In winning Nigeria’s presidency on his fourth try, Muhammadu Buhari, former military dictator and proponent of sharia, may have answered the Nigerian question: Is the big West African country more than a geographical entity—does it have a sense of nationhood transcending sectional and religious differences?
Buhari argued that the failure of the ruling party to defeat a devastating jihadist insurgency in the northeast while permitting incorrigible mismanagement to lead the country into economic ruin was not a regional or religious problem but a political one. Having secured a popular mandate in late March’s presidential election—even as his party won control of the federal senate—and with a strong showing by his party expected in the April 11 gubernatorial elections in the 36 states, Buhari should have a chance to make his case that Nigeria is at last ready for reform.
Although many observers assumed the race would go to the wire and even require a runoff, Buhari, at the head of the All Progressives Congress party, won throughout the north and southwest, losing only in the southeast, home of incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, and in the federal center of Abuja.
The landslide demonstrated a certain willingness to trust the process and accept alternation in power. Nigerians have matured politically faster during the past 15 years of democratic government than many seem to have realized.
Jonathan’s People’s Democratic party (PDP), in power at the federal level and in a majority of states since the transition out of military rule in 1999, ran a traditional campaign based on patronage. Jonathan himself played down regional and religious issues. He conceded early, mindful of the murderous riots that allegations of electoral irregularities caused following his 2011 win.
Actually, cross-regional majorities and balanced tickets are nothing new in Nigeria, a country balanced between Christians and Muslims. The APC vice-president-elect is a southern Christian, and Jonathan’s running mate was a northern Muslim. Jonathan was the vice presidential candidate on the 2008 ticket headed by Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim who died in office, propelling Jonathan to the presidency. Former general Olusegon Obasanjo, a Christian Yoruba who led the transition to democracy in the late 1990s and was the first PDP president, threw his support to Buhari during the campaign.
Austere, stern, humorless, Muhammadu Buhari is the quintessential African Big Man, with certain critical differences. In a country that became, to the embarrassment of most of its people, synonymous with corruption and fraud, he never enriched himself despite ample opportunities.
Buhari’s fellow generals, during the years of military dictatorship, were shameless in helping themselves to the state’s oil revenues. They cared little about spreading the wealth to their own states, mainly in the poorer north. But the politicians of the current democratic period have been no better. Yet neither dictatorship nor fraud seems to have defeated the idea that if the system offers a chance for change, you might as well try it.
You might try a tough old soldier, too, if neither younger ones nor politicians are able to put down mass murderers. Since 2009, an Islamist organization based in the Shekau area of Borno state has rampaged across northern Nigeria. As bandits cloaking themselves in Muslim jihadism, or as jihadist Muslims making use of traditional Saharan banditry, the Boko Haram, whose name signifies that Western ways are corrupt and therefore forbidden, appeared by 2014 to be on an unstoppable offensive—comparable to the advance in 2012 of the Ansar al-dine Tuareg, who temporarily gained control of half of Mali before French and Chadian troops wrested it back.
It seemed possible Boko Haram would seize Maiduguri (pop. one million), the capital of Borno state, in the new year. It claimed allegiance to al Qaeda, to ISIS; it threatened black Africa. At the very least, the insurgents would disrupt the elections, plunge the nation into crisis. Adding to the sense of impending doom, oil prices began falling in late 2014, emptying state coffers.
U.S. military assistance to Nigeria was suspended during the Jonathan years as a result of accounting scams and alleged human rights violations in the fight against Boko Haram. Buhari blamed the failures of the Nigerian Army and police squarely on the Jonathan administration, which he also criticized for the growing economic gulf between north and south.