Although Buhari himself isn’t a deeply religious person, his open, full-throated but politically motivated (some would say opportunistic) support for Sharia (at a time no other former president of northern Nigerian Muslim extraction was willing to do so) caused him to be wildly popular among northern Muslim masses and the conservative clerical elite of the region.
Now, Islamic clerics in the north preach that Buhari is divinely ordained to be president and that criticism of his policies amounts to blasphemy. That’s why northern Muslim critics of Buhari like me are seen as heretics—or, worse, not even Muslim at all. I recall a northern Nigerian university teacher and foreign-based PhD student exclaiming “SubhaanAllaah!” when I first shared my criticism of Buhari with him during a WhatsApp chat. He was so distraught you would think I committed blasphemy. So it isn’t just northern Nigerian Muslim masses that literally worship Buhari.
Given the oversized influence of Islamic clerics in shaping public opinion in Muslim northern Nigeria, no amount of logic, evidence-based reasoning, economic hardship, etc. will make the littlest dent on Buhari’s popularity in the Muslim north.
In his widely shared articled titled, “Advice On Buhari Media Centre,” Dr. Aliyu Tilde beautifully captured the complicity of the conservative northern Nigerian Muslim clerical establishment in the deification of President Buhari.
“The same thing applies to religious leaders who are invited to the villa (by the President, said one of them) for the same purpose of propaganda,” Dr. Tilde wrote. “They return and tell their followers all sorts of stories that they have met an angel there and witnessed miracles at the foot of Sinai. I just heard a Whatsapp audio of one of them from Sokoto who was telling his followers, amidst Allahu Akbar, this kind of stories: Buhari ya yi kira. Kuna ga sai a zauna?…kun san da Nijeriya ba ta da uba. Yanzu na tai uba. Na je villa, na ga abin ban mamaki… What a shame.”
It’s interesting that Buhari was particularly unpopular with the northern Nigerian Muslim clerical establishment in the 1980s. He was resented for a number of reasons. His wife then, as now, made sartorial choices that didn’t conform to the clerics’ expectations of a Muslim woman. Buhari also banned open-air preaching, stopped/drastically reduced state sponsorship of Hajj, and forbade the building of new Jumu’ah mosques without the permission of emirate councils.
This put him at odds with Muslim clerics, particularly the emergent Izala sect, which now enjoys hegemony in northern Nigeria. Sheikh Abubakar Mahmood Gumi, in fact, said during a preaching session that “Allah will not forgive the regimes of Shagari and that of Buhari because they blocked the way of Allah.”
Fast-forward to the 2000s and Buhari’s support for Sharia when it wasn’t politically wise to do so, especially by a former head of state, set the stage for his deification and worship by a clerical elite that a generation ago invoked curses on him. In a way, Buhari is reaping the “benefits” of the choices he made in 2001.
Now millions of people in the Muslim north would rather die than withhold support for Buhari, however much his government’s policies, or lack thereof, smolder them. Support for Buhari in the Muslim north isn’t just politics; it’s now religion. There is no precedent for this in Nigeria’s history.