That was fast. It didn’t take long before the pan-Nigerian, religiously ecumenical desire for change, of which president-elect Muhammadu Buhari was the face, was shaken by the growing anxieties of those who feel that Buhari had sacrificed his Muslim piety to win the presidency. This is the salient sentiment at play in the condemnation of Buhari’s public handshake with the new Mrs. Adams Oshiomhole by some of his Muslim supporters.
The problem is that the outrage is contrived because its premise, the belief that Buhari is the epitome of a puritanical observance of Islam, is false. This false narrative of Buhari’s religious fundamentalism has endured only because two groups of people who would not stand each other, Buhari’s fanatical Muslim supporters and his most malicious detractors, converged on the same theme of Buhari’s supposed Muslim fundamentalism. The result was that instead of challenging the President-elect’s detractors who labeled him an incorrigible Muslim irredentist, some of his Muslim supporters actually confirmed and took ownership of the meme of Buhari as an extremist, weaving all sorts of puritanical discourses around the man.
Even before the current outrage triggered by some Muslims questioning the Islamic propriety of Muhammadu Buhari shaking hands with a female non-relative in public, I have always maintained that the president-elect's overzealous and fanatical Muslim supporters are as responsible for the myth of him as a religious fundamentalist as his detractors. Some of his Muslim supporters have always projected their own religious anxieties onto him, anointing him Jagoran Musulunci (defender/champion of Islam) even without Buhari declaring himself so.
From then on, they believed him to be who they proclaimed him to be despite evidence to the contrary, and are now expecting him to fulfil the religious fantasies they falsely believed he embodied. It was this determined effort to define, own, and police Buhari's image as a reclusive Muslim fundamentalist that provided fodder to his detractors, mostly Christians, who latched on to the way some of Buhari's supporters portrayed him to caricature the man as a fanatic.
Paradoxically, then, both his fanatical supporters and fanatical detractors reinforced one another and bolstered the charged, contested rhetoric that Buhari was a Muslim extremist. In truth, Buhari has always been a typical Fulani or Hausa Muslim, devout but not fanatical. Moreover, he was a soldier. As someone who has lived in an army barracks, I can say without equivocation that you cannot be a soldier, live in the barracks, or command troops and harbor intolerance towards people of other religions or insist on a fundamentalist religious ethos.
A fanatical Buhari would never have survived the debauched environment of the army, where drunkenness, prostitution, fornication, and other vices condemned by both Islam and Christianity are practiced openly by officers and other ranks. It takes a remarkable capacity for religious tolerance to thrive in the Nigerian army. In fact, I always say that the army is an incubator of religious tolerance, and that, unless things have recently changed, it is probably the most effective institutional teacher of tolerance in Nigeria. None of the Muslims that I knew in the barracks hated their fellow soldiers or condemned them for eating pork, drinking alcohol, or committing other harams, let alone berate fellow Muslims for drinking, womanizing, or frolicking with women.
When I was an undergraduate at Bayero University, Kano, I was friends with the son of a high ranking army officer who was also the chief imam of one of the major army divisions. My friend’s mannserisms and associations did not betray him as the son of a learned Muslim cleric. In fact I did not even know he was a Muslim let alone the son of an imam until I got to know him up close. He was a barracks boy and behaved like one. He was a cosmopolitan son of an army officer, socialized in the multiethnic and multireligious ethos of barracks life, the same religiously diverse and tolerant life that Buhari, like other army officers, would have lived daily in the barracks.
The president-elect's former handlers did the man a disservice through several election cycles. Instead of challenging the parochial religious constructions of the man by some of his more fanatical followers in the North, they embraced the falsely packaged image and sought to sell him to the rest of the country in that garb. Whether out of loyalty or deference to his team or political naivety or an instinctive pander to the base, Buhari didn't do much to challenge his handlers on this. In fact he mistakenly played the script they had prepared for him a few times, compounding and confirming the image for those already primed to believe the myth, and giving more ammo to both his detractors and fanatical supporters to continue to cast him to different audiences in the mold in which they preferred to see him.
I have it on good authority that it took the intervention of people like Kaduna State governor-elect Nasir el-Rufai to unleash the real Buhari, to free him from the parochial religious pigeonhole his handlers and fanatical supporters had put him in. When the real Buhari emerged, he was refreshing to behold, a far cry from the image cultivated among his loud, fanatical supporters; he belied the caricature of a close-minded religious bigot who could not function in secular, cosmopolitan settings. After a few awkward introductory outings, he mixed and mingled freely and comfortably in cultural settings in which he was expected to be out of place. The pressure to pander was off, and the Buhari seemed to genuinely enjoy himself on the national campaign trail and in the social circuits and festive, party atmosphere that routinely marked APC events.
Although it would have been perfectly acceptable if his well-known incorruptibility was grounded in his faith, when the liberated Buhari talked about corruption and other ethical issues, he rarely even referenced a religious moral canon or prescription. What's more, unleashed publicly as part of his political campaign for the first time, his wife, Aisha, did not look like the wife of a Muslim fanatic. She was urbane, approachable, easygoing, and relatable to people of all religions and ethnicities.
Buhari's new handlers also unveiled his well-educated daughter, Zahra, who also did not fit the caricature advanced by those who believed or expected Buhari to be the kind of Muslim they had imagined him to be, either out of religious affection or sheer hatred. These were game-changing decisions that liberated Buhari from those who had, in their zeal to define him, put him in an awkward Hausa-Fulani Muslim box and expected him to play the script and fulfil all their unorthodox Muslim expectations.
Buhari’s old handlers had kept these two electoral assets hidden from public view during previous campaigns because they did not want to offend some of his fanatical supporters who believe that women should not have a visible public political role. We will never know for sure if this effort to conform to some puritanical theological view of women’s position in society affected Buhari’s chances in previous elections, but we know now that his wife and daughter would have helped to broaden his appeal beyond his northern Muslim base.
As a historian, I believe that when the story of Buhari's ascent to the presidency is fully written, his wife Aisha and daughter Zahra will or should feature prominently as those who changed the reputational narrative and image of Buhari. Along with Buhari's own social engagements in Southern Nigerian Christian circles and his willingness to be seen in places, occasions, companies, and sartorial garbs that his fanatical Muslim supporters would disapprove, the decision to show his family as they truly are and damn the grumbling of Muslim extremists in the North solidified his appeal and made the hate campaign against him ineffective.
It really should not have been that way. His former handlers and the fanatical Muslim supporters now accusing him of breaking an Islamic code of gendered conduct should simply have seen the old, widely circulating family photograph from Buhari's army days (we have all seen it), a photograph that, quite frankly, looks like that of a very secular Muslim or Christian family.
Had his former handlers stuck to the image projected in the photo and allowed Buhari to be himself, we would not be having this discussion about forbidden handshakes because his present Muslim critics would have known long ago that the man does not fit their warped, narrow image of a good Muslim man or of a defender of Islam. They would have consequently given up on trying to (re)claim Buhari as model of Islamic piety. If the real Buhari had been allowed to authentically flourish perhaps he might even have won the presidency sooner.
Moses Ochonu is Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org