Nigeria elections: Victory for an old soldier

2015-04-05 15:00

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President elect Muhammadu Buhari was such an unlikely candidate for the presidency that he wrote himself off in 2011. After he lost to now former president Goodluck Jonathan in his third attempt at the presidency that year, he vowed not to try again.

He changed his mind three years later, but that was to be his first bite from a basket of humble pie on his road to the 2015 election. When rumours of his interest to come back started, a major Nigerian newspaper, ThisDay, published a story in which stalwarts of Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) described Buhari as “the man they love to beat”.

To be honest, the odds were not in his favour. He was older than 70, which is 21 years past Nigeria’s life expectancy. Since he was overthrown in a military coup in August 1985, he had not made any major public speeches outside his three attempts at running for the presidency – in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Nor did he appear on the international stage, the playground of Nigeria’s big names, former presidents and heads of state.

For a Nigerian leader, his reclusive and spartan lifestyle was awkward. Yet this was a man who, apart from serving as military head of state for 20 months, was also the chairperson of the petroleum task force, a multibillion-naira intervention agency set up under General Sani Abacha to save Nigeria from collapsing infrastructure. Long before that, Buhari had also been minister of the country’s cash cow, the national oil petroleum corporation.

It didn’t take long before Buhari found that in politics, modesty is not always a virtue. In 2003, 2007 and 2011, when he ran for the presidency, poor financing and a weak structure hobbled his campaign. His party, the All Nigeria People’s Party, which later transformed to the Congress for Progressive Change, was sustained largely by his cult-like following, especially in the northern part of the country.

To overcome that weakness, Buhari’s party merged with the Action Congress of Nigeria, the dominant party in the southwest, and two other parties, to form the All Progressives Congress (APC), presenting the first real threat to the ruling party in 16 years.

After Buhari emerged as his party’s flag bearer in December, the ruling party reached into its arsenal for some of the most deadly political weapons in soft and hard media campaigns that one source estimated cost more than $60?million (R718?million).

Buhari was accused of being a closet advocate, if not sponsor, of Islamic militant group Boko Haram. He was accused of bigotry and of planning to spread Sharia law throughout the country.

Not even an assassination attempt on Buhari’s life by Boko Haram managed to convince his accusers of his innocence. The battle had only just started.

In videos and press adverts, the ruling party portrayed Buhari as a ruthless dictator who slammed harsh jail terms on politicians and journalists in his first coming as military head of state. His response that his actions were consistent with martial laws at the time and that there was no basis to compare military and civilian presidents fell on deaf PDP ears.

They labelled him a despiser of women, who would surely scrap the glamorous position of first lady and drag women and girls back into the harem. That forced him to bring his wife onto the campaign trail.

But as the campaign progressed, so the bile increased. In a particularly fierce attack, the ruling party said Buhari was not qualified to contest because he lied under oath about his secondary school certificate. However, not only had Buhari attended Nigeria’s elite military academy, he had also attended similar ones abroad and risen to the rank of a general in the army.

Voters delivered the verdict, which now seems to matter most, on Saturday. Buhari, the man who had been written off by the ruling party and who had, written himself off, became the first politician to unseat an incumbent Nigerian president, against all odds.

A source who was with him when Jonathan called him to concede defeat ahead of the closure of the vote count said: “General Buhari was too shocked to believe what was happening.”

With falling crude oil prices, failing infrastructure and a near-empty Treasury, the future promises to be a rough road, even for an old soldier.

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