Muhammadu Buhari arrived the political scene in 2003 as something of an irony no-one took very seriously. Transition from strict military dictatorship to flexible, negotiated democratic norms seemed a huge leap for someone who was renowned for strait-jacketed, iron-fisted rule and many wondered how he would cope with the compromises characteristic of democracy. Today however, to say Muhammadu Buhari is a political phenomenon is simply stating a naked fact. To many, especially in his traditional strongholds in the North West and North East, he is something of a cult-figure whose every word is doted on and whose very presence is venerated to the extent that the senatorial candidate in the just concluded Bauchi South senatorial district, Lawal Gumau of the APC declared his mission to the Senate was to make Buhari a “life President”.
For a man without the well-oiled political machinery, the figures from previous elections (average of 10m votes in each election) show the General had a solid base of dedicated followers (mostly the poor and downtrodden) who have stayed with him through hell and high water. Retaining this sort of consistent following obviously require a strong bond and when he lost in 2011, violence broke out on his behalf (though without his consent or directive) and 800 people lay dead after days of rioting on the streets of several Northern cities.
In the build-up to the 2015 elections, it was obvious to the nascent APC that only a Buhari with his massive following could unseat an incumbent President. As the campaigns rolled by and the General’s popularity became all too apparent, many politicians (especially from the Northern parts) who saw that the Buhari bandwagon was the only way to win power in the ‘SAK’ crusade, promptly dumped the PDP and declared their love for Buhari. Many incorporated his picture in their campaign posters to increase their visibility and viability but perhaps the most identifying element in the Buhari movement was the rousing shout of ‘Sai Buhari!’ which enervated crowds and sent them into a frenzy.
Winning the 2015 election sent his followers into rapturous ecstasy with one performing the incredible feat of trekking from Lagos to Abuja in honour of the General. However, having assumed the Presidency, his nickname ‘Mai Gaskiya’ (the honest one) has been sorely put to the test. Scandal after scandal in his government has shown that the image of an unbending advocate of anti-corruption which his supporters sold before the elections is not quite what the General is. The fact that he left the former SGF Babachir in that position for months even with evidence of complicity in fraud showed he doesn’t quite abhor corruption. The fact that the former SGF has not been prosecuted shows the General isn’t such an unyielding stickler for justice afterall. His frequent trips to London whether on medical vacation or merely holidaying effectively put the lie to his asceticism which was played up in the campaigns. Like every other Nigerian politician, the man loves the opulent indulgences and luxurious perks which public office provide. The continued silence of the Minister of Finance inspite of forgery allegations show that Buhari is really tolerant of corruption, at least in some people. The fact that Mainagate happened and no-one was held responsible showed the General isn’t quite the disciplinarian-leader he was thought to be. All these chinks in his armour (and many more) have clearly revealed the real Buhari to be quite the reverse of what was sold to Nigerians pre-2015.
The Nigerian Presidency is not tea party. With the country’s governance structure designed as a top-heavy inverted pyramid, politics is a rent-seeking enterprise where saints cannot survive and do not exist. President Buhari has discovered this and his (non)reaction to several issues bordering on integrity has shown (or ought to show) his followers that he may not quite be the saint they thought him to be. Yet they continue to show reverence to him.
This steadfast, unwavering devotion to the man regardless of what he does has been subject of passionate discussion on social media and off it and will be a major factor in the politicking of 2019. Unlike other distinct schools of thought across many disciplines of life who have clearly stated principles for their followers to follow, it appears Buharism is more a mere appellation holding Buharists together than any dogma or political doctrine enunciated by him.
And as far as analyses of political trends in Nigeria go, the questions of what Buharism really means are often answered in the breach for the reasons of the many poorly-managed incidents in his govt enumerated above and this has led analysts to contend that there must be a more compelling psychological construct that explains this wild, obsessive and compulsive desire to remain a Buharist even when all the traits identified with the man have proven either absent or present in watered-down qualities. The groupthink theory in psychology comes handy in investigating the political phenomenon known as Buharism today.
Wikipedia defines groupthink as a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Irving Janis (1918-1990), research psychologist at Yale University investigated this phenomenon and laid out certain symptomatic traits that can help scholars identify where groupthink occurs. Clearly, the irrationality in continued unalloyed devotion to a subject who has displayed traits alien to what was ascribed to him can only be by force of groupthink.
Some of Janis’ symptoms indicative of groupthink are of interest in considering Buharism in the Nigeria of today. According to Janis, groupthink has several symptoms – overestimations of the group’s power and morality, illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism, unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, closed-mindedness, rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions, stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid; illusions of unanimity among group members where silence is viewed as agreement; presence of ‘mindguards’ who are self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.
Anyone who has held sustained debates with Buharists (especially on social media) would be smiling in acknowledgement of these indicators. They proclaim the absolute ascendancy of Buhari as the cult-hero in the Nigerian folktale, believe in the unquestionable morality of the cause of their hero regardless of his methods, go all out to demonize anyone who as much as raises issues with those methods, shut out their minds to even the most reasoned arguments and refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their actions, have several prominent members who act as mindguards whose function is to provide spins from whichever truth emerges about them and generally act as marshals to keep Buharists fed on stories of the General’s exploits, real and imagined.
It goes without saying that as far as nation-building is concerned, these attributes are inimical to national cohesion especially in a democracy as they are more suited to an autocracy run by a cult-figure. They set one group against others, lock different contending opinions in perpetual conflict without a chance of progressive resolution and create an atmosphere of perpetual enmity in the polity.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong in showing loyalty to a political figure, especially one like President Buhari who, it must be admitted has had several bright indelible spots in the last three years, his followers must be cautioned and made to remember that the ultimate aim of everyone who takes an interest in Nigeria’s politics is to develop Nigeria and build an all-inclusive society of equal opportunities. They must be made to understand that not all who oppose Buhari’s style is a ‘looter’ who must be damned.
For the opposition, breaking into the groupthink in which Buharists have ensconced themselves is a major assignment if they ever aspire to defeating him in 2019. Devising psycho-political programmes to negate the effects of groupthink in the larger polity will be their task going into the campaigns.