It is said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps, a worse fate awaits those who willfully distort history. The current election cycle has featured a great deal of historical distortion aimed at discrediting the opposition presidential challenger, the former Head of State, Muhammadu Buhari. Partisan revisionists have sought to portray Buhari as an unrepentant despot who once truncated our democracy.
As all propagandists understand, the most potent lie is a half-truth, the de-contextualised fact garnished with enough circumstantial happenstance to sound superficially plausible. To the historically illiterate, these anti-Buhari canards resonate because they are projected against a blank canvas of ignorance about an era that has largely faded from memory. These narratives must be challenged if only to reclaim our history. To truly understand Buhari’s first coming, we must understand the epoch that birthed it. There is no better way of recapturing that temporal context than through the eyes and words of those who witnessed it.
To begin with, Buhari’s advent on the last day of 1983 was warmly welcomed by Nigerians as a relief from the Second Republic politicians whose excesses had finally grown insufferable. In his book, The Fall of the Second Republic, Ladipo Adamolekun observed that as early as April 1982, the Nigerian economy was paralysed by an oil glut which politicians compounded by committing significant proportions of available funds at all levels of government to election campaigns. Several state governments were unable to pay the salaries of their employees and in a few states, schools were closed for several months. Between 1982 and 1983, there was virtually no educational or health institution that received adequate funding. In several states, these critical social services were near collapse. “The Nigerian society of the second half of 1983,” Adamolekun wrote, “was characterized by moral decadence, economic paralysis and moral decay.”
Shagari’s violent and fraudulent 1983 “moonslide” re-election victory was anything but democratic. The radical historian, Bala Usman regarded the Shagari administration as a fascist regime. This was the era in which the mobile police earned the pseudonym “kill-and-go” for its horrific record of extra-judicial executions. The real question posed by the military intervention is that of what remedial options a society has when its elected leadership becomes demonstrably despotic and embezzles its way into illegitimacy.
In December 1984, West Africa magazine described Buhari’s emergence as “the beginning of a national reckoning” for an era that Adamolekun described as “the golden age of corruption.” Between 1979 and 1983, Nigeria lost over $14 billion to capital flight. President Shehu Shagari’s ouster did not surprise astute observers. In 1982, the New Times magazine had warned presciently in an editorial that “if corruption continues unabated and the ship of state is left adrift, the prospect of a military takeover is not only inevitable but will be supported by the masses.” In his memoirs, Power and the Press, the journalist Tunde Thompson, who was famously jailed by the Buhari regime recalled that the military intervention “was welcomed by virtually every Nigerian except those who benefitted from the system through contract awards, board appointments, diplomatic postings and several other ways.”
The new government detained 475 former politicians and businessmen on suspicion of having “contributed to the (country’s) economic adversity.” In its first year in office, 14 former governors were tried and convicted on various charges of corruption and abuse of office. Well over N10 million and nearly £3 million were recovered and over a thousand years in jail terms had been issued, although almost all sentences were to run concurrently. The former governors of Anambra and Kano, Jim Nwobodo and Sabo Bakin Zuwo, received nearly three-century-long prison terms.
The regime reintroduced the death penalty for armed robbery and public executions for offences ranging from arson to cocaine trafficking and warned that it would not refrain from any measure, however severe, that would set the country on “the path of sanity.” As Buhari himself said in 1984, “By the time the military has finished dealing with those who wrecked the nation, none but the dedicated would seek public office in future.” Latter day bleeding-hearts and fair-weather humanitarians who contend that these stiff punishments being meted out contravened human rights have completely misread the tenor of public opinion at the time. As the New African editorialised in July 1984, “the arrest of former politicians and their aides” was “probably the single most popular action” of the new regime.
Buhari had several supporters in civil society who believed that only a radical surgery could excise the cancer of corruption from the society. The journalist, Nelson Ottah remarked in the March 1985 edition of Monthly Life that, “To help her get back on her feet, Nigeria must first and foremost be clothed in iron discipline, regardless of what it will cost us to achieve.” Similarly, the political commentator, Lindsay Barrett, writing in Africa Now in January 1984, argued that “the measure of Nigeria’s public indiscipline has attained such chronic dimensions that only a firm and successful programme of reorientation of priorities and of methods of service can ensure the maintenance of a stable nation.”
In a New Times interview in August 1985, the renowned public intellectual, Chike Obi, praised Buhari for sending “the regime of expert thieves into oblivion.” Chinua Achebe hailed the jailing of corrupt politicians and told The African Guardian of November 1988 that he saw the incarcerations as “a new element in the political culture. Things can never be the same again.” Although he expressed misgivings about the length of the prison sentences, Achebe believed that “the idea that somebody could go from state house to Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison is extremely important. And it is an idea that ought to live in the consciousness of our people whether they are going to be leaders or the led.”
Achebe’s book, The Trouble with Nigeria, published in 1983, was a lacerating critique of the Second Republic. He drew attention to the twin evils assailing Nigeria – corruption and indiscipline. “Indiscipline pervades our life so completely today that one may call it the condition par excellence of contemporary Nigerian society,” he wrote, “Corruption in Nigeria has passed the alarming and entered the fatal stage; and Nigeria will die if we keep pretending that she is only slightly indisposed.” Buhari evidently agreed with Achebe’s summation. In his first address to the nation, he highlighted “corruption and indiscipline” as “the two evils in our body politic” that had “attained unprecedented heights in the past four years.”
Consequently, the Buhari regime launched a War Against Indiscipline (WAI), a program of moral rearmament designed to instil public orderliness, revive the work ethic and create a national consciousness. WAI addressed little but significant manifestations of indiscipline such as public disorderliness, cheating, shunting queues, tax evasion and filthy environments. In May 1985, Africa magazine reported that a year after the launch of WAI, there was “a recognizable evidence of orderliness at banks and post offices…a visible drop in ostentation, improved work habits” as well as “greater punctuality at workplaces.” The New African of December 1984 also declared that WAI had “largely successfully, confronted the private and public disorderliness that hitherto marked Nigerian urban life.”
There was public outcry when, in early 1985, three convicted drug dealers were executed by firing squad under a newly promulgated decree with retroactive effect. Another trio of drug dealers, including Gladys Iyamah, a mother of two paraplegic children, was sentenced to death. The regime recognised that publicly executing a woman would make for terrible visuals and ordered her execution in private at Kirikiri Maximum security prison. However, as the historian Max Siollun records in Soldiers of Fortune, his masterful study of that period, the sentence was never carried out.
A staunch defender of the regime’s drastic approach to drug trafficking was the great civil rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi who argued that the executions were deserved punishment for “messengers of death” whose “products dehumanise and send their victims to an untimely death.” As reported in the April 29, 1985 edition of Newswatch magazine, Gani also advocated the death penalty for officials that filched public funds and asserted that “a revolution is not achieved by kid or velvet gloves but by blood, pain and pangs.”
Gani’s stance reflected the widely held belief that Buhari’s brand of tough love was needed to halt Nigeria’s slide into moral anarchy. One might argue that had this zero tolerance for crime endured, Nigeria would not have become an infamous trans-shipment point for drugs thus averting the now customary humiliating treatment of Nigerians at foreign airports and the frequent execution of young Nigerian drug mules in Asia. Second-guessing the Buhari regime’s policies now with prejudicial hindsight and without regard for context or even factual accuracy is poor analysis.
Many reasons have been cited to explain the Buhari regime’s eventual ouster. Arguably, it was fighting on too many fronts. Its tribunals – though initially popular – lost some support because of their secrecy, the lack of appeal rights, the presumption of guilt, and the long sentences. The regime was overly sensitive to criticism and unnecessarily antagonised civil society whose support it needed. It paid insufficient attention to the public relations of its reform programme – which was compounded by the persistent challenge of addressing the disastrous economic legacies of the ruinous Second Republic.
However, the biggest threat to the Buhari regime stemmed from its anti-graft campaign. Max Siollun points out that Buhari’s tough stance on crime and corruption and his use of capital punishment for drug trafficking threatened the lives and livelihoods of powerful elites involved in such practices. These endangered forces ultimately orchestrated his overthrow before he could move against them.
Three decades after his forced exit from power, Buhari’s conversion as a democrat is complete. There is no sense of a man intent on applying the illiberal methods of 1984 to 21st century Nigeria. While he retains his integrity as well as his obsession with official probity and public order, Buhari 2.0 is as acutely aware of the constitutional limits on presidential powers as he is of the presidency’s tremendous latitude for exemplary and decisive leadership.
It is significant that even those who suffered the Buhari regime’s Draconian measures such as Tunde Thompson, Audu Ogbeh, Adeyemi Adefulu and Lola Shoneyin, whose father was jailed, now support Buhari’s candidacy. They contend that Nigeria is adrift and that Buhari, with his disciplinarian conservatism now tempered by over a decade of democratic activism and a supporting cast of liberal progressives, is the clear alternative to an incumbent who claims that Jim Nwobodo did not steal enough to warrant jail.
Buhari’s traducers are perhaps petrified by the parallels between the last days of the Second Republic and our times. Then as now, rampant official corruption, impunity, legions of unpaid civil servants and an economic recession induced by an oil price collapse and epic profligacy overseen by a derelict and permissive presidency had set the stage for an inevitable reckoning. Ruling politicians fear precisely such a reckoning and see in Buhari, a man with the courage and moral authority to conduct it. They also fear that this time Buhari will have in his second coming something he lacked in his first – a democratic mandate.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, political analyst and consultant.