LAGOS – (AA) After losing three presidential races, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, has finally clinched Nigeria’s top post.
In 2011, Buhari sobbed openly after losing a general election, which – he had said at the time – would be his last bid for the presidency.
But last year, he says, his supporters pressured him to make another attempt – a decision he insists was not for personal gain.
In a statement on Tuesday evening, Buhari thanked the Nigerian people for electing him and his All Progressives Congress (APC).
Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, for his part, has phoned Buhari to congratulate him on winning the hard-fought poll.
“The president called General Buhari to congratulate him at exactly 5:15pm,” Buhari spokesman Garba Shenu told the Anadolu Agency by phone.
The presidential election has been described as the hardest fought since the country returned to civil rule some 16 years ago following decades of military dictatorship.
Born in 1942, Buhari was commissioned by the army as second lieutenant in 1963. He has since served in different capacities as an army officer, including a stint as military governor of Nigeria’s restive northeastern region.
Buhari was involved in a number of military coups, including a 1966 counter-coup, during which former military ruler Aguiyi Ironsi was killed.
The major-general served as military head-of-state between 1983 and 1985, following the ouster of the country’s civilian regime.
Buhari put limits on civil rule in 1983 when he overthrew a civilian regime described as both corrupt and inept.
He was overthrown 18 months later in a bloodless coup by his army chief-of-staff, Ibrahim Babangida, who went on to rule Nigeria until 1993.
Born to a Fulani parent in Daura town in the northwestern Katsina State, Buhari is both loved and hated by different segments of Nigerian society.
He faces several accusations, ranging from his alleged rigidity (said to be incompatible with democracy); his draconian conduct as military dictator (under his rule there was a clampdown on the media and free speech); his alleged role in Nigeria’s civil war; and his suspected attachment – and overt pandering – to his Hausa-Fulani tribe.
Buhari’s detractors call him an “Islamic fundamentalist” and an “ethnic jingoist,” although no proof has been provided to support these assertions.
In 2013, the notorious Boko Haram militant group named him its preferred negotiator – an offer Buhari flatly rejected.
Known for his fierce criticism of the Boko Haram insurgency, he was targeted in 2014 in what was described as an assassination attempt by the militant group.
Buhari has tried to allay fears about his dictatorial background by describing himself as a “converted” democrat. He has indeed contested all the country’s presidential elections since 2003.
But allegations of “fundamentalism” and a record of dictatorship helped derail his earlier presidential bids, with most southerners – who are mostly Christian – staunchly refusing to vote for him.
Buhari has also recently taken responsibility for the failings, excesses and rights violations committed by his military regime – although he has offered no apologies, as many had demanded.
His supporters, meanwhile, say the retired general is the only former military ruler with no taint of fraud or corruption directly linked to him or his family.
Repeated probes into his years as head of the Petroleum Trust Fund, a multimillion-dollar government agency, under late ruler Sani Abacha, have failed to indict his leadership.
On top of this is his Spartan lifestyle and much-touted personal discipline as an elder statesman.
Of all of Nigeria’s former military rulers, Buhari was the only one who did not promote himself to the rank of a full-star general – something his supporters say distinguishes him as a humble and less ambitious military officer.
He is revered for turning down the perks that have been accorded to past rulers of Nigeria, reportedly asking the Finance Ministry to cut his monthly pay as a former military ruler.
No one, including the government, has disputed this narrative, which has been promoted by the APC.
Buhari is touted by his supporters as the “best candidate for change” – the opposition campaign’s slogan.
Analysts say Buhari enjoys a cult-like following in much of the country.
In 2011, under the then relatively small and defunct Congress for Progressive Change, which he founded, Buhari won over 12 million votes.
Mai Gaskiya – meaning “the trustworthy,” as he is fondly called by the downtrodden – is thought to enjoy a nontransferable political following in northern Nigeria, especially in the northwest and the northeast.
His record as the former military commander that helped stamp out the Maitatsine insurgency – also in the northeast and similar to Boko Haram – also boosted his ratings in the run-up to the March 28 poll.
Most online pre-poll opinion surveys had suggested that Buhari would win the election.
With the Economist and a few other western opinion makers preferring Buhari to Jonathan – whose government they criticize as “weak and corrupt” – and with the southwest finally looking good for him, the retired general seems to have become Nigeria’s Abraham Lincoln, whose perennial electoral contests ended with befitting victories.
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