A brief encounter with General Buhari
BY MICHAEL OBERABOR
AT the time Buhari ruled, Enebeli Elebuwa was the face of Nigeria. He played Andrew, a comic, in a short propagandist documentary widely circulated through the government media particularly the NTA which was at that time the veritable vehicle of government propaganda with its Siamese twin, Radio Nigeria. This was way before the advent of privately owned radio and television stations. The NTA opened and closed with the national anthem and pledge. News was broadcast only at 9pm.
There was no CNN. In the story, Andrew had planned to “check out” of Nigeria: there were no jobs. Power supply was erratic; fuel queues were long and snaky; essential commodities were being rationed and there was a draconian war against indiscipline. Three young men had been executed for peddling dope. The decree that sealed their fate was non-existent at the time the offences were committed. A democratically elected government had been ejected by soldiers and civilian rule was nowhere in sight.
A law forbade the possession of foreign currency and the naira exchange rate was frightening. Europe or America bore the only hope of survival for many young men and women. But right at the departure lounge, a voice of reason beckoned: only Nigerians could reverse this terrible and ugly situation. And if each and every Nigerian with the means to ameliorate the situation “checked out”, then doomsday was near. Andrew chose to stay. When Elebuwa later became popular and famous in home movies, those who knew him by his moniker stuck to that name.
The reality on ground did not support an early resuscitation of the comatose nation. And Buhari was coming to Benin. An ample opportunity presented itself for us to confront the strongman. A little over a year before then, together with his majordomo, Tunde Idiagbon, Buhari had sacked Shehu Shagari’s government. At that time, Benin was literally teeming with radicals and ideologues of all hues and colours.
No one would be intimidated. There was Tunde Fatunde, Festus Iyayi, Felix Orhewhere and a host of others. Outside the walls of the ivory tower there was Ohonbanmu, the Marxist ideologue who had just returned from a long sojourn in Germany and was ready to do battle. The students paraded Matthew “Matto” Urhoghide, Osaze “Pelebe” Ize-Iyamu, Evhi Eyeghre and Nnamdi Maduekwe. There was Thaddeus Alli and Kayode Thomas together with Isaac Ajayi, Onajide Onajiromu and Larry Ettah. Pelebe later became the SSG during Lucky Igbinedion’s time in Edo state while Larry Ettah today heads UAC. Inspiration was nearby and fear was unknown.
Somehow, Buhari avoided the university preferring instead to commission some showpiece projects at the sister teaching hospital. He had played into our hands and confrontation would be inevitable. And so as medical students, we made an offer to Navy Captain Yinka Omolulu, a navy doctor who was at the time the helmsman of the teaching hospital in Benin. It was an offer he could not refuse. He must have had sleepless nights pondering the consequences of his decision to allow a small party of four of us to see the strongman and prince of the Daura emirate. We had headaches for a different reason: The radio and television were filled with congratulatory messages for a messianic Buhari who had come to save Nigeria and was visiting Bendel state. We also had no more bursary as Ogbemudia no longer called the shots at government house. And how were we going to fit all our demands into Omololu’s allotted five minutes. We rehearsed and even had a dress rehearsal with Dr. Alex Khadiri of physiology department playing Buhari. Khadiri later went to the senate representing the people of Kogi east during Obasanjo’s second coming.
On that day, to Omololu’s horror, we demanded a private audience with Buhari. We had passed the point of no return and were ready to damn the fallout. You could hear a pin drop. The silence was louder than the clapping of thunder. With only his aide de camp by his side, the bespectacled general took us into a side room and firmly shut the door. Another mistake! Why couldn’t we just snuff the life out of this man and return Shagari to the mantle of leadership? The odds were in our favour. It was two against four, but the ADC was armed and so wise counsel prevailed. We asked him to justify his incursion into governance. We told him point blank that he was an illegal ruler and as illegitimate as could possibly be.
Taken aback but quickly regaining his composure, his soldier’s training took hold of him. With a calm candour and demeanour and in as solemn as a voice could be, he walked us through the financial and economic quagmire of Nigeria since the advent of Shagari. He pointed out the rot in the management of the nation’s resources especially in the petroleum sector over which he had once presided. He enunciated the cracks that had begun to develop in the body polity and the existence of divisions along ethnic lines. There were hundreds of millions in private Swiss banks siphoned overnight. The foreign reserves were all but gone.
Infrastructure had decayed and joblessness was in sight for young graduates. Even our teaching hospital was a glorified dispensary. The academia was being depleted of quality scholarship and faculty. Was this how we wanted to proceed? He availed us of a careful and meticulous plan he had put together to redeem Nigeria and asked us to watch him. The school authorities could do us no harm as we were not at liberty to reveal what transpired between us and the general. And we knew, none had the effrontery and bravado to ask Buhari. Should harm befall us and word filtered back to Buhari, the consequences could be dire. We were left to complete our studies.
The gangling Fulani soldier had enthralled us. He had held us captive. We were mute as Buhari spoke. We watched in awe as he excused himself for as he told us, he had a job to do. A little over a year after this incident, Buhari was toppled by Babangida, the gap-toothed general from Minna. Then Sani Abacha, the dark goggled one followed after a brief interregnum that threw up Ernest Shonekan who never sat down for a day at the office.
Today, seven reigns after Buhari, in the time of destiny’s child, Goodluck Jonathan, out of the four of us that met with Buhari, I am the lone one remaining in Nigeria. And Enebeli Elebuwa, Buhari’s face of Nigeria has died in an Indian hospital where he was ferried by a benevolent Delta state government after the country he loved turned him down.