Between Buhari and Jonathan
WHILE the outcome of the last presidential election has been largely analyzed along the lines of the obviously differentiating, personal qualities and strengths of President Muhammadu Buhari and his predecessor, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, in reality, both men have more in common than many people realize.
Understanding their common circumstances and traits enables us to appreciate why one acted the way he did in office, and while the other will act the way he would in the next few years. It underlines why certain problems arose for the nation to solve, why some became intractable, and why new ones may well emerge sooner or later.
This sort of exercise enables citizens to characterize their leaders and identify their place in history. But it is not just for historical purposes only, it lends itself as a tool of governance, emphasizing opportunities and threats to a successful tenure in office.
Take their origins. Jonathan comes from a town, Otuoke in Bayelsa State (no offence intended) whose name was literally not in the map, until he emerged in the national scene. Buhari, on the other hand comes from Daura, in Katsina State.
Notable though it is, it remains on the margins of power equation, in both the northern part of Nigeria, and the country as a whole. Both Buhari and Jonathan do not lay claim to such an illustrious pedigree as a rich father or grandfather, with over-flowing means and hugely beneficial political connections.
Neither of them was born with a silver spoon in the mouth; some will say, they were both born with no spoons at all. They either worked their way up to prominence, or they were pushed by the invisible hand of fate, on the path to national acclaim, sometimes, against their personal wishes and desires.
When he became Head of State in 1984, then Gen. Buhari was neither central to the planning of the military coup that ousted the Second Republic of President Shehu Shagari, nor actively involved in its prosecution. This same hand of fate sought him out where he was based, so that when he was secretly flown from Jos into Lagos shortly after the coup, only very few people knew or believed he would be the new Head of State. And the same reasons for seeking him out in 1984 – his integrity, his discipline, and the respect of his colleagues – were again the same reasons why he became the flag bearer of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), at the March 2015 presidential election. Like Buhari, Jonathan neither had the ambition nor desire to run for the office of President – or it seems, any office at all, for that matter.
Yet, somehow, he kept climbing from deputy governor, to Vice President, and eventually President. He will go down in history as the only Nigerian that has gone that path to power without really craving it. Which is strange because political thinkers believe that you cannot be President of any country unless you desire it above everything else.
Similarly, Buhari had tacitly retired from politics after three failed tries at the Presidency, when he announced he would not seek that office again, but had to be encouraged to get involved one more time, as the one person capable of winning hearts and minds across the country. Therefore, if Jonathan was an accidental President, so is Buhari.
They are obviously men of different constitution, yet they are both political outsiders in the power equation of Nigeria. Many people, especially former governors of the South-South states, laughed off the possibility of Jonathan becoming Vice President, and later President.
Some of them are still rueing that disposition. Many people also, especially the core political elite of the North, failed to reckon with the Buhari myth until it emerged that he would be contesting the election against President Jonathan who had become vulnerable, and therefore, beatable at the polls. Jonathan essentially operated as an outsider.
He was never sincerely embraced by any group, including his South-South zone. He learned to govern without trusting much in people. And as he got deeper and deeper into the usual Nigerian quagmire, he also became more and more isolated, courting only few close associates, and therefore, robbed himself of the wise counsel that would normally come from a wider loop.
And the longer this situation lasted, the more difficult, indeed impossible, it became for him to build coalitions across political and regional lines – something that is imperative in our circumstance.
Any outsider eventually becomes a loner. President Buhari, the political outsider, naturally has the tendency to be a loner. He has shown that he is less inclined to be hurried by anyone or anything. He is likely to consult more widely, but he is less likely to act according to other people’s scripts. And he may not readily show his own scripts either.
This may lead to an old problem he had in office last time around, when he gave the impression that he was listening to his colleagues, but acted as if he wasn’t hearing at all.
This was also a major observation which some people made about President Jonathan: He always sought the opinion of many people, but their inputs were usually indiscernible in his decisions.
Jonathan left the Presidential Villa the same way he came in. There was so much hope and goodwill that here was a young, healthy, educated, full fledged civilian to lead the nation. And when he left, people seemed to think that he had redeemed himself simply by accepting defeat.
History may well read the outcome of his tour of duty with some diffidence, although he clearly was never able to grow bigger and dominate his environment. As for Buhari, essentially conditioned in the Jonathan circumstantial mould, events in the next few months and years will tell whether he is able to spring pleasant surprises on Nigerians and break out of his set frame. Otherwise, we may have to settle for what my friend, Sonala Oluhmense once described as change of promises in place of promises of change.