By Ugorji Okechukwu Ugorji
I have been in the war front of Nigeria’s political contests for the 2015 general elections now for about four weeks.
While I am working for the election of Chief Dr. Chekwas Okorie as the next president of Nigeria, the vicious nature of campaign attacks on the person of General Muhammadu Buhari, backed by petro-dollars that has origins in our common patrimony, has been such that demands the outrage of patriots.
By the time Major General Mohammadu Buhari came to power as Military Head of State of Nigeria on December 31, 1983, I was already in the third year of my university education in the United States of America.
I did not live in Nigeria under his leadership and as such have no personal experience of life under him and his regime. But I followed developments in my home nation as one had mixed feelings over the return of the Military to government.
The pride we, as Nigerian students abroad, had in telling our school mates that Nigeria was the third largest democracy on Earth (behind India and the USA) was interrupted as a result of that intervention by the Nigerian military.
In 1995 I was approached by the late Major General Joseph Nanven Garba to consider publishing what would turn out to be his last intellectual offering on issues concerning Nigeria. Fractured History: Elite Shifts and Policy Changes in Nigeria by Garba, was published later that year under the Sungai Books imprint, which I own.
The launching of that book in Nigeria brought me together with Buhari for the first time. General Sani Abacha was in power at the time and he was not particularly fond of books critical of him and the military government, which Fractured History was.
General Buhari chaired the launching of the book at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos, a fact that gave us protective cover for the intellectual event. The then Military Administrator of Lagos at the time, Major General Marwa, stayed away from the event.
I had the opportunity of sharing moments with Buhari and Garba in the room where we sat and waited before we proceeded to the auditorium. He commended my service and what he called “courage” in publishing the book at that time, which he had read preparatory to the launching. He expressed happiness with the book design and print and joked to Garba that “if only the book was as good as its cover.” We all laughed. As I often do, I told him that I would like to publish his own works or memoirs if he ever got to writing any. “We will see,” he said in his brief and brisk style.
I did not meet the man again until the August 2004 convention of the World Igbo Congress, which was held in New Jersey. He came in a surprise visit to the gathering of the apex Igbo organization in the Diaspora. I was a member of the Board of WIC at the time and one of the closest advisors and allies of the then Chairman of WIC, Dr. Kalu Kalu Diogu. In Diogu’s suite with some of us, the WIC chairman was visibly rattled at the news of Buhari’s arrival at the convention. Diogu’s anxiety was grounded in the knowledge of the controversy that former Governor Abubakar Rimi’s surprise visit to WIC’s convention in Dallas, Texas in 2000 generated among Ndi Igbo at the convention.
I was among those who counseled that an unscheduled reception and meeting should be held to welcome Buhari, a former Head of State, before the formal opening of the convention. He was the second former Head of State, after General Emeka Odumuegwu Ojukwu, to attend a WIC convention.
After I drafted Diogu’s “welcome address” (speech) to Buhari, the chairman calmed down and we proceeded to the reception. In the speech, WIC was cordial to its prominent guest, who clearly was preparing for another run for president of Nigeria in 2007.
We told him that it was impressive that a man, who had taken arms against Ndi Igbo during the Nigeria-Biafra War, had come to break bread with survivors of that fratricide in the Diaspora. We also noted to him that it was also commendable that a man who had overthrown a democratic government in 1983 was now himself a democrat seeking power and service in a democratic environment.
We hoped aloud that he would commit himself to neither of those incidents happening ever again in the life of Nigeria and Nigerians.
The officer and gentleman addressed us. And after his remarks, he took questions from those of us who had gathered. His answers were direct and he showed no discomfort in the midst of folks whose sentiments towards him were ambivalent at best.
The next time I met General Buhari was during the election period of 2007. I had returned to Nigeria as the USA coordinator of VOA (Vote Obasanjo Atiku) to participate in the last three weeks leading up to the elections. I ran into him at the Abuja Airport, in the VIP Lounge. He had just finished a rally in Abuja or in a neighboring state and was heading to Kaduna.
I was on my way to Owerri, Imo State. He remembered the face but was not sure from where. I reminded him that the initial acquaintance was made at Garba’s book launch in 1995. Then he remembered that he had bought additional copies of the book at the New Jersey convention of WIC in 2004. He missed Garba, he said. He liked “the Diplomatic Soldier,” he referred to Garba. Diplomatic Soldiering was the title of one of Garba’s previous books.
I present this background in order to address some of the unprecedented attacks on the person of the APC candidate for president.
One criticism of Buhari is the perception that he operates from a born-to-rule mentality. In essence, the knock is about his ethnic identity of Fulani, which is criticized as a whole for a sense of entitlement in the realms of power. I have always been against the lazy idea of group stereotypes, which the Igbo (of which I am one) have been a long-standing victim.
There is nothing about Buhari that suggests that he has more ethnocentrism or ethnic chauvinism in him than other politicians or “leaders” who have used ethnicity as lever and leverage to power. I return to a long held belief that we are all African people, the realization of which should allow us to break down the walls erected by these stereotypes.
This is among the reasons the Igbo put aside their feelings about the role of Goodluck Jonathan’s Ijaw ethnic group in the Nigeria/Biafra war to support overwhelmingly the incumbent president’s 2011 run for president.
Buhari is also said to be a fierce adherent of Islam who prefers Sharia law to the more liberal Nigerian secular law that is itself based on British common law, which in turn is based largely on Christian ethos. He is in essence a practicing Moslem who takes his religion very seriously.
My description of him in previous writings as a conservative politician standing on the platform of a reportedly progressive party was based on this characteristic of his. As a would-be president of democratic Nigeria, Buhari will have no tools with which to make Sharia the law of all Nigeria. Nigeria is simply too complex and sophisticated for that kind of adventure.
In my neck of the woods, Buhari’s military activities during the civil war have been disingenuously used as a wedge issue by PDP operatives. Yet the same operatives had worked for the election of General Olusegun Obasanjo as a civilian president, a man who more than most, has used the defeat of Biafra as a calling card. Buhari was a young officer ordered to war by superior officers, and by the standards and expectations of the Nigerian Army, conducted himself professionally.
There are legitimate criticisms of Buhari based on his tenure as Head of State and his stint as Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund. But even this legitimate criticism has been extended to making things up about the man and giving him undue credit for evils that took place after he had left office.
I am not supporting Buhari for president. I am working for Chekwas Okorie, a man I believe to be more progressive than Buhari and Jonathan. Nevertheless, having immersed myself in the current struggle for power at the center, and having witnessed the onslaught of negativity against him, I feel an obligation to state that General Buhari is no boogeyman.
He is a patriot and if he wins, I am certain that Chekwas Okorie will congratulate him without equivocation, as he (Okorie) would do if Jonathan wins.
Dr. Ugorji O. Ugorji, is currently the Director General of the Chekwas Okorie Presidential Campaign Organization (COPCO). The views expressed here are his, and not necessarily the view of COPCO.