being defeated, or in those who dare to pronounce the possibility. It is to be found three May 29s back: in 2015 when he happily took his oath of office.
Four years earlier than that, in 2011, I had taken great trouble to document the electoral promises of his predecessor, Mr. Goodluck Jonathan. As I completed my research and whittled-down the material to fill a short column, I often had the impression that Jonathan had fallen for various officials giving him to read, at campaign stops, locally-relevant pieces of paper containing hoary promises.
In retrospect, Jonathan forgot about each promise and each vow as soon as he had spoken. As it turned out, that political fraud made him easy to profile and, in 2015, to be defeated.
The beneficiary of Jonathan’s misadventures was Buhari, who positioned himself as anti-Jonathan and anti-Peoples Democratic Party, with promises of his own. He offered a new and functional Nigeria he would personally clean-up, a process he called C-H-A-N-G-E.
That is why, when Buhari speaks at the national anniversary this Tuesday, he will be commencing a nine-month long defence not only of his tenure, but of whom he really is. Because the question that must be answered is what became of change.
APC likes to frame the question as the Peoples Democratic Party, which it replaced at the federal level in 2015, trying to bring back its “evil” ways.
Any wise leader knows that your true biography is never written by your supporters but by Time. And Buhari’s is about to be written. Because over the next nine months, gone will be the manhunt of 2015 in which he was the hunter; in its place will be the manhunt of 2019 in which he will be the hunted.
Is he ready? In his corner he will have all the arms and ammunition of incumbency: the name and political recognition as the office holder, and in the case of Nigerians as a people, a certain willingness to confuse being in office with being deserving of it.
Incumbency is a wonderful weapon if a leader earns adulation or celebration in office for his accomplishments. Once upon a time, somewhere between winning the election and soon after he took the oath of office, Buhari was on the periphery of that land.
He hadn’t said a word, but he wore a certain sosorobia people called “body language,” which caused fear among public officers and made them do the right thing. Some of them even hurriedly returned public funds they had somehow found to be in their hands.
But then Buhari settled into office, and Nigerians discovered that unless you belonged to a particular political party, there was really no reason to be afraid. Corruption was a type, not a thing.
Buhari, the myth, transmogrified into Buhari, the person. Nigerians found that Buhari, the person, largely liked to talk tough in public, but no more. He could make a rule, and then break it right away and allow—perhaps even encourage—those around him to do so.
Nigerians found that Buhari didn’t care for performance; he appointed people who became saints and supermen: they never erred and could not be removed. Where removal was compelled by circumstances, they could not be prosecuted.
That is why part of his re-election effort must be the re-invention, or re-discovery, of CHANGE. In 2015, “change” was both the hammer and the nail; in 2019, it will be impossible to go forward unless a persuasive explanation can be offered.
Buhari runs a curious timeline. For an important part of his tenure, change was all but forgotten, returning to the headlines only when Nigerians began to question whether he had forgotten the mission.
Missing this point, in support of his re-election, Buhari supporters are pointing to his “achievements”: a project launched, a bridge commissioned, a hope expressed.
That is the wrong campaign. Buhari’s re-election is about his credibility: whom he said he would be, as opposed to whom he became; where he said he would travel, as opposed to where he has.
“If Nigeria does not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria,” he swore repeatedly. Three years later, corruption is suffocating Nigeria. Impunity is what impunity was. The population of political criminals has not diminished.
Incumbency, when it leads to true service, is an elixir. Re-election is not a challenge. The people themselves celebrate and broadcast what has been accomplished, and they express their joy of being in the hands of such a leader.
But incumbency can also hurt. If an elected leader does poorly—or is vicious and tyrannical until it is time to ask for votes so that he can, in effect, continue to be poor and vicious and tyrannical—incumbency places a target on his back and a question mark on his forehead. Buhari will face this challenge now.
If indeed he now commences his re-election effort, I will be listening to hear if, contrary to his first three years, he reinvents himself as a man of vision and principle and integrity.
Next, the Buhari machinery has been hampered since 2015 by its lack of strategic thinking and originality of thought. While Buhari had marketed himself as the saviour, he has failed to inspire Nigerians with his expansive nationalism and boldness.
And I would be interested in whether he can separate Buhari, the president, from Buhari, the candidate. I will be looking at how he deploys the tools of state—funds, equipment and structures—which he enjoys as head of the executive branch, from the resources of his campaign.
If Tuesday is Buhari’s last May 29 speech as Nigerian leader, he will be an easy man for man and history to laugh at.
But what if he shook off the shackles…and chose his country over his fears and over life itself?