OPINION – Buhari: A trial by history

Buhari didn’t remove the petrol subsidy, but at vitally important stages, he removed every other budget-busting, egregious, economic-growth-crushing subsidy along the way

By Gimba Kakanda

It has become a tradition in our presidential transitions for a previous government figure to be singled out, whether for justice or political messaging, to emphasise the new president’s commitment to change. In 1999, as President Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office, the Abacha family became the focal point. President Umaru Musa Yar’adua did the same with Malam Nuhu Ribadu and Malam Nasir El-Rufai, and in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari turned his attention to Colonel Sambo Dasuki, the National Security Adviser, and Mr. Mohammed Bello Adoke, the former Attorney-General of the Federation.

It comes as no surprise that two prominent figures from Buhari’s administration now symbolise the new president’s determination for change. Yet, Buhari is no stranger to this particular narrative style, one that chronicles history through a trial of the most zealous transgressors from the previous government to emphasise the consequences of playing God, the transience of power.

When Buhari took power in 1983, after ousting democratically-elected President Shehu Shagari in a military coup, he rushed to have the political class arrested and clamped in prisons. During this phase of our nation’s history, the military Head of State, reportedly with the help of Israeli intelligence, even went as far as abducting a runaway politician, Malam Umaru Dikko, who was the Minister of Transport in Shagari’s government, from London. This ill-fated kidnapping incident incited a diplomatic dispute between Nigeria and the United Kingdom.

So, neither the arrests of the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, nor the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission, Abdulrasheed Bawa, nor the trending flurry of commentaries from high-profile Nigerians are unfamiliar occurrences in the memory of past leaders. It was a method of documenting history, which the former president too popularised. It’s a polarizing attempt at justice, and whether there’s a conviction or not, or whether there’s fairness or not, it will create different perspectives for future historians to look back on his time in office and to situate his legacy.

Sometimes, the remembrance of a past leader comes with betrayal, even by those who were a part of the government and had the opportunity either to resign or to oppose the decisions being taken. This was the case with the spokesperson of former Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. On June 10, 2023, reacting to the arrest of Mr. Emefiele, who in the previous government had wielded so much power that he attempted to run for president and imposed policies that could have frustrated the emergence of the ruling party’s candidate, Mr. Laolu Akande took to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, to share that “it was about time the CBN Governor faced suspension and investigation,” and that “all people of goodwill and those who value integrity, irrespective of political leanings, would be thankful for this development.”

Mr. Akande went on to assert that “Emefiele was given a long rope, but he failed to redeem himself,” adding that “His shenanigans and the colossal damages he perpetrated at the CBN were to the utter detriment of the Nigerian people.” Social media erupted instantly, disregarding the former media aide’s caveat that his feeling of triumph was “not even about the cashless policy but apparent corruption, especially in the dual exchange rate policy, which never made sense.” It was confusing because Mr. Akande’s principal was the second-in-command, and he’s ethically unqualified to be the judge of that era.

When Buhari came under attack for refusing to remove the fuel subsidy at the height of his popularity but chose to arrange the removal in his last days in office, his former spokesman, Garba Shehu, came to his defense, adding that “Buhari didn’t remove the petrol subsidy, but at vitally important stages, he removed every other budget-busting, egregious, economic-growth-crushing subsidy along the way (sic).” It was barely a month after President Tinubu took charge, and the trial had already begun in full swing.

Garba Shehu finds himself once more at the forefront of the defence of his principal, this time countering the assertion of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation, Mohammed Bello Adoke, who described Buhari’s government as not only the “most incompetent Nigeria” ever had but one run by “a set of political morons.”

The embittered former spokesperson has reminded the nation of why Adoke was a scapegoat of the government his principal succeeded. He stated that the lawyer “has been enjoying the spotlight, masquerading as an anti-corruption character in a skit for which he is ill-suited.” Mr. Shehu also criticised the lawyer’s cherrypicked cases that aim to portray Buhari’s government as corrupt, emphasizing that those cases “originated from an administration in which (Adoke) himself was responsible for the administration of justice.”

But in the rewriting of Buhari’s history, Adoke isn’t the main author this week. It was Buhari’s military superior and one of his democratic predecessors: Obasanjo. The former President, responding to President Tinubu’s declaration that “it was unacceptable that he would spend 90% of revenue to service debts,” in an exclusive interview with The Cable newspaper, said, “Do you think that anybody would give you debt relief today? Buhari was spending money recklessly. I know Buhari didn’t understand economics. I put that in my book. But that he could also be so reckless, I didn’t know.”

Either Garba Shehu is busy opposing Mr. Adoke’s remembrance of President Buhari’s place in history, or he has an order from Daura to ignore the self-styled letterman from Ota. But even if he does respond, it won’t be his first time. When Obasanjo endorsed the Labour Party’s candidate as his preferred option ahead of the 2023 presidential election, Garba Shehu issued a long statement on his X’s account, titled ‘Morally squalid Obasanjo attacks leaders out of frustration,’ in which he pointed out four things he perceived as Obasanjo’s flaws.

“One,” he wrote, “is that (Obasanjo) will not stop attacking President Muhammadu Buhari because the former President won’t stop being jealous of anyone who beats him to a new record in the nation’s development process.” His second theory of Obasanjo’s critiques of Buhari is that the latter has been winning awards. He went on to cite Buhari’s endorsement as an anti-corruption champion by unnamed Africa leaders and regard for the rule of law as more reasons the older man was frustrated.

But, interestingly, both Presidents have their defenders and vilifiers, all invested in writing and fine-tuning the versions of history that appeal to them, whether factual or not. Buhari has enjoyed massive goodwill, and even as he retires to a life of asceticism, which made him an electoral preference for certain demographics, it’s easy to tell that he didn’t lose all the goodwill. But history won’t be written by the living alone. The trial will be determined by history, long after everybody reading this is no more.

* Kakanda is a newspaper columnist and public affairs analyst.

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