OVER the past few weeks, speculation has again been rife whether Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau is alive or dead.
Shekau has been the subject of death rumours for years, but every time, he manages to somehow come back from the dead – at least through video and audio recordings.
A fortnight ago, Chadian president Idris Deby claimed that Boko Haram had been “decapitated”, and that its new leader, whom he named as Mahamat Daoud, was “open to talks”. Chad has led several military strikes against the terror group; Deby said that the efforts to end the insurgency would be wrapped up by the end of the year.
But Shekau swiftly denied he had been killed or ousted as leader in an eight-minute Hausa-language audio recording.
“I am alive,” he said, adding: “I will only die when the time appointed by Allah comes.”
There is a possibility that Deby, more astute at cloak and dagger politics than Buhari, was trying to cause discord inside Boko Haram.
Whatever the case, Nigerians are getting frustrated by the seeming inertia displayed by President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office May 29 after being elected on an anti-graft ticket, pledging to recover “mind-boggling” amounts of stolen oil money and bring those responsible to book.
But Buhari is taking his sweet time – he’s yet to name a cabinet and has only made a smattering of ad hoc appointments; his critics already mock him as “Baba Go Slow”.
Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe quotes a Nigerian businessman who says that his company is “sitting on cash, not investing much, because nobody knows where Buhari is going to move and how. We don’t know the shape of his economic policy. We don’t even know whether fuel subsidy will stay or go.”
The bigger lesson here, Ndibe writes, is that there is something ‘fundamentally askew with Nigeria as a nation-space’; the fate of an entire nation should not rest on the actions (or inaction) of one man – not even the president.
In a curious way, then, perhaps Buhari should be taking leadership lessons from Shekau. It’s a terrible thought, but let me explain.
What we call Boko Haram isn’t a monolithic, centralised organisation with followers looking to Shekau as their singular leader.
It’s more of an umbrella-like structure, comprising several, largely autonomous cells each with their own leader and strategy, and sometimes claiming the Boko Haram name simply for the political mileage it gives them.
So it doesn’t really matter whether Shekau is dead or alive, whether the person in the videos is “really” Shekau or an impersonator – the group can outlive any one particular leader.
Indeed, the Nigerian army has dismissed the latest recording as irrelevant, saying it did not matter whether he was alive or dead.
This is completely unlike the case with Buhari, for whom a big chunk of his legitimacy coalesced around Buhari as an individual, and particularly around the perception of him as a clean, non-corrupt, no-nonsense former army general with a knack for whipping things into shape.
Ndibe argues that the characterisation of Buhari as the “answer” to the monster that is Nigerian politics is a cop-out, an “old, tiresome, ruinous game. It is a game of abdication, a consignment of responsibility to somebody else.”
It makes it easy to shirk the difficult, dirty and painful work of reforming institutions, and this is inevitable if Nigeria is to turn itself around. It is also something that no one man can do – no matter how suitable for the job he is.
Because so much of Buhari’s apparent suitability for office whirls around his personal traits, it will be a difficult job for the president to negotiate competing interests and build consensus around the motley group of politicians making the coalition that delivered electoral victory – unless he could whip them into a sense of unified loyalty to Buhari as an individual.
And really, there are only three ways to do that. One, through terror (and so he becomes a tyrant), and two, through bribery (which means he’s not so clean after all).
The third is the far better way, but it will be risky politically – begin the tough work of real institutional reforms, and so wean your political image off your personal traits. You might fail, and so run the risk of tarnishing your image as no-nonsense, get-it-done kind of guy. But it’s the only way to create lasting change.
As Ndibe puts it: “We need a culture that abhors corruption far more than we need a president who fumes at some of the corrupt.”
Still, Nigeria should be prepared for more deep, melancholy silences from the office of the president, as Buhari seems to be going the way of trying to fix it all himself.
And, in a strange way, Buhari might do well to look to Shekau for lessons on grassroots empowerment, decentralisation, devolution, and – yes, seriously – organisational democracy.