Crown of thorns

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Muhammadu Buhari after he was declared the winner of the presidential election in Abuja on February 27. Photo: Bayo Omoboriowo/Nigeria State House/AP

Supporters of Buhari in Yola, Adamawa State, celebrating his victory. Photo: Sunday Alamba/AP

Atiku Abubakar, the PDP’s presidential candidate and main opposition leader, leaving a polling station with his wife Amina Titilayo Atiku-Abubakar after they cast their votes on February 23. Photo: Luis TATO/AFP

President Muhammadu Buhari beats anti-incumbency feelings to win a second term, but the state of the economy and the law and order situation in the country mean that he is facing a tumultuous four years.

As expected, 76-year-old Muhammadu Buhari, the incumbent President of Nigeria, easily won a second term in office in the controversy-scarred general election held on February 23. The election was originally scheduled to be held a week earlier but was postponed at the eleventh hour by the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Ballot papers and boxes had not reached many parts of the country and many of the electronic voting machines had technical problems. The ruling party and the opposition accused one another of using the INEC to influence voter turnout. Many Nigerians who had gone to the areas where their names were registered as voters had to return to where they now live and work and could not cast their votes.

The voter turnout was only 35.6 per cent this time compared with 44 per cent in the 2015 presidential election. There were incidents of violence on election day in which 39 people were killed, and scattered cases of ballot snatchings and other irregularities were reported. The European Union said that the election was marred by “serious operational shortcomings”. The opposition as of now has refused to accept the results and is threatening to take legal recourse.

Just weeks before the election, President Buhari sacked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, on charges of corruption. The opposition alleged that the move was dictated by political considerations connected to the election. The spokesman for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, described the dismissal of the Chief Justice “as an attempted coup d’etat against democracy”.

All the controversies, however, did not ultimately help the opposition. Buhari’s reputation for incorruptibility and as a long-time crusader against graft in Nigerian politics remained intact despite his lacklustre four years in office. After more than three tense days of counting during which unfounded rumours of malfeasance by the INEC proliferated, Buhari was declared the winner. He got around 56 per cent of the votes polled. His main opponent, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, got 41 per cent of the votes. There were 73 candidates in all on the ballot.

Abubakar was quick to reject the results, saying that it was a “sham election” and Buhari’s victory was a “statistical impossibility”. He criticised the “militarisation of the election process”. As evidence he pointed to the high polling in areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency which went in favour of the incumbent President and the ruling All Progressives Congress. The Boko Haram and some other groups in the oil-producing Delta region and the southern part of the country had given calls for a boycott of the election.

Observers of the West African political scene had predicted a much tighter contest as many of Buhari’s political allies, who are influential power brokers in Nigerian politics, had deserted him. Many questions were raised about his health. During his last term, Buhari was absent from the country for long periods of time while undergoing treatment abroad for an undisclosed ailment. Last year, he was away in England for four months at a stretch for treatment. In December, the President had to issue a statement to dispel rumours that he was no more and that a body double from Sudan was impersonating him. The economy under his watch performed badly for a variety of reasons. Nigeria is one of the world’s biggest oil exporters and has suffered because of the continuing lull in the global demand for oil. Although the Nigerian economy is Africa’s biggest, globally it is the country that has the largest number of people living in extreme poverty.

Boko Haram insurgency

The Boko Haram insurgency seems to have once again gained traction in the north-east of the country after the military had eradicated the group from towns and villages there. In December, widespread clashes between the Nigerian military and insurgent groups displaced more than 30,000 people, who sought shelter in makeshift camps in Maiduguri, Borno State. The United Nations has described the situation as “a humanitarian tragedy”. Buhari won the election four years ago on the pledge of eradicating the Boko Haram and rescuing all the schoolgirls the group kidnapped from Chibok five years ago. More than a hundred of the girls are still unaccounted for. The Boko Haram has now split into two groups, one owing allegiance to the Islamic State and the bigger faction continuing its fealty to Al Qaeda.

Under Buhari’s watch, the country has witnessed more bloodletting in the increasingly regular clashes between nomadic herders and pastoralists known as the Fulanis and settled farmers in the central parts of the country. The Fulanis are Muslims, while the farming community is mainly Christian, which gives the conflict a religious and ethnic texture. The grazing land for the cattle owned by the Fulanis has shrunk as more and more Nigerians have taken to farming. Climate change and desertification have added to the problems.

Buhari also ran four years ago on the pledge of eradicating corruption. Although some progress was made during his first term, there is still a long way to go before most of the big fish involved in corruption for decades are netted. The opposition has alleged that the Buhari administration selectively prosecuted its critics on corruption charges while allowing those aligned to it to remain unscathed. A Governor of a State who is aligned with the ruling party was caught on tape accepting a bribe but was not prosecuted.

The President also exhibited his authoritarian tendencies, a hangover from the days when he was a military dictator. The Army and the police have been given quite a free hand under him. In November 2018, 45 members of a Shia organisation were killed while protesting in the capital, Abuja. They were demanding the release of their leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been in prison since 2015. Shia Islam only grew roots in Nigeria 40 years ago after the success of the Iranian revolution. Now it has millions of adherents in Africa’s most populous country. In 2015, the Nigerian Army brutally gunned down more than 300 protesting Shias in the town of Zaria. Buhari had then just taken over the presidency.

In January this year, the Nigerian military entered the head office in Abuja and the regional office in Maiduguri of Daily Trust, one of the country’s leading newspapers. The newspaper was accused of publishing a story about one of the Army’s planned strikes against the Boko Haram. Buhari had to personally intervene to resolve the standoff between the Army and the media. The paper in question has been critical of the lack of progress in the Nigerian Army’s campaign against the Boko Haram. There have been reports of millions of dollars meant for the anti-insurgency campaign being diverted to private bank accounts.

All the same, the conviction rates on corruption charges of high-profile Nigerians has seen a marked increase in the past four years. Among those prosecuted and sent to prison are former top military officials, judges and governors. There are reports that former politicians, Army generals and bureaucrats have quietly returned money they had siphoned off in return for immunity. The government has succeeded in recovering $9.1 billion of stolen money, though, interestingly, it has not identified the individuals who returned the money.

Diezani Alison-Madueke, who served as Petroleum Minister under the previous President, Goodluck Jonathan, was charged with diverting millions of dollars of public money into private bank accounts. The federal government has demanded that she return $153 million of stolen funds. The former Minister remains holed up in London and has now acquired a Dominican passport.

It was Buhari’s personal reputation for incorruptibility that helped him stave off the strong challenge by Abubakar, who had run on the promise of reviving the country’s faltering economy. His campaign slogan was “Make Nigeria Work Again”. Abubakar had promised to double the size of Nigeria’s economy to $900 billion by 2025 and also pledged to privatise the country’s petroleum sector and expand the role of the private sector.

Abubakar had parlayed his political connections to become one of the country’s richest businessmen. There have been many charges of corruption against him, but he has so far managed to emerge unscathed. The United States authorities started investigating money laundering charges against him in 2010 and for many years refused to grant him a visa even though his fourth wife is a U.S. citizen. A U.S. Senate subcommittee had observed that Abubakar personified the large-scale corruption which involved the funnelling of hundreds of millions of dollars into U.S. bank accounts. It was no surprise that on the campaign trail Abubakar focussed little on the issue of corruption and delved more into the issues of creating jobs and reviving the economy.

In fact, during the course of the campaign he managed to get the support of many prominent Nigerians. Some like former President Olusegun Obasanjo surprisingly endorsed his candidature. Abubakar had served under Obasanjo as Vice President, but the two had had a bitter falling-out. Obasanjo, one of Africa’s “elder statesmen”, justified his change of heart by saying that Abubakar was the man who could turn Nigeria’s economy around.

Obasanjo and Buhari were both military men who at different periods of time briefly ruled Nigeria as unelected military rulers. After Gen. Murtala Mohammed was assassinated in 1976, Obasanjo succeeded him to the presidency and ushered in civilian rule in 1979. Gen. Buhari staged his own coup in 1983, overthrowing the civilian government of Shehu Shagari. One of the first things the military government did under Buhari was to order the demonetisation of the Nigerian currency. The economy never recovered after that, though demonetisation was only one of the factors that accelerated the decline.

Improving the economy and the law and order situation in the country is among the priorities for President Buhari as he starts his final term in office. The economy has come out of a recession but unemployment remains high. Resolving the herder-farmer conflict will be a challenge. The jehadists in the north of the country remain a serious threat, not only for the country but for the entire region. To complicate the situation, the separatist Biafra movement is again raising its head, with a significant section of the Nigerian diaspora backing it. Buhari will be facing a tumultuous four years.