Penultimate Monday, i.e. December 17, General Muhammadu Buhari, former military head of state and perennial presidential contender since 2003, turned 70. An austere person, his birthday celebration was to have been low key to begin with. However, in apparent deference to the national mourning over the tragic death through an helicopter crash the weekend before of the Sir Patrick Yakowa, governor of Kaduna State where he is resident, along with former National Security Adviser, General Andrew Azazi, and four others, the general virtually cancelled the celebration.
That virtual cancellation of his birthday bash on account of the previous weekend’s national tragedy spoke volumes about the man’s essential humanity, something Nigeria’s dominant southern media, his nemesis, had done, and continues to do, almost everything it can to tear into shreds.
This media has done virtually all it can to portray the general as a stone-hearted, tyrannical, parochial and religious bigot, unfit for election as a civilian leader. In truth he is anything but.
Instead he has been a victim – along with each and every Northerner, with the possible exception of General Murtala Mohammed, who has held power in the country, from the Northern premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and the country’s first and only prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, through President Shehu Shagari to Generals Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and Abdulsalami Abubakar – of a sustained media propaganda which has succeeded in creating the popular impression that the Northern elites believe Nigeria is exclusively theirs to rule and ruin.
As with all successful propaganda, this negative portrayal by the dominant Nigerian media of the Northern political elite, in mufti or khaki, is not entirely without basis; Northerners have ruled this country much longer than those from the other regions and their record in government, generally speaking is, to put it mildly, difficult, if not impossible, to defend.
However, again as with all successful propaganda, the kernel of substance has been mixed and padded again and again with lots of half-truths and even barefaced lies.
Take the case of General Buhari as an example. As I said, the man, like all Northern leaders of the country, has suffered more than his fair share of malicious propaganda. There is, however, a major difference between his case and the rest; he never really enjoyed any honeymoon with the media from the time he emerged onto the national arena as minister of petroleum in 1976 up to the time he became head of state in 1983 – and even well beyond.
Dr. Aliyu Tilde, one time Friday columnist with the Weekly Trust and now a co-publisher of the online newspaper, The Premium Times, accurately captured the general’s hate-hate relationship with the Nigerian media in his rested column in the Trust of July 6, 2001, which he entitled “The Seven Sins of Buhari.”
Tilde’s piece was in apparent response to my earlier article in the Daily Trust which was critical of the general’s controversial remarks in Sokoto ahead of the elections in 2003 about how Muslims should vote.
For that article, Tilde lumped me along with others who he said disliked Buhari for no worse crime than committing “seven unforgivable sins” in their eyes. These sins, he said, were that the general was a northerner, a Muslim, honest and transparent to a fault, popular with the masses, apparently disliked General Babangida (his army chief who overthrew him in a palace coup in 1985), enacted Decree No 4 which criminalized embarrassing any government official, and served under the much condemned General Abacha.
“Briefly,” Tilde said, “these are some of the sins that Buhari committed and for which he is too arrogant to repent. If he could change his habits and become deceitful and corrupt, he cannot change his birth, his history and his faith. After all he is not a politician and does not need our votes.”
Obviously Tilde was speaking tongue-in-cheek. Buhari, as he said, could hardly change his birth and history and, like most adults, was unlikely to change his faith. And with the exception of the general’s well-known grouse against his former army chief and his enactment of Decree 4, his other “sins” were really universal virtues. Again even his worst enemies could not but acknowledge that he served as executive chairman of the Petroleum Task Force under the much-condemned Abacha with distinction and transparency.
Even then his virtues never endeared him to the rump of the Nigerian media and by extension much of the Nigerian public. The source of this bad blood between the two dates back to his job as minister of petroleum. Under his charge the media circulated a story that 2.8 billion Naira of our oil revenue had gone missing. A judicial panel that looked into the case concluded that it was all rumour. In the end otherwise respectable Nigerians like the late Tai Solarin and Chief Gani Fawehinmi that had claimed Buhari was culpable could not prove their claims. Instead Solarin, for one, had to admit that it was a piece of gossip he picked up on a bus!
That, apparently, did not stop the media from continuing to peddle the falsehood as fact right up to the moment.
Predictably when the man became head of state in December 1983, following the overthrow of the Second Republic under Shagari, he enacted Decree 4 under which two reporters of The Guardian, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were jailed for a leaked story on the appointment of a new high commissioner to the UK which the government found embarrassing.
As if the 2.8 billion Naira false story was not bad enough, the media went to town with another one about the Emir of Gwandu and father of his aide camp as head of state, Major Mustapha Jokolo, going to Murtala Muhammed international airport to clear 53 suitcases for the emir at a time the general had closed our borders with other countries to stem the smuggling of currencies and other contrabands.
That, like the so-called missing oil money, also turned out to have been blatant falsehood. The general’s ADC was at the airport alright to receive his dad who was returning from a trip abroad, but the suitcases belonged to the large family of a former ambassador who was coming home to serve as the general’s chief of protocol.
Obviously this fact was poor copy for a story so the media decided to spruce it up a bit in order obviously to sell well. To date the lie, like so many distortions that have caught the imagination of the public, has simply refused to go away.
At the time Tilde wrote about the general’s “seven sins,” the man had repeatedly said he hated politics and politicians with a passion. As head of state he had certainly left no one in doubt as to what he thought of them from the way his regime tried and jailed virtually all of them, many of them many life times over.
The general must have therefore surprised even himself when in 2002, he announced to an astounded public that he was joining politics. Since then he has become a perennial presidential candidate; three times in 2003, 2007 and 2011 he ran for the job and three times he lost in elections that got progressively worse.
The last one triggered one of the worst political violence in the North – except for the 1966/67 riots – especially in Kaduna his state of residence, a violence which the authorities naturally blamed on the general’s pre-election warnings that any attempt to rig the election will be resisted by the masses.
As with the elections themselves he also lost his cases against the ruling party in the courts. After losing his case last year an apparently frustrated Buhari told the world that it would be the last time he will stand for election. It was all reminiscent of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the other perennial loser of elections for the leadership of this country, when he told The Guardian in one of his most exhaustive interviews shortly after losing the massively rigged 1983 elections to President Shehu Shagari, that he was done with politics in Nigeria because he was convinced the country would never experience genuine democracy in generations to come.
Unlike the late venerated chief, however, the general seems to have changed his mind about not ever offering himself to serve as leader; in an interview in the Saturday Sun (December 22), he said in effect that he would if given the chance.
His party, he said, has been in serious talks with the two leading opposition parties for merger. At the same time he has, he said, been under tremendous pressure from his huge following to rethink his stand. “If,” he said, “they give me the ticket or recommend me, I will consider it.”
The general at 70 is obviously now a different man from the one who, until barely ten years ago, was absolutely sure he will never want to be a politician. It will be a miracle if, as a politician, he ever gets a fair shake from a media that has harboured deep prejudice against him essentially because, like Awolowo whose mirror image he is, he is given to speaking bluntly.
It is a measure of his dislike by the rump of the Nigerian media that the same quality they had seen as virtue in the late chief they have treated as a vice in the general.