As Nigeria votes, Buhari moves from messiah to maligned

President Muhammadu Buhari. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

There was a time when Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari represented something deeply special — the democratic ideal that a failed government can be punished; and that an opposition party could possibly win in a country where this had never before happened. He represented a generation’s aspirations that our voices matter, our decisions count, and together we could direct the destiny of our country.

Today, those times are today a distant memory.

Instead, what we have is a sick man, one so ill he misremembers the year he was sworn in, does not recall his locations, gives incomprehensible to elementary questions, is verifiably unaware of what happens in his own government (“He doesn’t know,” his deputy was forced to interject to save the president from saying something reckless in a recently televised town hall), and stumbles in ways too ominous for a nation that just barely survived a medically brain-dead president kept in office by a cabal less than a decade ago.

What we also have is a leader who has lost significant moral authority, refusing to hold corrupt members of his own party to account, defending the murders of citizens by those he considers his kinsmen, choosing loyalty over competence in everything from management of our oil wealth to leadership of the central bank, maintaining waste in government that he specifically ran against, supervising a bloated patronage network headlined by members of his family living large at the nation’s expense and refusing to be accountable to the nation about what exactly ails him.

But perhaps all of those would be forgivable. Perhaps we could console ourselves with the facts that bombings in the nation’s capital have ceased. 
Perhaps we could console ourselves with the lack of fuel queues across the country and petroleum product scarcity that became frequent under administrations before him. Or the fact that he manages to retain the respect, in spite of all that has happened, of peer heads of state around the world.

Perhaps.

Except that he has now done the one unforgivable thing — tamper with our hard-won democracy.

Nigeria’s last elections — those that brought this president into power — were famously free and fair. This wasn’t an easy achievement: it was the cumulation of steady actions from civil society, international partners, an emboldened media and expansive technology; but most importantly the conscious legacy of Goodluck Jonathan, who displayed absolutely no desire in interfering with free and fair elections.

The same cannot be said of his successor.

The man once hailed as a messiah, enabled by a process that was judged as highly credible, has now set about supervising the dismantling of that 16-years-coming legacy.

What began as troubling signs with executive intimidation of the legislature progressed into deeply flawed elections in many states around the country, including the one where his party chairman famously asked opponents, in a Freudian slip, to accept “rigging” in good faith. The tension has now metastasized into brazen interference in the presidential electoral process.

In a borderline unconstitutional move, he suspended the Chief Justice of the nation’s apex court — the one with the power to convene presidential election processes in the event of irregularities — and installed a new one, barely three weeks before elections are due to take place.

Cries from the Nigerian Bar Association, international election observers and foreign embassies, newspaper op-eds, and a broad spectrum of non-political civil society haven’t swayed him and his gang. The president who is widely suspected to be preparing security forces for election manipulation has insisted on tampering with the judicial process that would correct such an anomaly.

This is a grave assault.

This president might no longer be lucid and hasn’t been famous for emotional intelligence, but he must be reminded that history is a very harsh judge. He should recollect the many players in our recent and distant past who have tried to tamper with the collective will of the people, and how they have ended up both in consequence and the public imagination. He should learn from the mistakes — and disgrace — of those before him.

The real tragedy is that, despite his many failures, a confluence of his strong personal brand curated and calcified in the 2015 elections, unshakeable support from his ethnic base, a flawed opposition candidate, a lackluster opposition campaign, and a beat-down electorate can conspire to deliver him a free and fair win. But in visibly panicking over the chance that he has lost, he refuses to learn from the example of his predecessor.

Where Goodluck Jonathan snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by gracefully conceding his election loss, Buhari wants to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by cobbling together a tainted, corrupt victory.

It will also be a terrible national tragedy.

It took a long while and excruciating hard work to get to this place of stability. Nigerians going to vote this weekend must stand ready to make a clear statement to the president that his ambition is not strong enough to rob us of what we have rightly earned. We will not take it.

Originally published on Mail and Guardian