Even at 73 years old, he is alert. He stands tall both literally, and figuratively. With the genes of the willowy Sahel nomad in him, his gait is wide, steady, graceful, and agile. Born to a poor Fulani father and a Hausa mother in present day Katsina State in North Central Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari enjoys fervent loyalty from Nigeria’s majority poor population especially in northern Nigeria because he has never forgotten his own humble beginnings. Despite the high offices he has held at national level or in spite of them as a senior military officer: Military Head of State, Military Governor of 1/3 of northern Nigeria, Minister of Petroleum Resources, and since retiring – Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund, Buhari chose to live modestly and remain in touch with, and among ordinary Nigerians. In all the positions he has held, Buhari refused to steal from the common weal. He did not talk the talk, he lived the talk! The ordinary people that crossed paths with him liked what they saw: a kindred spirit – an earnest, honest, serious, and decent man with discernible contempt for corruption and vanity.
Buhari is at the core, a private man with great passion for his country and special empathy for its majority poor population who have been deprived of the decent lives they deserve due to the type of leadership foisted on them by a small clique of crooks whose origin traverse ethnicity, religion, and region across Nigeria. Consequently, Nigeria, which holds so much promise for the African race continues to wobble and lag where it ought to be leading with leaps and bounds; a giant forced to be a caricature of its potential; a perennially underperforming country, a laughing stock among nations it started the race of nationhood with in 1960, a dream deferred.
Instead, the majority of Nigerians have been turned into modern-day serfs in their own land by a small clique of wicked internal saboteurs who’d rather steal and take Nigeria’s resources to other lands than develop Nigeria and entice others to bring in their money to invest in the country!
The consummate professional soldier, Buhari is disciplined almost to a fault. He wears clothes that any ordinary senior civil servant can afford and looks elegant even as he interacts with the most powerful men and women in the world which is a lesson we can all take to heart. We are a continent where presidents are known to order designer clothes and shoes from Europe, or wear only outrageously expensive homemade ones.
Not too long ago, a Zambian leader spent over one million dollars on Italian suits in a single year while large swathes of his country remain inaccessible by road, not to mention millions of malnourished children, most of them out of school! The fellow declared his country a Christian Nation, and quoted the bible each time he sneezed, yet stole – from official prosecutors, nothing less than $24Million dollars during the two terms he spent in office. And that kind of madness continues to this day in many other African countries.
The Zambian brother has a polar partner in my native Gambia where our self-anointed ruler- for-life, the semi-literate former army lieutenant, the Know-It-All-Healer, Yaya Jammeh who seized power through a coup d’état in 1994 and continues to terrorize our nano state having completely personalized its resources just declared the country a Muslim State without going through parliament or any other channels. Like he does for everything else, he just woke up one day, decided he would make Gambia an Islamic state. And did! Funny thing is, the man is not even a Muslim. He carries a copy of the Quran everywhere he goes– often with the left hand, a long chaplet, and wears the accoutrements of a Muslim, but he is a Jalang- (devil) worshipper! He sacrifices human beings and commits other horrible crimes to satisfy his various gods. He is currently in the midst of another human sacrifice round by accusing innocent aging Gambians of being witches – a ruse he last used in 2009 to kill countless senior citizens. Everyone knows this in The Gambia. Doubters can ask Gambians in the diaspora about him. (Gambians at home are too terrified of him to say what they know about him.) He never misses an opportunity to swear loudly by the Quran – Billahi Wallahi, Tallahi, yet he steals anything he can lay hands on from Gambians who are some of the poorest people on the planet. Yaya Jammeh is richer than the Gambian state because he has converted state assets into his own name: The Gambia Telecommunications Company; The Gambia Public Transport Corporation; The Gambia Utilities Corporation; The Gambia Produce Marketing Board; The Gambia Livestock Marketing Board; state reserve areas for Parks and urban Development. Not to mention the hundreds of landed properties that Yaya Jammeh has seized from individual Gambians for minor or no excuses or reasons at all over the past 21 years in the urban areas.
Officially, Yaya Jammeh’s annual salary with allowances is around $40,000 a year. Yet coming on ten years now, Yaya Jammeh has been the owner of a nearly $4M mansion in Potomac, Maryland where his Moroccan wife and her mother lives with the Jammehs’ two children. The wife is also believed to own a mansion in Conakry where her father hailed from, and Morocco her motherland. Talk about an intrigue. All these properties are now in the countless titled Yaya Jammeh’s personal property accounts! Thank god Gambia has no oil, gold, or diamonds. One can only imagine what Yaya Jammeh would have done to Gambians just to lay hands on that wealth. I wish I was making this up.
I shall deal in detail with Yaya Jammeh’s tyranny in a special series in due course: it’s a classic case of how a semi- literate has been able to prey on a whole country by relying on a crude mixture of carrot and stick Anything-Goes rule (feeding-off of the greed and hypocrisy of a small group of people and by using ethnicity, State Terrorism, and loopholes in global and regional geo-politics to perpetuate what is essentially a criminal clique pretending to be a government in power for two decades!
Sorry for the digression.
Anyhow, Muhammadu Buhari’s simplicity in his choice of attire is not merely symbolic, it is significant. By his behavior, Buhari is telling all of us, but especially, some of his criminally-minded “coconut head” colleagues (to borrow from my friend and big brother prof. George Ayittey) that a leader need not wear expensive clothes – especially if they’re foreign-made, to look classy and elegant. He Buhari shows how this can be accomplished. This is a welcome reprieve for some of us who’ve had to endure the indignity of watching our presidents-cum-clowns make fools of themselves for decades by trying to impress Western leaders with the clothes they wear even when they go begging for aid!
Just think of this very common scenario that we keep seeing: An African president wearing super expensive clothes and accompanied by a large entourage including countless aides – not to talk of other ministers, flies into a European capital in his Presidential jet to seek help for his country from the Europeans. Part of the problem is, his European counterpart does not have a plane or the number and type of aides the African leader has as perks of office. The European has to fly commercial or business class when he travels. He or she also only has a few aides.
Yet, he, the European is supposed to feel sorry for some African country whose leader would rather spend their money on a plane or planes for his official travels and not on schools, hospitals, railways, power, or roads.
I used to ascribe the way Europeans treat African leaders to racism until I started noticing some of these absurdities. In their shoes, I’d do the same thing. No one respects a fool! Show others that you care about your own people and they’ll help. Otherwise, keep prancing around in expensive suits telling yourself you’re important, and they’ll treat you with contempt every chance they get.
On the contrary, from everything we know, Buhari is one man who has conquered some of the most vexed problems that remain the bane of current African leadership: weakness for the smarter sex, the insatiable appetite for material wealth, vanity, and the concomitant baggage the three problems create.
Now if this short profile of Buhari comes across as a little exaggerated, ignore my write-up and consider the un-spoken testimony of Buhari’s enemies in the run-up to the election that brought him to power in 2015. You see, sometimes it’s not what we say as what we leave unsaid about people, issues, or events that tell the real story!
Muhammadu Buhari is no stranger to Nigeria’s mostly shady self-anointed movers and shakers and their foreign collaborators. In his first outing on the Nigerian national scene, Buhari was a Major General in the military in the company of a fearless and incorruptible General and gentleman now of blessed memory, the truly honorable BabaTunde Idiagbon. Some of us were in high school at the time. The two Generals were determined to change the Nigerian condition by adopting aggressive emergency measures to stop the man-made catastrophe that Nigeria was becoming to put the country back on the path to its destiny as it should. So Buhari’s enemies knew what they’re up against. We now know Buhari’s enemies had billions of dollars in their war chest to stop him.
Yet, the worst thing the enemies of Buhari could say about him personally in the campaign is that the man does not have a high school diploma. Somehow, a teenage orphan of a poor man became an officer in the Nigerian army under British control at the time through some sort of chicanery he engineered. However, this is not the son of some northern emir or Caliph we’re talking about. This is a cattle herder’s son! And we are supposed to believe this nonsense? The mendacity of some people is jarring. More important to some of us, even these characters have not accused Buhari of owning a house in London, or somewhere in America, or a foreign bank account, a bank, a company, or something either directly or through a front. That’s the best encomium about Buhari’s integrity!
So far, the only truthful things that Buhari’s detractors have said about the man that seem to be borne by the facts are that:
1. Muhammadu Buhari could be stubborn when he makes up his mind about some things
2. Muhammadu Buhari is not well-spoken
3. Muhammadu Buhari needs a refresher course on world geo-politics
Given some of the types of corrupt and twisted leaders Nigerians are used to, one could only wish that god had given them only leaders with faults like Buhari’s above to complain about! At least there’ll be billions of dollars for jobs and development accounted for.
Anyhow, it’s in recognition of Buhari’s sincerity of purpose, affinity with the common man and exemplary lifestyle that the poor across Nigeria defied all manner of self-style ‘god fathers’ working for the corrupt incumbent he ran against to rally behind Buhari last May propelling him to the presidency of Nigeria. And it’s exactly that same aura and reputation that is making millions of Africans gradually warm up to the idea of this unlikely new leader of Africa. Note, I said Africa, not Nigeria. This is intentional.
Buhari is not the smartest, or the most educated, or even the most effective State leader in Africa, but of all the key leaders, he has the qualities we desperately need in a continental African leader. All things considered, his faults are relatively minor. Given the African condition today, Muhammadu Buhari is the president of New Africa- The Africa in the making.
In Part 3, we shall look at the power of Buhari as a symbol: the slow, methodical, and modest old grandpa cleaning up after naughty young men and women had made a mess! President Buhari has only been in office for seven months. He has barely started the engine of his government machinery. Much of the noise currently coming out of Nigeria is emanating from his panicky corrupt predecessors and their associates engaged in phony outrage and ethnic blackmail in their attempt to aid their members escape justice. At this point, Buhari’s impact -though potentially revolutionary, is so far more symbolic than substantive. We shall take a closer look at how the Buhari symbol is being viewed by Africans from different parts of the continent.