by Damola Awoyokun
On Thursday February 26, 2015, above the entrance, the blue Chatham House flag swayed calmly from side to side as the gentle morning wind cruised around this posh area of London. Buckingham Palace was one kilometre to the west, Downing Street another kilometre to the east, and all around were offices of the world’s leading investment, wealth management and private equity companies. It was a perfect kite-flying weather. Directly below the calm flag was passionate chaos, organised turbulence. Cymbals clashed, vuvuzelas blared, fists were thrown in the air, two hands grabbed the collar of a man and screamed “what has your party done for us in the past 16 years” into his face. Various posters were dancing Fulfulde above heads, social media cameras clicked away, TV cameras glided from side to side making sure their respective audiences missed nothing, eyes popped from the floors of several tall buildings around, drivers of passing vehicles stopped, took in the scene, shook their heads and sped away. 85 decibels is usually the threshold of noise according to UK’s Environmental Protection Act; when it is above that, it becomes nuisance. The noise that morning topped 140 decibels. The police allocated to the event called for reinforcements. First they called for steel barriers to contain the continuous overflow of the chaos onto the street. When the barriers would not work, they called for human reinforcements. It took little time for the police to figure out that the chaos comprised supporters, protesters and a uniquely Nigerian aggression animating them. And so they separated both sides using the blue Chatham House flag above the entrance as the boundary for the demilitarised zone.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is election time in Nigeria; this was merely the UK street version of it. Jonathanians to one side, Buharists to the other. I moved further away to a less noisy place where I could better catch a panoramic view of the street drama. There I overheard a lady lamenting into her phone: “…Jonathan’s people are far better than us. They are singing well and shouting more than us. Their posters are bigger and better than ours…” She was right. The messages on the posters were more biting and damaging too. Independent photographers and cameramen frequently went to the side of the Jonathanians to take close-up shots. Then they returned to the middle to take panoramic shots of both sides. The Jonathanians had an abundance of captivating, news-worthy messages: “Buhari kidnapped Umaru Dikko on British Soil”, “Buhari: A Boko Haram Sponsor and Spokesman”, “Buhari belongs to International Criminal Court not Chatham House”, “APC is Tinubu Nigeria PLC.” Well, it is law of nature: it is far easier to destroy than create. Creators must work ten times harder than those trying to destroy. About an hour later, more cars and vans arrived, and from their boots came beautiful and surely expensive APC banners, sometimes five metres long. Fresh faces arrived too from all directions wearing hi-viz jackets with Buhari and Osinbajo’s faces smiling confidently from them. The score had been evened. The former decibels were nothing. The new one was what usually results when a tornado meets a volcano.
A guy with unlimited horsepower in his legs dashed from one Jonathanian to the other, to the police, the car park and back again. Like a Catholic priest preparing for confession, he wore a stole on his neck with PDP’s red umbrella besides Goodluck Jonathan’s face. He told me he is Godson Azu, a social commentator. I asked why he was there. “To create parallel opposition,” he said. According to him, he knew that once Buhari accepted to come to Chatham House, his supporters would follow and so he was here to make sure Buhari never felt comfortable even amongst his supporters. A newspaper that morning had uncovered ‘evidence’ that PDP sent $20,000 to cover the costs of organising the protest. As Azu dashed from place to place, the Buharists teased him relentlessly on how much of that money was his share. Azu turned to me and said: “See Nigerians? They want me to admit on the streets that I took money from Jonathan with the British police around. Like it is not possible that one can come here due to one’s conscience and stand up for the truth. See Nigerians. They are putting their corruption on public display for the world to see.” His voice came raspy like that of Enzo the baker in The Godfather movie. I did some background check on him: Azu contested to become a councillor in London’s Brentford Council in 2014. He lost. Before that, for 7 years he was a union organiser for Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union while working for Greggs, the high street bakery chain.
Just then, a Buharist, Owelle Rochas Okorochas, the Governor of Imo State alighted from a taxi that parked unknowingly on the Jonathanian turf. He stood hands akimbo and beamed, awaiting the moment of recognition. Then the Jonathanians began to chant and clap: “APC ole! APC ole! APC ole! APC fraudster!” The Buhari supporters quickly recognized “the ole” as their own, encircled him with pride and ushered him through the demilitarised zone to the entrance. In, he went for the lecture.
And what a brilliant lecture! It worked in all dimensions with the same cleverness that Professor Pellar used to work his magic at Cinema de Baba Sala in Ibadan in those days of yore. During campaign seasons, there comes a make-or-break moment to which the candidate must rise and shine or fall flat and expire. Think about the damage the clip of Rev Wright’s ‘God-damn-America’ sermon did to the Obama campaign in 2008. Obama could not just condemn the sermon and then move on. No. The damage was too great for that. Instead Obama rose to the occasion by producing that soaring landmark speech on race in which he did not even condemn nor disown Rev Wright.
President Jonathan too had his moment when the APC succeeded in overturning the damaging PDP’s Buhari-is-an-anti-Christian-Boko-Haram-apologist narrative by selecting Professor Pastor Osinbajo as Buhari’s running mate. All of a sudden, excitement and electoral momentum suddenly belonged to the Buhari campaign. Jonathan was then coming to Lagos to flag off his 2nd term campaign officially. In his speech, instead of sounding grand and presidential and arouse his troops to charge forth, he went flat like a dilapidated molue that refused to kick. This was his response to the damage done to him when his base, the Movement for Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) rejected him and endorsed Buhari: “… Okah is in South African prison. Why is Okah in South African prison? South Africa is not like Nigeria where you say the president manipulated it [justice]… Okah wanted to kill me…” It sounds OK for ordinary Nigerians to indulge in such talk. But as the president of the country, you do not thrash your system and elevate another country’s system, more so, when you are the head of the system. Buhari before the Chatham House event carefully avoided coming to the UK to look small, like a grumbler or a victim or to whine about deficiencies implicit in Jonathan’s administration. Instead he opened his speech thus: “When speaking about Nigeria overseas, I normally prefer to be my country’s public relations and marketing officer, extolling her virtues and hoping to attract investments and tourists.” He cast himself grand like a President, already responsible for the image and welfare of his country and not as an underdog whiner.
The speech was, of course, drafted by a British PR consultant, with some tweaking by APC’s agents. For instance when Buhari said: “Let me say without sounding defensive that dictatorship goes with military rule.” A Nigerian speech writer would rather be categorical and never apologise for sounding or being defensive. Aggression is embedded in our speech, body language and mannerisms. Right or wrong, it is Nigerians’ way of saying they are not weak or pathetic. While a British public could see the chaos outside as visual pollution, to Nigerians, it was a perfectly normal response to passionate imperatives. Said Buhari: “In reforming the economy, we will use savings that arise from blocking these leakages and the proceeds recovered from corruption to fund our party’s social investments programmes in education, health, and safety nets such as free school meals for children, emergency public works for unemployed youth…” Free school meals for children? Emergency public works for unemployed youth? Only a British sensibility would call these ‘safety nets.’
Also, of the various posters, T-shirts and banners outside the venue, none of them carried pictures of Buhari in jalabiya or in a Fulani agbada or Hausa cap. They were all various permutations of Buhari’s slender neck embroidered shirt with a big bow tie: Buhari in smart tuxedos, Buhari slanting and pocketing across the picture in a stylishly elegant pose as if he were a Versace or an Armani model. The pictures seem to say this is not the General Muhammadu Buhari you used to know. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mr. Mo Burry, Nigeria’s hottest supermodel democrat! Somebody ensured all that. Even his outfit for the lecture was designed for effect. He was made to look sagacious and familiar in an attire already popularised by the eminent Emeka Anyaoku within respectable diplomatic circles. Less of a Nagogo or an Ango Abdullahi ultra-northern conservative look.
“I support APC because it is the party of change,” Michael Olowe an IT professional who has been in the UK since 1981 told me when I went round earlier polling people outside on why they came for the event. “Nigeria needs transformation,” he told me, “it is only APC that can deliver that change.” In the speech, Buhari was also careful of where he quoted from. He quoted from Freedom House, an American think-tank, to justify how democratic culture is surely taking root in Africa. Whereas, the sources of authentic data on Africa to a non-African audience should have been from African institutions. He even summoned the authority of New York Times with a quote that is not a quote: “But the number of electoral democracies in Africa, according to Freedom House, jumped to 10 in 1992/93 then to 18 in 1994/95 and to 24 in 2005/06. According to the New York Times, 42 of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa conducted multiparty elections between 1990 and 2002.” Buhari was simply name-dropping as part of the script he must follow. He had to tick the right boxes. He dared not quote from al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya or even Chinese news agency. Somebody ensured all that.
Hear Buhari again like Kafka’s Red Peter before the Academy: “You all can bear witness to the gallant role of our military in Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur and in many other peacekeeping operations in several parts of the world.” Indeed Nigeria’s gallant troops were the heroes of Kaladan Valley in Burma between 1943-44, in Congo from 1963-1965, in Liberia and Sierra Leone during Abacha’s evil regime, in Darfur during Obasanjo’s regime. Buhari tapped into this gallant history because he was trying to hallow himself in the glow of gallantry. After all, if he had risen to become a General in an army reputed for their gallantry, surely he must have been gallant and have contributed to the army’s gallantry too. What Buhari did not say was the story Micheal Olowe told me earlier on outside when I told him I was writing a book on Nigeria’s early history.
He said on 29th of July 1966, he was a 6-year-old boy. His mother took him to the University College Hospital (UCH) because word had gone round that the motorcade of Governor Col. Adekunle Fajuyi and his guest, Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, the country’s head of state was going to pass in front of UCH in Ibadan. So they were there with thousands of Ibadan folks, young and old, waving flags, chanting and cheering. He said the motorcade was very long with several open topped Land Rovers, and Fajuyi and Ironsi waved back from the Rolls Royce in the middle. He said several monster-looking, fire-spitting lanky soldiers, clearly of Northern origin, in combat fatigues dangled perilously from the Land Rovers. They cleared the way for the motorcade and provided security for the Head of State and the Governor.
What the cheering Ibadan people did not know was that they were actually there not to welcome the Head of State to the Western Region but to bid him farewell to Mother Earth. For as soon as the motorcade reached its destination at the Government House, the same Northern soldiers that provided security seized the Head of State and his host. By nightfall, their bullet-ridden corpses laid in a forest in Lalupon. And so began the organised massacre of tens of thousands of Igbos and Igbo-resembling people, not only in the army but all over the Northern Nigeria. Muhammadu Buhari was part and parcel of its planning.
By 1983, Buhari and his ‘gallant’ military men mounted a takeover of the democratically elected (albeit flawed) government of Shehu Shagari merely three months after he was sworn in. It was the first of its kind since 1966. What was Buhari’s defence of this despicable act at Chatham House? Said he: “Elections, once so rare, are now so commonplace. As at the time I was a military head of state between 1983 and 1985, only four African countries held regular multi-party elections.” He located his coup as part and parcel of what was trendy in Africa then. Therefore, those countries having multiparty elections were the anomaly. In short, as Muhammadu Buhari, he does what is fashionable not necessarily what is right. He then grew defiant towards the end of the lecture: “I cannot change the past. But I can change the present and the future. So before you is a former military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigours of democratic elections for the fourth time.”
But an essential pillar of democratic norms is accountability and submitting oneself to its rigours. What about the tens of thousands Igbos massacred in 1966? What about those he retroactively executed that inspired Soyinka to write the play From Zia with Love, a most searing indictment of Buhari’s totalitarian misrule, gagging the press and criminalising the freedom of movement? What about the inhuman treatment of Nigerians in the name of an uneven War Against Indiscipline? What about the treatment of Alex Ekueme, Obafemi Awolowo, Fela, Michael Ajasin and many other southern elites, whereas most northern elites and peoples were pampered? The arch of the moral universe is long, as Martin Luther King said, but it always bend towards justice. Today, 70 years on, John Demjanjuk, a concentration camp guard and Oskar Gröning, a concentration camp book keeper like other Nazi collaborators are being convicted and victims’ families receiving restitutions. Only in an unaccountable place like Nigeria can somebody with a clear case to answer still come before the people to say, ‘give me your votes, I want to rule over you again.’ And the people will dance in excitement and say, ‘yes, this is the messiah we have been waiting for.’
I asked Richard Taylor OBE, what he thought about the man Buhari and his speech. Taylor understands the grief of loss because on November 27, 2000 his son Damilola was murdered as a school boy by hooligans behind Peckham Library in London. Damilola would have been 25 years today. Before he could answer I issued a disclosure: “I am not here as myself but on assignment for a media house in Lagos.” He said no problem and issued his own disclosure: Though he was invited by Chatham House for the lecture, he is a card-carrying member of the APC. Then he said: “that was a brilliant speech from Buhari. I never knew he was this intelligent. The man even had facts and figures to back him up.” I doubt if the families of those dead and humiliated Nigerians would find the speech or the man convincing. Besides, we are creating a hopeless society when we get excited over those we should call to account.
Again the British sensibility of the speechwriter revealed itself when Buhari said: “Boko Haram has sadly put Nigeria on the terrorism map, killing more than 13,000 of our nationals, displacing millions internally and externally.” This is clearly the view of the western press. Does any Nigerian really believe that terrorism in Nigeria started with Boko Haram? Nigeria was already battling terrorism and extremisms while the West was still fighting communism and the Soviet Union. What about the Maitatsine massacre in December 1980 in Kano in which 4,177 lives were lost? What about Gideon Akaluka who was beheaded in Kano in December 1994 and his head paraded on the streets? What about those who called for the death of Wole Soyinka in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria when he defended Salman Rushdie against Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa? What about the over 2000 souls lost when in February 2000, contrary to the provision of the nation’s constitution, Governor Makarfi of Kaduna imposed sharia dictatorship on the most multicultural state in the North?
What about Zamfara’s Governor Ahmed Yerima Sani who in March 2000 sliced off the hand of Buba Bello Jangedi in the name of sharia? What about the thousands of others whose hands and legs had been cut and are now begging on the streets of Lagos, Ibadan, Ogbomosho and Oshogbo? What about Amina Lawal and Safiya Hussaini and many others who were convicted of adultery and slated to death by stoning? What about the more than 217 of souls lost in Abuja and Kaduna over the Miss World killing spree in November 2002? What about Daniel Isioma theThisday reporter whom Tinubu helped flee to the UK when a fatwa was placed on her only because she suggested that Prophet Muhammad, who is on record to be the husband of Khadija and twelve other women including a fourteen-year-old girl Aisha, would not mind having one of those beauty queens? What about the 16 people killed including Rev. Fr. Mathew Gajere who was helping his altar boys escape when the Danish cartoon riots started in Maiduguri in February 2006? What about Ms. Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesan, a teacher and a mother of two murdered by her students in Gombe State when she was invigilating their Islamic religious knowledge examination on March 21, 2007?
All these and many more happened even before the existence of Boko Haram. And mind you, what Boko Haram is fighting for is a political domination based on sharia and the Quran. In short, they want an Islamic Caliphate in Nigeria. That desire is not new in the North nor is it specific to Boko Haram. What about Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano who in August 2011 unconditionally released 20 members of Boko Haram as part of Ramadan celebrations barely a week after Boko Haram claimed full responsibility for bombing the UN headquarters in Abuja? Why has Buhari throughout all his four cycles of presidential campaigns been so reluctant to criticise various groups and aspect of Northern practices that produced all these? Why is he so soft with the mullahs and their extremisms? No, General Buhari, Nigerian extremism and terrorism did not start with Boko Haram. It is far deep-rooted than that.
Buhari would have redeemed himself a bit at Chatham House had he devoted a sentence or two to the Chibok girls in his lecture. The kidnap of those young girls was the apotheosis of what is evil about Boko Haram. Some of the girls may be dead but most of them are being raped everyday as child-brides of mujaheddins. Buhari did not even need to condemn Jonathan’s handling of the case, he only needed to lower his head and ask the audience to have a minute silence because as a parent himself he felt deeply the despair of those parents whose girls left home that fateful morning and never came back. Instead like Jonathan, Buhari disclosed himself to be a soulless man. Is he aware that a main part of why Jonathan is going down is his bungled response to the issue? May be its time Nigeria had a female presidential candidate. May be she would be able to show that 90% of leading is about having a soul.
After the lecture, the passionate chaos and the organised turbulence outside the Chatham House continued unabated. But one by one, the APC leaders began to sneak away through the backdoor. Comrade Oshiomole was whisked away in a posh Mercedes Benz S-class. He sat at the Nigerian owner’s corner, unknown to him that British cars are right-handed. Tinubu too was whisked away in another S-class. He was already used to where the British owner’s corner was. He perched there without missing. Rochas who came in a taxi awaited his own chauffeur driven car too. Only Kayode Fayemi, Rotimi Amaechi, and El-Rufai came out through the front door to acknowledge their supporters who had been standing there for three hours under the rain. “What kind of leaders do Nigerians have who prefer to escape through the back door even while your supporters are at the front door? Why are they hiding?” Emeka Ogbonna said. He told me he has been in the UK for 19 years and works for Transport for London. On seeing Rochas Okorocha, he shouted from across the street in his baritone voice, “Rochas pay your teachers!” One of Rochas’s breadcrumbs grabbers that was milling around him shouted Ogbonna down.
Ogbonna marched across the street to challenge him: “Never ask me to ever shut up again. This is UK. I am here to tell these leaders the truth.” Being six footer to Okorocha’s five foot, he pointed down at Okorocha. “He is my State’s Governor. In Nigeria I can never dream of getting this close to him. He is smiling around here in London while creating poverty for his teachers back home. My brother is a teacher, I know what he is going on.” I decided to cross check the information. Anambrarians News reports it best: “This is not the best of time for primary and secondary school pupils and students in Imo State as teachers recruited under Governor Rochas Okorocha’s Youth Must Work programme have abandoned the students over non-payment of their monthly salaries for seven months.” And this programme is the microcosm of the scheme which, as Buhari announced in his speech, jobs were going to be created for unemployed youths. He called it “safety net”, “the party’s social investment.” As the Yoruba say, eni ma d’aso fun ni, t’orun re la awo.
Buhari was still inside fielding questions from his PR consultant’s organised press conference. I told them that I write for the most powerful news outlet in Nigeria. I hence had an extra right to be there too. The security officers handed me over to the protocol officer who thumbed through a list. My name he said was absent, so he went further inside to ask his handler. I was eventually declined. Again I went to ask Richard Taylor why Buhari is not talking to the press in Nigeria. “Why is he so anxious to bar any interactive scrutiny of himself, his history, his party’s manifesto? If for instance you go to Bodija market to buy meat, you turn it from side to side, you dangle it up to see it from side to side, you feel its texture, you smell it and even knead it all because you are trying to be sure you are putting your money on the right thing. Nigerians deserve to know who they are voting for. He is not even attending presidential debates. The General seems to believe too much in his own hype.” Taylor replied: “I think Buhari is afraid of being misquoted.” He told me he too had been many times a victim of malicious mis-quotes from the Nigerian press and that it seems as if Buhari is trying to be careful. I replied that he is making it easy for his opponents to portray him as having something to hide. He can as well go on live TV where what he says is what people get. Besides if he wants votes from Nigerians, he should talk to them, field questions from them in town meetings-like campaigns, just like Obama did in 2008 and 2012. He should participate in debates with his opponent so that Nigerians would see their man fighting their corner. He has a lot of baggage and he supposed to accord Nigerians the respect of letting them make an informed decision and vote with a clear conscience. Many Nigerians today look back and say, they do not believe they were the ones who actually voted Jonathan into power.
I later mailed Mary Norton, Chatham’s House media relations manager how and when Buhari came to be invited. Because if the elections had proceeded as planned, Buhari would not have been here. Who engineered the invitation and when? The last time Buhari came to Chatham House was not in the morning but in the evening of 27th June 2011, two months after losing the elections. With elections so close by, why did the Chatham House allow itself to be used as a fossil field to energise the campaign of one candidate and not the other? 10 days later, as of press time, she has not deemed it fit to reply. The sleep of reason produced Buhari the hype. He is what results when the Yoruba conscience is undergoing severe decay. If only Chatham House flag could talk.
Damola Awoyokun writes on Twitter @osoronga
The opinions expressed int his article are solely those of the author.