An Upright Man? The Unexpected Fall of Buhari's Reputation

Despite the current economic conditions, it remains that Nigeria was one of the poster nations of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. The Africa Rising paradigm was based on expectations that the continent would capitalize on its fast-growing population size, emerging consuming middle class and rapid urbanization fuelled by a large youthful market. The McKinsey Global Initiative 2012 report, Rise of the African Consumer, was notable as a distinct voice on Africa, which, until then, had been looked upon as an economic wilderness. The report hailed rapid mobile penetration, highlighted improved banking cultures and noted the sprouting of locally relevant retail products and services as indicators that the continent was indeed experiencing remarkable growth.

Reports such as McKinsey’s were in stark contrast to the damning assessments that had, just a decade earlier, dominated the discourse on Africa. The Economist’s 2000 cover story, “Hopeless Africa”, for example, cited a wide range of obstacles—war and brutality; poverty and disease; corruption and despotism—as everlasting impediments to Africa’s prosperity. Despite the subsequent publicity of ‘Africa Rising’, also an Economist cover story, the credibility of the drastic switch from pessimism to optimism about Africa remains questionable. 

Notwithstanding the insightfulness of observations and forecasts typically detailed in reports on Nigeria such as McKinsey’s, when it comes to the economy, the majority of Nigeria’s population seems to live another truth. The reality is that this majority lives unaffected by narratives created in glass offices whether overlooking the lagoon, the Thames or Hudson rivers. And in an economy where the cost of living is continually on the rise, the cheapest product remains the consumer’s favourite option. The majority of Nigeria’s population has never cared for GDPs. Rather, the clearest economic indicators have always been the costs of goods in the market. As a result, many rate the government’s performance according to the prevailing prices of a bag of rice and a litre of fuel.

President Buhari came into office in 2015 largely because the majority of Nigerians were dissatisfied with the prevailing prices of market goods. His campaign of “Change” contained promises of a reduction in the price of fuel and a more favourable exchange rate. His capacity to fulfil these promises was benchmarked on his reputation as an Upright Man. A seasoned military administrator with a reputation for discipline and integrity from decades past, he never asserted himself as an artful politician, or visionary technocrat. And so, any fair appraisal of his presidency should be carried out with the foregoing in mind.

To be a saint is the exception; to be upright is the rule. Err, falter, sin, but be upright.

—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables.

One of the earliest and most prominent definitions of an ‘Upright Man’ can be found in Book One of the first part of Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic, Les Misérables. The drama, rife with socio-political musings, took more than 20 years to complete. A lot of its characters and events are based on traits and experiences from Hugo’s personal life, a great deal of which he spent advocating for universal suffrage, free education, and gender equality among other social causes. Moreover, his advocacy was evident both in his literary career and in his career as a public servant in the French national assembly and other offices.

In Les Misérables, the ‘Upright Man’, Monsieur Myriel, is a clergyman known for his modesty and charity. He passes these same values to the people of Digne, the town of which he is made Bishop; especially to an ex-convict, Valjean, who drives the story forward as its protagonist. Monsieur Myriel’s most enduring quality is his commitment to alleviating poverty. All of his policies and actions were to the benefit of the poor and unfortunate because, wrote Hugo, “it is precisely he whose name is a burden to him who most needs sanctuary.”

Buhari exercised similar rhetoric ab initio: notably, he promised millions of houses and jobs to be created across Nigeria, free meals for schoolchildren and monthly stipends for the nation’s poorest. While impractical, the public endorsed his manifesto, though the funds and the political structure necessary to implement his set objectives simply did not exist. Being an ‘Upright Man’, Nigerians expected that, once he became president, Buhari’s actions would demonstrate parallel intentions. But, for one, stringent foreign exchange regulations implemented in a bid to mitigate the currency crisis resulting from the fall in crude oil prices also hampered local companies’ capacity to source raw materials and foreign companies’ ability to repatriate their profits. A number of foreign companies ceased operations altogether as a measure to protect themselves from further market volatility. And so, instead of the promise of job creation, unemployment surged through the roof.

In a bid to curb expenditure and increase revenue, the Buhari-led government deregulated the trading of fuel, resulting in a price hike, and proposed both a mobile communication tax and a 45 per cent increase in electricity tariffs. Both proposals were overturned in the court of law, but there could be no prizes for guessing who was being set up to suffer the brunt of our economic woes.

If the poor constitute the greater proportion of the citizenry, policies that further suffer the poor cannot be deemed as actions made towards the greater good. Neither can budgets that adequately cater to the vehicle fleet and health service needs of the executive arm of government, but barely address the funding requirements of the education and health sectors, be justified. In Hugo’s Les Misérables, Monsier Myriel transforms his palatial residence into a hospital for the poor and holy treasures previously stolen from the church, once recovered, are donated to the public reserves. By his life’s example, the philosophy of an upright leader is simple—servitude that gives to the self what it cannot give to the people is theft and austerity that protects the wealthiest and exposes the poor is fraudulent.

We demolished the ancient order of things physically but not entirely in the idea. To destroy abuses is not enough; habits must also be changed. The windmill has gone, but the wind is still there.

—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables.

Buhari’s stringent economic policies are reminiscent of his first tenure as military leader, causing a lot of his detractors to attribute his inefficiencies to outdated techniques. This could lead to the double assumption that his techniques worked the first time around and that other, non-Buharist techniques from that era would not suffice in modern times—both assumptions would be wrong.

In the first instance, Buhari seems to be repeating failed techniques with the hope of a different result. Secondly, alternative techniques from that era proved efficient in cutting government spending and driving self-sustaining economic growth as made evident in Burkina Faso (“the land of the Upright Men”) between 1983 and 1987.

Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary pan-African leader central to the economic revolution in Burkina Faso vaccinated 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles in two weeks in 1983, while hundreds still die annually of meningitis and measles, and polio resurfaces in Buhari’s Nigeria. And while Sankara’s government laid the foundation for Burkina Faso’s self-sufficiency in food production, Nigeria still experiences scarcity of major locally produced foods due to poor pest control, storage and transportation facilities under Buhari.

Sankara was popular for his charismatic leadership style and the left-wing ideologies he adopted while witnessing a student uprising in Madagascar and, later, as a military trainee in a parachute academy in France. Regarded as the Upright Man in commentary on African history, his political integrity set him against the Burkinabe elite, the French government and neighbouring West African countries still subservient to colonialism. He espoused similar values as Victor Hugo’s Monsieur Myriel and pursued the same lofty objectives as President Buhari. The major difference between Sankara’s success and Buhari’s failure is the former’s resilience in upturning the status quo and the latter’s reluctance.

Tribunals to hold corrupt government officers accountable and policies to ensure the austere operation of the state characterized Sankara’s reign in Burkina Faso. Buhari’s reign, on the other hand, has only been strong-handed when, it seems, there are scores to settle—the corruption case against the Senate President; the arrest of a Rivers State chief judge; and the detainment without trial of the leader of the Independent People of Biafra movement.

Buhari, however, has been less enthusiastic to investigate allegations of fraud within the ranks of his government and party—the allegations of false declaration of assets made against his Chief of Army Staff, and the allegations that his Chief of Staff repeatedly involved in cases of bribe collection are notable examples. And despite the loud accusations of corruption made against officials of the past administration and the volume of fraudulently acquired wealth recovered by the Buhari government, none of the accused has been successfully convicted in the court of law.

While Buhari does not share common successes with Sankara, both their administrations display common limitations. Sankara’s inability to fully inculcate the values of his revolution into his subordinates in government proved the crack that led to his eventual collapse. Among Buhari’s successes is the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) policy designed to better manage government revenue streams from its different agencies, which enabled his government take control of over N3trillion of its fiscal resources within its first year.

The fiscal management merits of the TSA policy cannot be denied, but neither can the domino effect of its demerits on the masses. Centralization of revenue collection meant centralization of revenue distribution, creating bottlenecks that led to operational inefficiencies in government agencies. Consider ministries awaiting central approval to purchase diesel for their generators to get work done. Severed from their revenue stream and the leaks therein, some agency workers took to harassing constituents with illegal taxes, which increased the costs and hampered the profitability of businesses. Consider, also, small businesses forced to pay illegal taxes or risk facing court cases they would probably win but cannot afford to fight.

Buhari’s intention to lead as an ‘Upright Man’ has never been in doubt; all doubts were always reserved for the intentions of those around him. Hugo’s Monsieur Myriel makes it clear that leadership does not exist in a vacuum: “Every profession has its aspirants who make up the cortege of those who are at the summit. No power is without its worshippers, no fortune without its court. The seekers of the future revolve around the splendid present.” And as Sankara before him, Buhari’s failures to put his underlings in order may be baby steps towards his undoing.

Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers, we should pray for ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers, vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us.

—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables.

In December 2016, the government declared that Boko Haram has been defeated. But if Boko Haram has been relegated to the back of our minds it is not because of their defeat, as their clear and present danger still exists in the North-East. Rather, it is because other threats to peace and livelihood have taken centre stage. In the last two years, violent Fulani herdsmen have caused more fatalities than the internationally renowned terrorist organization, Boko Haram, but the presidency and his military have largely remained silent. Instead of curtailing herdsmen movement till the menace of the truant herdsmen are checkmated, the senate is pushing forward a new grazing bill agenda that will increase herdsmen liberties across the nation and have their free movement backed by constitution.

Buhari has been often accused of bigotry because of certain statements he made long before his actions or inactions over the herdsmen crisis. A section of his critics claim his silence over the herdsmen stems from the fact that they are his tribesmen. However, Buhari’s consistent silence over the loss of Nigerian lives en masse at different instances, regardless of the tribe involved, renders dubious the allegations of bigotry. He was silent when the military killed unarmed Shi’ite Muslims in the North West. He was also silent when the military killed peaceful pro-Biafra protesters in the South East. Moreover, he made no comments when the air force accidently bombed and killed refugees at an Internally Displaced Peoples camp in the North East.

As Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Buhari’s consistent silence over the army’s grave actions questions his moral ideology. “A solider without any ideology is a potential criminal,” said Sankara, “When you are bearing arms that can spit fire and death and when you can receive orders standing to attention in front of a flag without knowing who will benefit from this order or this arm, you become a potential criminal who’s just waiting to spread terror around you.”

Regardless of his inclinations, Buhari’s unprejudiced tolerance of terror has paved the way for more prejudiced terror. Christians in Southern Kaduna, the minority of the Muslim-dominated region, have been killed indiscriminately; their deaths have been overlooked and denied, and activists who have spoken in their defence have been jailed. Within history, the Nigerian Civil War teaches us that the most dangerous aspect of oppression is the backlash of vengeance it inevitably leads to. Violence is almost always repaid with violence, no matter how long the reaction is delayed, and prejudice is a debt repaid over time.

Victor Hugo was amongst the pioneers of the romanticism in literature, merging realistic elements with hyperbolic symbolism to attain a unique brand of imaginative realism. He created characters that voiced his opinion on social issues, and through Monsieur Myriel, a character that depicted Hugo’s ideas on the Upright Man, Hugo says, “Let us confine ourselves to prayer when we feel danger looming, pray not for ourselves, but that our brother not fall into crime because of us.” Akin to Sankara’s belief about the soldier without philosophy, Hugo also attributes terror to being the effect of poor leadership, a link in a chain of iniquity and not an original sin.

Women suffer doubly from all the scourges of neocolonial society. First, they experience the same suffering as men. Second, they are subjected to additional suffering by men. Our revolution is in the interests of all the oppressed and all those who are exploited in today’s society’.

—Thomas Sankara, International Women’s Day Speech, March 8, 1987.

In women’s affairs, also, Sankara and Hugo also share the same values. Hugo’s Monsieur Myriel could not find younger clergymen to assist him in his duties as most of them saw his piety and charity as an obstacle in their individualistic pursuits of glory and fortune via the church. And so, in Hugo’s usual manner of symbolism, at a time in which formal female labour was restricted to domestic work and factories, Monsieur Myriel looked to two women to assist him in handling his personal affairs and matters of the church.

Sankara, on the other hand, was the first African leader to appoint a woman to his cabinet outside the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. He also understood, more than most, that the struggle for gender equality surpasses allotting a certain quota of cabinet appointments to women, but, rather, involves combating prejudice towards women at every level of the society.

Sankara argued, “We must have a correct understanding of the question of women’s emancipation. It is not a mechanical equality between men and women, acquiring habits recognized as male- drinking, smoking, and wearing pants. Nor will acquiring diplomas make women more emancipated. A diploma is not a free pass to emancipation. The genuine emancipation is one that entrusts responsibilities to women… one that compels men to give their respect and consideration… For could it be possible to eliminate the system of exploitation while maintaining the exploitation of women who make up more than half of our society?”

At the other end of the spectrum, when Buhari’s leadership was questioned by his wife, he responded in the presence of Angela Merkel—the West’s foremost leader—and all of the international press, by declaring, “I do not know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” In anathema to his campaign promise of implementing the national gender policy that commits to fill 35 per cent of appointed positions with women, Buhari’s ministerial appointments comprised of 16 per cent women, a plunge from the 35 per cent ratio achieved under the previous administration.

It was also in a similarly dismissive manner that the Senate, under Buhari’s administration, stopped the passing of the proposed gender equality bill looking to prohibit violence against women, prohibit trafficking of women and create equal opportunities for women. The bill was rejected because certain members of the Senate argued that the proposed bill undermined their cultural and religious beliefs. Overall, Buhari’s administration has done nothing to tackle negative gender norms: girl-child marriages and gender-driven illiteracy are still rampant. More so, women are still less likely to own arable land despite constituting the majority of the agricultural workforce.

Arise O Compatriots, Nigeria’s call obey, to serve our fatherland with love and strength and faith.

—The National Anthem

In Nigeria’s current political and economic climate, we need leaders that personify uprightness, as per the definition of Victor Hugo’s Monsieur Myriel and in the exemplary mould of Thomas Sankara. Our people are too poor for our government to be elitist. Our cultures are too diverse for our ideals to be prejudiced. Our women are too integral to our society, to be exploited and taken for granted. Our right to life, and to live well, is too valid to be unaccounted for. Buhari campaigned and won the elections on claims of embodying a much-needed rectitude. The dreams of our nation depend on his living up to those claims⎈

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  • gda

    I guess from this we must draw the conclusion that Africa needs more leaders like Thomas Sankara.

    Because Africa really needs more Marxist Revolutionary leaders who violate human rights with impunity, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and torture of political opponents.

    Because Marxist Revolutionary governments have been so successful all over the world wherever they have been tried.

    But its OK, because he was an “Upright Man” in the “Land of the Upright Man”.

    Not so upright any more after the man who brought him to power decided he’d had enough of the craziness and chopped off his legs (along with his head etc).

    • Nnamdi Ehirim

      I get you. But it’s never really black and white.
      Yes, Marxists governments have failed but so have every other type of government, remember. As a foundational precedent, we should establish that no system is perfect, each comes with its own collateral damage.
      And the article is not not necessarily a call for Marxist Revolutionary leaders, its more like a call for leaders with a vision/ideology/direction. Sankara’s flaws are evident, some hinted at within the article, but can we really assume there’s nothing to learn from his ideals/successes? We really can’t toss away the baby with the bathwater.
      P.s – some of the greatest men died the shittiest deaths, especially in the nationalist era of post colonial Africa.