EVEN by his own admission, General Mohammedu Buhari’s time in charge of Nigeria is not one to be misty-eyed about.
After seizing power in a coup in 1983, he threw critics in jail, kidnapped enemies off the streets of London, and ordered soldiers to whip Nigerians who did not queue in orderly fashion at bus stops.
By any normal standards, the ageing former dictator should now be a relic of the dark days of military rule, when the only way to stop the country falling apart seemed to be an iron fist.
Instead, he may be voted in again as president.
At an age when other politicians are considering retirement, Buhari, 72, has emerged as the main challenger to President Goodluck Jonathan in Saturday’s vote for the head of Africa’s most populous state.
With Boko Haram still running rampant, 200 kidnapped schoolgirls still missing, and poverty and corruption still rife, many Nigerians feel Jonathan has not proved up to the job.
Hence the nostalgia for a dour exstrongman like Buhari, who is running neck-and-neck with the incumbent.
“Given the option between a failed present and a former dictator with a track record, I think the choice is going to be pretty clear for most Nigerians,” Buhari’s chief spokesman Lai Mohammed said.
“You have to look at the challenges Nigeria is facing in security and corruption and the economy. Frankly, Jonathan hasn’t proved up to them.”
The last time he was in power, having ousted a hopelessly corrupt civilian government in 1983, Buhari pursued his vision of a more orderly Nigeria with single-minded ruthlessness.
In what he dubbed the “war on indiscipline”, he beefed up the country’s secret police, prosecuted hundreds of officials for corruption, and threw journalists and anyone else who dared criticise him into jail, including Fela Kuti, the legendary pioneer of Nigerian “high life” music.
Notoriously, the long arm of his law also reached out for Nigerians who fled abroad. In 1984, his government dispatched agents to London to kidnap Umaru Dikko, a minister in the previous government accused of embezzlement.
The plot was only rumbled when a customs officer at Stansted Airport became suspicious about a crate marked “diplomatic baggage” due to be picked up by a Nigerian airliner.
Inside, he found an unconscious Dikko, as well as the professional anaesthetist who had drugged him.
The incident sparked a major diplomatic fall-out with Britain and saw four men jailed for kidnapping.
At home, such outlandish gambits won Buhari grudging respect.
He is also seen as relatively clean of corruption and his efforts to clean up Nigeria’s civil service also won him praise.
At one point, he punished civil servants who turned up late for work by making them do frog jumps.
Born near Nigeria’s semi-desert border with Chad, Buhari comes from one of Nigeria’s aristocratic northern Muslim families, but the less-than-charismatic leader’s following crosses the Muslim-Christian divide.
He is level-pegging with Jonathan on 42% of the vote, profiting mainly from his rival’s weakness over Boko Haram.
– The Telegraph