Return of Buhari

The former military ruler is elected President as voters feel the need for a strongman to tackle the serious security challenges posed by Boko Haram and a disciplinarian to revive the staggering economy.

Published : Apr 15, 2015 12:30 IST

Muhammadu Buhari, momenets after he was declared elected, in Abuja on April 1.

Muhammadu Buhari, momenets after he was declared elected, in Abuja on April 1.

AN ELECTORAL UPSET WAS ALWAYS ON THE cards in Nigeria, given the ham-handed way in which President Goodluck Jonathan was dealing with the key issues of corruption and terrorism that were affecting the development of the country. Previous elections in Nigeria were marked by widespread electoral fraud and vote-buying. Besides, in the chequered history of Nigerian politics, no ruling party has ever been defeated in a presidential election since the country gained independence in 1960. Regime change was always effected through the barrel of the gun, not through the ballot box.

Muhamaddu Buhari, the 73-year-old candidate of the united opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) who defeated Jonathan in the election held on March 28, is perhaps the first opposition candidate to defeat an incumbent President. Buhari is a well-known figure in Nigerian politics. As a young army officer he had played a key role in the military coups of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1983, Buhari led the coup that ousted the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari. Shagari had come to power after a decade and a half of uninterrupted military rule and had barely completed four years in office when he was deposed. Buhari and his fellow plotters had levelled charges of corruption and mismanagement of the economy against the civilian government.

In the run-up to the March election, the former military ruler, this time in civilian garb, made similar charges against the Jonathan government. Buhari, who has been a perpetual presidential candidate since the restoration of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, managed to build a more credible coalition this time. Many of the leading actors in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) defected to the APC. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, recognised as an elder statesman on the African continent, was among those who became harsh critics of Jonathan’s style of functioning and his handling of the Boko Haram insurgency. Obasanjo resigned from the PDP recently.

The election was postponed by more than a month and a half following law and order problems created by Boko Haram in the north-east of the country. By March end, the combined military action of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon succeeded in driving away the militant group from many of the areas it had occupied. But this positive development on the eve of the election did not bring any electoral dividends for the beleaguered President. Credible reports that hired foreign mercenaries had played a key role in the Nigerian Army’s offensive against the Islamist insurgent group further eroded the government’s credibility.

Buhari, during his short stint as military ruler from 1983 to 1985, had earned a reputation as a tough taskmaster, with a strong authoritarian streak. This correspondent was in Nigeria when Buhari was at the helm of affairs. One of the first things he did after taking over was to launch a “war against indiscipline”. Nigerians were told to be disciplined in their work ethic and to abstain from corrupt practices. He sent many civilian politicians, including Shagari, to prison on charges of corruption. In an incident that gained international notoriety, Nigerian intelligence officials, with the help of retired Mossad agents, tried to abduct a former Minister Umaru Dikko from the United Kingdom. Dikko was the brother-in-law of Shagari.

This correspondent has witnessed a firing squad execute “armed robbers” in the centre of a town in central Nigeria. The Buhari government did not tolerate those attempting to commit armed robbery and summarily condemned the robbers to death. But Nigerian leaders who had swindled millions from government coffers with mere signatures never met the same fate. Most of the “pen robbers” were let off after a few months in jail. Buhari was deposed by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. His crusade against corruption was immediately forgotten and his successors went on a looting spree. Gen. Sani Abacha, who came to power after removing Babangida, was among the most corrupt military rulers the country has seen.

Tough guy persona

Nigerian voters were perhaps influenced by Buhari’s tough guy persona and his aura of incorruptibility, for, unlike other military rulers of the country, he never conspicuously enriched himself or his family. He is known for his austere lifestyle. His military background was no longer a liability as Nigerians feel the need for a strong man at the helm to tackle the serious security challenges being posed by Boko Haram and Al Qaeda-linked groups. Vocal critics of Buhari, such as the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, have now toned their views about the former military strongman. Incidentally, Soyinka was incarcerated by Nigeria’s military rulers.

The voting pattern in the March 28 election showed that Buhari fared well in most parts of the country. In the three previous elections he had contested, Buhari did well only in the Muslim-dominated north. In this election, he polled 55 per cent of the votes, which indicates that his popularity is not confined to the north.

The election has been described as generally free and credible by both domestic and international observers. Bogus voting was curtailed to a large extent with the introduction of electronic software in polling. Voting had to be extended by a day as the voter turnout was massive. To Jonathan’s credit, he kept his promise of ensuring a fair and free election. The opposition had feared that the ruling party would try all kinds of shenanigans to cling to power, as was always the case in Nigeria and other African countries.

Jonathan was quick to concede defeat, and to the surprise of his adversaries, he personally called up Buhari to wish him “good luck”. He thanked the Nigerian people for giving him the privilege of leading them and pointed out that he kept his word “to deliver free and fair elections”. The election was free of violence. In the Niger delta region, where Jonathan received overwhelming support, there were no reports of untoward incidents. The region produces most of Nigeria’s oil and gas. The Nigerian economy still depends on hydrocarbon exports for sustenance. The reduced price of oil in the international market since 2014 has had an adverse impact on the economy, fuelling unemployment and inflation.

Chief Election Commissioner Attahiru Jega, who was criticised by both the PDP and the APC, is now receiving praise for the conduct of the election. The APC had alleged that he had ordered the tampering of computers to help the ruling party. The opposition was not happy when Jega, under pressure from the Army and security chiefs, postponed the election. In retrospect, the postponement helped the people in the north-east of the country, affected by the Boko Haram upsurge, to cast their votes. The Army had sought the postponement to clear Boko Haram insurgents from most of the areas they had occupied. Jega earned the PDP’s wrath when he insisted on using the state-of-the-art electronic voter card readers to check electoral fraud.

Buhari's caution Buhari urged his supporters to be muted in their celebrations in view of the huge challenges the country faced. During the campaign, he promised many freebies to the electorate. But with plunging oil revenues, Africa’s biggest economy has been severely affected. Buhari said tackling corruption and the terrorist threat would be his immediate priorities. Corruption, as is well known, has been endemic in the country ever since it gained independence. Some estimates claim that more than $400 billion have been siphoned off since 1960. Last year, the Governor of the country’s Central Bank, Lamido Sanussi, claimed that billions of dollars of oil revenues were missing from the treasury during Jonathan’s rule. Sanussi was removed from his post but the government did order an audit to investigate the charges. The audit report has not been released but officials maintain that the figures being bandied about are highly exaggerated.

Buhari had insisted during the campaign that whoever stole Nigeria’s money would end up in the “maximum security prison in Kirikiri”. During his stint as a military ruler, he had sent many top politicians to the notorious prison located in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. In the past couple of years, there were some attempts by the government at curbing corruption but they were was too little and too late.

The Jonathan administration was particularly inept in tackling Boko Haram, allowing the terrorist outfit to expand its operations to a wider area. The Al Qaeda-aligned group has emerged as a threat to the region as it has been carrying out attacks in neighbouring countries as well.

Since 2014, more than 7,300 civilians have been killed and 1.5 million people displaced in Nigeria. The Army failed to win the hearts and minds of civilians with its counter-insurgency operations. Cases of abuse of civilians by the armed forces have come to light. Further, in the face of Boko Haram attacks, the Army fled the scene leaving behind its weapons and even uniforms. Buhari has promised to re-instill discipline in one of Africa’s biggest armies. The Nigerian Army has played an important role in peacekeeping missions on the continent.

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