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Buhari: The making of a tragic hero


The Editor of the Guardian, Mr. Abraham Ogbodo

The Aristotelian perspective defines the tragic hero as being complete in all the indices of greatness, but lacking in an essential character trait that makes all the difference. This is called the tragic flaw in literary theory and criticism. But for this tiny character failure, which occasions the tragedy, the tragic hero will have arrived safely at destination in the great journey called life.

This was when tragedy was defined as the exclusive experience of kings and princes. That definition changed with the advent of the 20th Century American playwright and essayist, Arthur Miller, who made everyman (not only noble men) a tragic hero. He said since “tragedy is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly,” the common man could also experience tragedy as much as the king or prince. He eloquently proved this point in the Death Of A Salesman and in his other works to hack down the foundations of Aristotle’s Poetics.

In both definitions, something is central, which is the quest of man to attain perfection in spite of himself. The very nature of man places a limitation on him and what creates the tragic circumstances is the refusal of man to appreciate his own limitation. Perhaps, it would mark the end of time and beginning of God’s kingdom, the day man overcomes this innate limitation and obliterates the basis for tragic narratives.


This is very true of President Muhammadu Buhari, who has been yearning to build a great Nigeria since 1983 without appreciation of his limitation. The other thing about the tragic hero is that his flaw is hidden from him but revealed to his audience. Nobody however, is able to deliver help because the tragedy has been divinely programmed or so it seems to happen. Even so, I am tempted to keep God out of this so that fatalism is not made to replace existentialism and absolve man of culpability.

Man is still the architect of his fate. In other words, God has no hands in the flaws that today separate Buhari from accomplishment, much as he tries to drive the variables to a specific purpose. His is even unusual. Whereas in classic tragedy the hero is often pinned down to just a flaw, Buhari is almost boundless in that regard. As a character, Buhari does not yield to easy description. His motivations are complex. One does not easily understand when he is working for Nigeria and when he is working against Nigeria or working for himself or a smaller group within the national scheme. Prior to his grand re-entering in 2015, he had been declared by a quasi-national consensus to be pure in character. Supported by a highly efficient propaganda machinery, this position became unassailable. Not even the legendary Professor Wole Soyinka with all he knows about reality and perception could deconstruct the façade to bring out a deeper truth.

Every man is a product of his biological and environmental heritages. Buhari is not different. He was born ordinary but fought the opposing environmental forces to gain prodigious height. He had risen through the ranks and upheavals of wars and military coups to become military Head of State of Nigeria on December 31, 1984. He was retired prematurely in 1985 by the same circumstances that had created him. He returned in 2015 after 30 years of break to the same office. In pleading his return, Prof. Soyinka had dropped a memorable line. He said the intervening years, precisely between 1985 and 2015, had done something about Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and the memories of his (Buhari) first life 30 years ago would not apply in his reincarnation.

Coming from the Nobel Laureate, the proposition was good to take to the bank. Many Nigerians did except Buhari himself who, like a snake, only changed skin; from khaki to babariga, without changing character. The wine in him is getting better with age. This can be counted as his first flaw along the tragic path. That is, his blunt refusal to take Professor Soyinka seriously. He does not have a listening ear. And because he never listens, he hears nothing new and learns nothing new. He is fixated on methods and concepts and somehow genuinely thinks that Nigeria cannot be larger than the Sokoto Caliphate.

Flowing from this is the burning desire in Buhari to express power instead of authority in leadership. Power is crude and inflicts pains. It is unsustainable outside coercion. Authority is refined, inspiring and sustainable. Besides, power is fired by hate, intolerance, vengeance, selfishness and pride. It is about the only instrument in totalitarian regimes and because it suffers constant resistance, it aligns almost always with propaganda to communicate leadership to the people. On the other hand, authority is consensual, collaborative, builds and operates on love and requires no extra effort or help to communicate effective leadership to the people. Leaders who express authority instead of power protect the common heritage against hijackers.

Under Buhari, there has been a preponderance of power, which is why there is so much vocal effort by Lai Mohammed and others to communicate Buhari’s leadership to the Nigerian people. People see anger and vengeance instead of leadership. Whereas it is legitimate for leaders to be angry about the objective social conditions and seek to make things better, it is dangerous when leadership anger is tailored at vengeance and settling of personal scores.

Nelson Mandela left the Robben Island prison on February 11, 1990 very angry and hungered for political power in the evolving configuration to make a bold statement. But he never planned to seize leadership for the very narrow purpose of settling scores with his Boer jailers. He left vengeful anger behind in his prison cell and sought to move South Africa beyond the discriminations of apartheid to a Rainbow Nation where the freedoms of all groups would be guaranteed. As it turned, his factor alone saved post-apartheid South Africa from a civil war. He didn’t need more than this to earn his place as a world hero, not tragic hero.


Enough to say that leadership is more spiritual than it is intellectual. What manifested regarding the Madiba was a spirituality that took the entire humanity as a constituency even as the man fought back the intellect that might have pushed the daunting memories of his incarceration to the foreground of national discourse. You can call this the leadership spirit, which flows in good measures in all leaders that withstand the untainted judgment of history. And I feel free to say that what defines a man is a spirit that connects effortlessly with God’s purpose and not a huge intellect that rationalizes and seeks justification for hatred and every bad conduct.

As said, the tragic hero is helpless. He is simply himself and cannot possibly overreach himself in trying to achieve his purpose. His intentions are pure but that is in direct proportion to the purity of his spirit. His best efforts are challenged by what he may term inexplicable cosmic interventions, but which his audience understands as his flaws.

So it is today with Buhari. He is a great man doing everything to make a great point about leadership but nothing is adding up. Yet he is not able to fix what is wrong because it is not part of the privileges of tragic heroes to understand their flaws while still on stage. But who knows, Buhari may change in the real sense of the word and refract his fate. Otherwise, the rest of us can only pray for him to survive to sit among the audience and witness a postmortem at the end of the ongoing tragic performance.


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