There was a striking significance to what General Muhammadu Buhari, the APC opposition presidential candidate, did not say in his speech in Chatham House yesterday morning. Not once did Buhari mention the current president Goodluck Jonathan by name. He did not mention the PDP, whose 16-year grip on power is for the first time at risk of slipping. His critique of the Government was fleeting and implicit, as though he was squaring up to an opponent too short to look directly in the eye.
The unorthodoxy of an opposition leader speaking at the prestigious institute was telling, but also compounded a sense that chimed throughout this event. Buhari is not the most articulate potential world leader you’ll find. His diction falters unflatteringly in moments. But Buhari, at points almost inaudible, and inarticulate, more naturally exhumes the conviction in leadership that Nigerians — after six years of President Jonathan — increasingly miss.
When the Chibok girls were abducted in Nigeria last April, it was more than negligence in media relations with the public that wrought an unprecedented scale in public disapproval. Government failings were painfully evident, but the cynicism both domestically and abroad honed in on his personal deficiencies beyond those of governance. Jonathan is easily given to recessiveness to an extent that Buhari, even at the age of 72, is not. Accusations that he was too slow, too passive to respond to a moment of national crisis resonated with the unfavourable perception of his demeanor, that Jonathan, to his disadvantage, has not countered enough.
There remains in Nigeria a deep-set nostalgia for a fashion of leadership that commands more instinctively than it listens, a nostalgia that has grown as the insurgency by Boko Haram has intensified. Buhari spent much of his speech highlighting his credentials as a dictator turned democrat. And whilst much of it seems relatively credible, the perception that the ex-military general will govern with an iron fist is a non-trivial part of his appeal that makes this election historically close.
The flip side of the coin is that this nostalgia comes with an amnesia. Military leaders may be assertive, but they are also mostly pernicious. Buhari, as he stressed in his speech, may be a converted democrat, but his mantra of tackling corruption will need technocratic tools to work, and as yet he has evaded detailing how his fight against corruption will practically materialise.
The event at Chatham House was curious in many ways. A small but noisy (likely rented) bunch of Pro-Jonathan and pro-Buhari supporters stood outside the institute for hours in the rain. The leader of the APC, Bola Tinubu, a man younger and far shorter than Buhari but who could pass as his father, fought well but eventually fell asleep in his hands. Chatham House rules against taking pictures were possibly only followed by guests without smart phones. For what felt like a flashpoint in a momentous election campaign there were plenty of queer moments
The headlines on the event in several news outlets inflate the significance of quotes that were not at the crux of his message. It was not a speech to address the election postponement in principle, or to address the government or even Boko Haram, despite dwelling on each point substantially. At its heart, the speech was about asserting that an ex-military leader and dictator who rose and fell from power via military coups, is now at his third electoral attempt, ready to accept the first possible transfer of power between parties in Nigerian history. It was about proving, in person, that a throwback General from the North can lead an inclusive and democratic mandate for change.
All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.
Emmanuel Akinwotu is a History and History of Ideas student at Goldsmiths, University of London, with a special focus on the Arab Uprisings of 2011. He has written for the Guardian in Lagos, covering Politics and Education. He has been a commentator on Nigerian politics on Ben TV and has also written for student publications and online news forums. He tweets at @ea_akin
and blogs at britiko.