ABUJA - Three years before Nigeria’s next presidential election, retired General Muhammadu Buhari has rescinded his pledge not to run again, hinting he make take a fourth try at the office.
Buhari, a former military head of state, has an unusual reputation for a leader in Nigeria. Supporters say he is not corrupt. In fact, they say he is incorruptible.
They also say he is strict.
As the military head of state between 1983 and 1985 he prosecuted hundreds of officials and business people for corruption and waged what he called, the “War on Indiscipline.” Civil servants were publicly humiliated if they were late to work. Guards carried whips as they organized queues at bus stops.
Nigerian political analyst Aderemi Oyewumi says Buhari’s reputation as a disciplinarian is just what Nigeria needs to overcome security and economic crises. Nigeria needs leadership akin to Margaret Thatcher’s famed “smack of firm government," Oyewumi said.
“What we need in this country is the ‘smack of firm government.’ Government that is hands on, dealing with people who break the law. You know we have had this culture of impunity for too long,” he said.
Critics accuse Buhari of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country, which is roughly half Christian and half Muslim. In 1985, after nearly two years as military head of state, Buhari was deposed, being accused of not working to transition back to civilian rule.
Buhari is a divisive figure in a country where political differences overlap with religion and ethnicity. Buhari's reputation sometimes works against him, said Oyewumi.
“Anyone who wants things to be done properly in Nigeria is often accused, they say, ‘Oh, he’s too strict.’”
Buhari is a vocal critic of President Goodluck Jonathan's administration, and the ruling party. He blames a large portion of Nigeria’s woes on corruption in the federal government.
In 2011, Buhari lost the presidential race with 32 percent of the vote and declared the election fraudulent. International observers called the contest “among the most credible the country has ever held.”
That does not mean the elections were fair, says University of Abuja senior lecturer Abubakar Kari.
"Even where international observers and domestic observers come to hold [an] election as being okay, if you really critically examine that election you will find that it is not substantially different from the rest in terms of acceptance, in terms of transparency," Kari said.
After the elections Buhari said he would not run again.
More recently, he said “hell was let loose” in the past year and he has changed his mind. But he stopped short of announcing a campaign.
Kari says a 2015 run would be a mistake for Buhari because he would be fighting the same flawed electoral system, and this time at more than 70 years old. Kari adds another run could also damage his reputation.
"Buhari has always been known as a man of his word," he said. "He made it categorical in 2011 that he would not run again so to go back on his word is inappropriate."
Buhari should be grooming a successor to lead the opposition, not running for office, Kari says. But, he adds, Buhari’s former runs have deepened the democratic political culture in Nigeria by providing a viable opposition leadership.
Ruling party officials have accused Buhari of calling for renewed violence in 2015 and of sanctioning election violence last year that Human Rights Watch says killed 800 people. Buhari has condemned the 2011 violence and said his statements on the 2015 elections were misinterpreted.