Millions of Nigerians heralded his ascension to the presidency in 2015 as the coming of the Messiah.
It was all due to his reputation as the iron fisted military ruler 30 years earlier, known for a Spartan lifestyle, over concerned about societal discipline, who withstood a military putsch by his colleagues plus three years in detention, only to become the Nigerian political leader with the largest personal following since the First Republic, withstand the traps and inconveniences of being opposition leader for 13 years, and finally achieved the feat of defeating an incumbent Federal administration for the first time in Nigeria’a history.
From that point however, the glorious narrative ran into stormy weather like the Titanic in the icy North Atlantic gales. He has not yet hit the iceberg, but he has a lot of adroit renavigation to do. In five years as President, the widely anticipated Buhari magic did not quite go according to plan. For one, the political conditions are very different from his days as a military ruler. That time he was young, idealistic and tough as a door nail. He ruled by decrees that could supercede the Constitution and oust the jurisdiction of courts. He could handpick and appoint ministers and state governors. He was assisted only by a 22-member Supreme Military Council.
As civilian President however, Buhari found himself hobbled by a Constitution, by a fractious political party most of whose members do not share his vision, by an aggressive opposition that he cannot tame, by an assertive National Assembly and an even more assertive Judiciary, by independently elected state governors, by a transformed Nigerian economy and society in which the private sector is a much bigger player, and by a Vice President that he hardly knew. Yemi Osinbajo is a prickly lawyer, priest and university don a world apart from Major General Tunde Idiagbon.
In the event, Buhari unfolded a leadership style that Nigerians did not expect. He kicked off his presidency with a mysterious Inaugural promise to belong to everybody and to nobody. It was not long before commentators said he belonged to a small cabal of associates. Although every president since Shehu Shagari had been accused of being surrounded by overbearing and often unscrupulous aides, none was accused as much as Buhari of having a cabal around him.
Unlike in 1984-85 when he arrested politicians en masse, made appointments, sacked officials, rolled out policies and enacted decrees with rapid fire regularity, Buhari quickly came to be known in 2015 for slow decision making. It took him three months to appoint an SGF and a Chief of Staff, three months to appoint military and security chiefs and nearly six months to appoint ministers. He spent many months taking briefings from permanent secretaries. Many public corporations and agencies went without boards for years. It took two years to appoint ambassadors, and dozens of executive agency headships remained vacant for years. There was a slight improvement when he was reelected in 2019, but nothing of the kind that we see in the US, of cabinet secretaries and key officials nominated even before inauguration.
Of the two titanic arms of government created by the 1999 Constitution, President Buhari’s relationship with the National Assembly was frosty for four years. Many Nigerians saw the quarrel with Senate President Bukola Saraki and later, House Speaker Yakubu Dogara as unnecessary, since both men were APC members. The relationship deteriorated to an extent where the Presidency hurled accusations at the legislature, accused it of padding budgets, of corruption and of stymieing projects. Even though the current National Assembly leaders are very much pro-Buhari, the pace of passing legislation has hardly improved.
The Buhari Presidency’s relationship with the Judiciary was equally stormy. Three events in particular defined it. One was Buhari’s trenchant criticism of the judiciary, notably a statement he made during a meeting with the Nigerian community in Kenya in 2016 that it was impeding the fight against corruption. The invasion by DSS agents of the houses of two Supreme Court justices and later, the forced resignation of Chief Justice of Nigeria Walter Onnoghen, added to the bad blood between the two.
Buhari’s relationship with his own political party, APC, is also problematic. Problems in the long-ruling PDP had ensured that many of its important members defected and flooded into APC at its formation in 2013. These included former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and several governors who came in through nPDP. In 2015, Buhari personally campaigned for Sak [i.e. a vote for every APC candidate]. It recorded a smashing success at the polls but he later appeared to have regretted it. APC increasingly assumed the political colours of PDP. PMB responded by steadily distancing himself from the party. He shows no visible excitement about it, allows the party to flounder, going for months without holding NEC meetings or conventions. APC’s National Working Committee soon degenerated into a Hammer House of Horror, unable for more than a year to replace key officials such as the National Secretary. It suspended key national and state officers, only for the courts to restore them because due process was not followed.
Although Buhari himself had a fairly easy reelection win in 2019, APC had a very difficult time at the polls. Though it retained Osun, regained Ekiti and Ondo from PDP in off season elections and regained Kwara and Oyo in 2019, it lost Bauchi and Adamawa, nearly lost Kano, only just managed to retain Ogun, was unable to regain Benue and Sokoto from defected APC governors, sensationally lost Zamfara due to internal squabbling, lost Imo to PDP only to regain it through the courts, and won Bayelsa in an off season election, only to lose it again at the election tribunal.
Buhari’s relationship with the media has been ambivalent, some of it historically attributable to his Decree 4 of 1984. Media men think the president is aloof and inarticulate. Unlike the voluble Obasanjo, Buhari holds almost no media chats, hardly grants local press interviews, makes his important policy statements abroad, usually at meetings with the Nigerian community. On their part, Buhari and his top officials believe the media is corrupt and it stridently criticizes them because, unless their predecessors, they don’t lavish money on its officials.
Media men also believe the Buhari Administration is ill disciplined, with major infighting among its top officials such as between Petroleum Minister Ibe Kachikwu and NNPC Group Managing Director Maikanti Baru; between Kachikwu and Chief of Staff Kyari; between Kyari and Head of Service Eyo-Ita; between Kyari and National Security Adviser General Monguno; between EFCC Chairman Ibrahim Magu and DSS director general Lawal Daura; between APC national chairman Adams Oshiomhole and APC NWC members; between Oshiomhole and Governors Yari, Okorocha, Amosun and Obaseki; between Communications Minister Isa Pantami and NCC Executive Vice Chairman Prof Danbatta and lately, between Pantami and Diaspora Commission boss Abike Dabiri Erewa.
The Abdulrashid Maina scandal, in which the dismissed former Pension boss was surreptitiously restored into public service, thoroughly embarrassed the government and led to the public altercation between Kyari and Eyo-Ita. Equally troubling for the Buhari record was First Lady Aisha Buhari’s strident attack on the so-called cabal around her husband. It directly led to Buhari’s biggest public gaffe, when he said in Germany that his wife belonged to the kitchen and to “the other room.” Buhari’s relationship with Big Labour has been poor due to the 2016 increase in fuel prices, strikes by many labour unions in the education, health and judicial sectors; as well as the drag in new minimum wage negotiations and later, its implementation.
Buhari’s top concern has been fighting corruption. He did not appear to have a comprehensive plan for it and has pursued it mostly through EFCC. The agency’s chairman Ibrahim Magu, who has never been confirmed by the Senate, nevertheless complimented Buhari’s tough guy attitude to corruption. The biggest exposures were the arms money scandal, monumental corruption in the oil sector, and massive electoral bribery by former Petroleum Minister Diezani Allison Madueke. Although some cases resulted in convictions, many high-profile corruption cases are still stymied in the courts. PDP leaders also say that the fight is politically selective, and that opposition party figures who defect to APC have their sins washed away, no thanks to a gaffe by Oshiomhole.
Despite five years of fighting corruption at the top of its agenda, Nigeria’s standing in Transparency International’s annual corruption perception index has hardly improved. This is probably because of pervasive corruption in the civil service, security forces, judiciary, in politics and in public life.
Although he has pursued some key infrastructure projects and unrolled a multi-billion-naira Social Investment Plan, in five years at the helm, President Buhari did not unroll a coherent economic program. The economic recession in 2015-17, caused by a fall in international crude oil prices, presented Buhari with a serious challenge early in his tenure. Top economists said at the time that it could have been averted with appropriate fiscal policy response. But Buhari does not have a visible Economic Adviser. During the first term, economic policy was left under the purview as Vice President Osinbajo as statutory chairman of the National Economic Council. Last year however, it was transferred to an Economic Advisory Team, which is yet to unfold a comprehensive economic blueprint. As a result, many hot button socio-economic issues have hardly been tackled in five years. They include epileptic power supply, high level of unemployment, naira’s poor exchange rate against foreign currencies, collapse of the four oil refineries and the resultant total reliance on refined fuel imports. Medical tourism abroad was not helped by poor health services within the country.
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Insecurity has also been a very big if in Buhari’s five years in office. As a General who fought in the Civil War, many thought Buhari had a magic wand to end the Boko Haram war, which has raged for a decade. Despite many reorganisations in military formations and financial commitments to weapons purchases, the insurgents are yet to be completely defeated. In recent weeks though, the army personally led by Chief of Staff Lt General Buratai seems to be making headway against the insurgents.
Eruption in internal insecurity all over the country, especially kidnapping and large-scale rural banditry in the populous North West, eclipsed even the Boko Haram war as a top national concern. Violent farmer-herder clashes in the North Central states, inter-communal clashes in several states and rising insecurity in the South West all combined to throw the Buhari administration out of gear and pose for it a serious perception problem among citizens.
On top of that, Buhari’s health became a major issue when he spent eight months in a foreign hospital in 2017. He was also assailed when he couldn’t deliver on some of his campaign promises to publicly declare assets, sell presidential aircraft and shun foreign hospitals. More trenchantly, the administration was accused of having a regional slant in key appointments, especially of heads of security agencies. Although the Buhari presidency argues that its own tally shows that South got more appointees than the North, the accusations still persist.
In the administration’s first years, Buhari had very good working relations with Vice President Osinbajo. This relationship deteriorated last year when many of the VP’s personal staff were transferred out, some of his functions were taken away and key agencies under his supervision were transferred to a new ministry. Osinbajo is now barely seen on the public stage.
The most often-repeated charge against the Buhari Presidency was that his late Chief of Staff, Malam Abba Kyari, had an overbearing influence. Last August Buhari ordered all ministers to report to him through Kyari. With his death last month, Buhari appointed the highly regarded academic and international diplomat Ibrahim Gambari as his successor. Gambari has no record of participation in partisan politics. It is yet to be seen how much the Buhari Presidency will change in style and substance with his coming on board.