How Nigeria presidential challenger Buhari went from ‘ruthless ex-dictator’ to ‘weak leader’

Hard man or weakling?
Hard man or weakling?
Image: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

General Muhammadu Buhari, the former military head of state and presidential candidate of the opposition APC party has a reputation in Nigeria as a no-nonsense hard man earned during his hardline 20-month military government rule from 1984 to 1985. Some feel it’s the kind of leadership, fused with integrity, needed to curb what many Nigerians see as the excessive corrupt practices of the present regime.

So with Buhari soaring in the polls in the run-up to the original elections date of February 14,  his rivals (mainly  working for president Goodluck Jonathan) made a major change to stop reminding Nigerians Buhari was a “ruthless ex-dictator” which has an underlying implication of strength. The strategy in the last four to six weeks has focused on painting Buhari as a weak leader.

Strategists have tried to change the Buhari narrative with a mix of trivial distractions and dog whistles on sensitive issues. These issues have been defended and rebutted by Buhari’s team but the more they were discussed, the more traction they gained. Some of the ‘switch the narrative’ tactics will not be unfamiliar to close watchers of U.S. politics and there may be a good reason for that. According to Politico, both sides have at different times recruited U.S. political consultants including former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod’s AKPD and former Howard Dean campaign manager Joseph Trippi of The Potomac Square Group.

Here are four examples of a change in the core political discussions.

Raise questions about his educational qualifications

Early this year, there was a huge uproar over whether Buhari was qualified to be head of state because he was unable to readily produce his high school diploma, earned 50 years earlier. It was remarkable, given he had already previously run the country and and risen to the rank of major general in the Nigerian army which requires post-graduate level of training. It was a smart move. Nigerians are huge believers in the value of education, particularly in the south, where Buhari needs to win over voters in addition to his northern stronghold. Nigerians can be said to be obsessed with academic qualifications and professional titles. This is why the school certificate story still resonates with Nigerians. The fact president Jonathan is a PhD holder makes him more qualified and a better president in the eyes of many Nigerians, especially southerners.

Make suggestions about his health

Questions over Buhari’s health recently become a subject of ongoing interest. Rumors started to do the rounds that he is suffering from prostate cancer some weeks ago. It was for this reason, claim the whispers, that he arranged a UK medical visit to coincide with his speaking engagement at Chatham House in London. ‘‘The rumour that he is suffering from prostrate cancer is exceptionally worrying and it is incumbent upon each and everyone of us to pray for him if this rumour is true.’’ This was how Femi Fani-Kayode, publicity chief of Jonathan’s PDP party campaign team put it. The controversial Ekiti State governor, Mr Ayodele Fayose  placed a provocative advert in major newspapers across Nigeria suggesting Buhari could be close to death by invoking memories of the president before last,Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who died in office in 2010 from a mysterious illness hidden from Nigerians

Is he too old?

Diction is one thing, being coherent is another. A majority of Nigerians, especially from the south have latched on to Buhari’s stuttering speech delivery and forgetfulness during interviews and on the campaign trail. It backs up the idea that at 72 he is now too old to run a country where 60% of the population is under 30. It can’t be denied that Buhari has exacerbated his own verbal faux pas in recent times.

Remember Sharia Law?

Buhari should have a slight advantage being a pragmatic Muslim northerner at a time when there’s an insurgency from Islamic terrorists in Nigeria’s north. The thinking is that he would have more empathy with his fellow northerners and focus more resources on ending the problem and the root causes of the problem such as poverty and education. Instead his opponents have systematically turned it into a disadvantage claiming he is himself a ‘fundamentalist’ tool of Islamists and it’s one he’s found difficult to shake off. It is claimed Buhari was in support of spreading Sharia islamic law throughout the federation an accusation he is fed-up with deflecting. PDP members have questioned why he, Buhari, was picked by Boko Haram as part of the team to have talks with the government of Nigeria in Saudi Arabia. The tensions are such that, while  president Jonathan, a Christian, is regularly photographed praying in churches on his campaign trail, Buhari has avoided being photographed at mosques.