A former military ruler rises again in Nigeria

Last Updated: Sat, Apr 09, 2011 18:30 hrs

As a military ruler of Nigeria, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari oversaw a government that executed drug dealers, sent soldiers to the streets to enforce traffic laws and allegedly drugged, kidnapped and attempted to ship a former corrupt official back home in a crate from Britain.

His tough talk, however, failed to stymie an economic downturn in the oil-rich nation that led to him being deposed and imprisoned. Despite this, the 69-year-old still remains a folk hero to some in a nation where corruption and graft permeate every level of society.

Now, he has returned as an opposition candidate for the young democracy's coming presidential election. While winning support in the nation's Muslim north, it remains unclear whether the former general would be able to abandon the autocratic style of the military to embrace the freedoms afforded in Nigeria's unruly democracy.

"Corruption, this is what is destroying Nigeria," the general said Wednesday at a rally in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital.

Nigeria will hold its presidential election April 16, pitting Buhari against President Goodluck Jonathan, the candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party. Buhari has been beaten in all three presidential elections held in Nigeria since its return to civil rule in 1999, though the polls have been marred by violence and widespread vote tampering.

Buhari first came into power after a 1983 New Year's Eve coup that saw a group of military officers selected Buhari to lead the nation. The Muslim northern from Katsina state immediately began a "War Against Indiscipline" that saw his regime go after lawlessness in the nation. Soldiers pulled motorists out of cars over traffic infractions to make them "frog jump" — hopping across busy streets from a squat while pulling on their ears.

Buhari also zealously went after stolen state money and corrupt politicians in a nation where oil money disappears even today. His regime sparked a diplomatic row with Britain after officials found a former transportation minister drugged and stuffed inside of an air shipment crate heading to Lagos.

"He's the only truthful man," said Idris Omeiza, 37. "He stands by his word."

Yet Buhari remained at the helm of a nation where inflation and oil spending saw the economy decimate itself. He also arrested local leaders for traveling abroad without his permission and journalists for writing critical articles. A coup by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida deposed Buhari in 1985.

Today, Buhari stands as the candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change. While the party just formed to serve as a vehicle for Buhari's presidential ambitions, the general has drawn crowds in the thousands throughout the north.

Buhari drew cheers Wednesday from a crowd at his Lagos rally, composed mostly of young men who speed dangerously through Lagos' crowded streets and highways on motorcycle taxis. Many of those men come from the north, trading rural poverty for a life with some opportunity in the country's mostly Christian south.

While trading on his credentials as an anti-corruption candidate, religion does play a role. His rally featured a Muslim prayer, while his running mate, a pastor, described Buhari as being the only one able to save "the children of Israel from the Pharaoh." A PowerPoint presentation comparing him to other candidates asked: "You want an angel?" It showed an image of the general, followed by a slide saying: "You've got to go to Heaven."

"When Buhari takes office, half of the criminals will move to another country," boasted Nasir el-Rufai, a former government minister who attended Wednesday's rallies.

But how Buhari would carry out his anti-corruption drive if elected remains unclear. His party's manifesto calls from removing the immunity protections granted to elected officials in the nation's constitution. However, he also hinted that he would simply just rely on old case files to go after suspected corrupt officials.

"We can't waste too much time in investigation," Buhari told a crowd at one point.

Ultimately, voters will try to decide if Buhari should return to power — if the country holds the credible elections it's been unable to over the last 12 years.

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