Bukhastari: The Man Who Did Not Win

By Bunmi Makinwa

The dream was long. As she woke up, she remembered vividly all of it.

It was in a country called the Goliath of Africa. A rambling discussion is going on about a character called Maybaloon Buhkastari. Across generations and geographical demarcations, people speak about him in tones of veneration and wonder. The air of nolstagia about what could have been was palpable. 

A political party has ruled the country for almost eight years and people were  complaining about almost everything. Nothing appeared to have improved except for some roads, bridges and limited train transportation which have consumed more funds than they were worth. 

If only Buhkastari had been voted as president in 2015, he would have reversed the decline of the country and many things would have been better, the people said.

In newspapers, columnists wrote about Buhkastari in glowing terms. “He saw the problems of the country in practical terms. He had nothing to lose or gain. He only wanted to set the country right. He was committed, honest and prepared,” a newspaper editorial affirmed.

A famous critic of governments, Soho Kalaga, who was known for his radical views, lauded Bukhastari. A musician and activist, Kalaga, repeated everywhere that he performed, “The people deserve the leader that they have. You, my people, refuse to elect Buhkastari or give him a chance. See where you are.” Kalaga was said to have put together for imminent release a new, openly political song that had a popular chorus that goes thus:

“He promised us 

Our strong security

Our strong economy

Our strong people

Our dead corruption

Our new nation

But you did not allow him

Buhkastari should have been our President.” 

Buhkastari was born in 1942 in the northern town of Katsimau. He was nothing but a thorough military-bred. At 17 he started military training and soon became a young officer. He was lean, tall and frugal in his ways. When the military ruled the country, he served in various key posts – military and political. He was garrison commander, military secretary, state governor, and minister at various times. 

The story, true or not, was that he could not tolerate corruption. He did not like politicians. He vowed to people around him that any mention of bribes or anyone who lived beyond his means would go to jail after a summary trial hearing that he would head.

An introverted and generally self-effacing character, Buhkastari did not share the prevalent reputation of military officers as carefree, reckless or openly asserting authority. He took part in many coupsd’etat to overthrow civilian and military governments which he labelled as corrupt and useless. The people deserved much better was his watchword. He could not care less if political leaders rot in jail.

Several decades ago, Buhkastari had the opportunity to prove himself. After leading a successful coup to change the ruling government, he became head of state. Heavens had never seen such draconian laws and measures put in place in such a short time. 

Top brass in government ministries and institutions who were deemed untouchable hitherto were sacked, redeployed or jailed. The security branches of government had the power to detain for three months anyone suspected of sabotaging the economy or suspected of planning or breaching state security. Strikes and demonstrations were made illegal. 

The media, academics and critics, in general, were handcuffed ab initio with a special decree. “Any person who publishes in any form, whether written or otherwise, any message, rumour, report or statement … which is false in any material particular or which brings or is calculated to bring the Federal Military Government or the Government of a state or public officer to ridicule or disrepute, shall be guilty of an offence…”.

For the media specifically, offending journalists and publishers would be tried by an open military tribunal, whose ruling would be final and without appeal in any court. Anyone guilty would be fined and also jailed for up to two years.

The military government of Buhkastari did not just pronounce the laws and measures, it implemented them and dealt with so many people in its fashion. His government created a slogan, Win Against Indignity, to wake people up and compel adherence to the new ways.

At the time, most people cheered Buhkastari. His regime was seen as a bulwark against the many failures, indiscipline and corruption of the ruling elites. Despite some criticism of high-handedness, the regime was popular in most parts of the country.

When in 2003 Buhkastari first reappeared in the new garb of a retired military officer who had turned politician and declared that he would re-direct the country to the right path, only a limited number of people paid attention to his message. Under the emerging democratic political setting, he repeated the same message every four years during the presidential campaign seasons but his audience did not increase. 

In 2015, and for the fourth time, Buhkastari, despite his frustration and previous message not to speak any longer on the matter, presented himself still as a presidential candidate. He pointedly noted that the country was adrift and would sink if it continued under the same leaders. He promised that he would use civilian and democratic ways to rule. 

He preached, raved, danced and wore unusual cultural dresses to woo voters. He went to many parts of the country that he never visited in the past to show his face and convince people about his good intentions. 

He did not succeed. The results of the election showed that he was not wanted as president. He retired to his farm and said not even a word any longer on politics in the country.

As time went on, people started to talk about Bukhastari and what he would have done to reset the country. And the whispers and conversations became louder. People wished that Buhkastari had been chosen and elected in 2015. By now he would have had almost eight years to repair the country.

“He promised us

Our strong security

Our strong economy

Our strong people

Our dead corruption

Our new nation

But you did not allow him

Buhkastari should have been our President.” 

(Kalaga’s chorus continues)

Bukhastari had campaigned in 2015 that if elected he would change the lives of people, the economy would be strong, insecurity would disappear and corruption would almost be eliminated. Early in 2023, almost eight years later, and because he was not elected, all these issues worsened. 

On every indicator of development, the country was doing badly. Prices of consumer items have increased beyond what was ever thought possible. Bread, yam, gaari, tomato or onions were three to ten times what they cost when Buhkastari asked to be elected in 2015. 

Students at public universities had spent some eight months at home due to strikes by their teachers. Even after the universities resumed teaching many problems remain. Payments arrears of salaries of the Academic Staff Union of National Universities remained unpaid. 

Fuel subsidy by the government has increased by about 1000 per cent from 2015 to 2023. Diesel and kerosene were no longer subsidized and their prices have become excessively high without any obvious palliatives to citizens. The country inched gradually to a situation where its debt servicing payments would consume almost its entire budget. Petroleum remained predominantly the major source of income just as it has been for all the past years.

Since 2015, unemployment has increased four-fold and data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed that 33% of potential workers were out of jobs, and those who were employed mostly earned subsistence wages given especially the huge increase in costs of living. Youth unemployment was 43 per cent and the actual unemployment figure was said to be worse. Electricity, the motor that drives industrialization and growth, was as rare as it ever was. 

Insecurity was rampant and common so much that the movement of persons and goods has reduced significantly. The national currency exchange rate to the dollar which in 2015 was 190 has risen to 445 at the official rate. In the more readily used parallel market, it increased from 260 in 2015 to 740 in 2023. Buhkastari had specifically vowed that the national currency would not be devalued if ever he was elected, but his commitment failed.

People and voters in particular blamed themselves and criticized their sense of judgment. If only Buhkastari was elected in 2015 the story would have been different, people said. The former military and retired army general would have eliminated terrorists and kidnappers. The scam on fuel subsidies would have been stopped and the corruption in and out of government would have been reduced significantly. The dependence of the economy on only petroleum would have started to change. 

“We are going to secure this country. We are going to manage it properly. We will continue to improve the situation, security, and economy, and fight corruption,”  Bukhastari had said. When he did not get the votes, he returned to his farm. He is widely seen as a hero, a mystic and the best leader that the country ever had.

In the dream, she saw Buhkastari, gazing endlessly at his cows on his farm. He could hear the voices of regret. He wondered what history would have said of him had he won the election. He pondered on whether after eight years in office he would still have been seen as a hero and exceptional leader. Had he become president in 2015 would he have been demystified?

She remembered clearly that the dream ended just as Bukhastari asked himself the question – By 2023, would I have become in the public view another failed leader of the country?

Fully awake, she gave the answer.  

Bunmi Makinwa is the CEO of AUNIQUEI Communication for Leadership

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