Muhammadu Buhari has been sworn as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on 29 May 2015, after the historic victory over the People’s Democratic Party of rival and ex President Jonathan Goodluck.
The victory of Muhammadu Buhari has been hailed as a major turning point in Nigerian and African politics. For the first time Nigeria assisted to a democratic transition of power from the ruling party to the opposition candidate in an election praised for its order and clearness of results.
Buhari won at the head of the opposition coalition All Progressives Congress, an alliance of four opposition parties: the Action Congress of Nigeria, the Congress for Progressive Change, the All Nigeria Peoples Party, and the All Progressives Grand Alliance. Buhari obtained 53.96%, over 2.5 million votes separated him from Jonathan Goodluck and obtaining a landslide victory in the majority of states, except for the south, southeast and Niger Delta. The gap of votes was so wide that PDP and President Goodluck had to admit defeat, and even taking into account eventual irregularities, these could not have changed that outcome.
Nevertheless, Buhari is not new to Nigerian politics having first of all been one of the military rulers during the country’s long history of coups and juntas. He was Head of State between 1983 and 1985 and then candidate for four times against PDP leaders Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, and Goodluck since return to democracy in 1999.
Nigerians became aware of Muhammadu Buhari on 31 December 1983, when the then Major General overthrew the elected government of Shehu Shagari, in power since 1979, in a bloodless military coup. The military seized power once again, primarily because there was virtually no confidence in the civilian regime. Indeed, conditions had deteriorated so much in the Second Republic that when the coup came, it was widely acclaimed. Buhari had been director of supply and services in the early 1970s, military governor of Northeast State at the time it was divided into three states, and Federal Commissioner for Petroleum and Mines (1976-78) during the height of the oil boom. At the time of the coup, he was commander of the Third Armored Division in Jos. The regime of Buhari became soon famous for its bold actions: for the first time a military in power shows a clear hostile face towards the civil society and fundamental rights, and for many he put the seed of authoritarianism that will flourish further in the next juntas of Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.
Buhari tried to restore public accountability and to re-establish a dynamic economy without altering the basic power structure of the country, but it was in politics that his action was ruthless. All political parties were banned and dissolved, the bank accounts were blocked temporarily to permit judicial enquiries on corruption. The main point of his policy was the war against corruption, with the hunt for those responsible, even abroad and culminated with the famous Dikko affair (an attempt to kidnap in UK, with the help of Israeli Mossad agent, an ex Shagari’s minister to face justice in Nigeria for corruption). In April 1984 were established special tribunals to find those responsible and be put under arrest and the ones that escaped abroad. No one was immune: a certain number of governors were arrested for corruption, important political figures of the previous government, included Shagari, were arrested while the Parliament and the Constitution were suspended. The government announced that there was no plan for a democratic transition and outlawed any political debate on the future of the federation. Constraints were placed on various groups and associations.
As a further attempt to mobilize the country, Buhari launched a War Against Indiscipline in spring 1984. This national campaign, which lasted fifteen months, preached the work ethic, emphasized patriotism, decried corruption, promoted environmental sanitation, fight disloyalty to national symbols such as the flag and the anthem. He specified acceptable forms of public behavior, such a requirement to form lines at bus stops or civil servants who were late at work had to perform humiliating frog jumps.
In economy was decided to use oil to buy food, abandoning any industrial project and accepting the Structural Adjustment as the only remedy for rapid recovery and self-reliance. It was given priority to the repayment of the external debts, leading to drastic reduction on wages, budgets cuts for ministers and state administrations, privatisation for public companies, new incentives for multinationals. The regime attempted to crackdown on criticism with journalists harassed and many critics were arrested. The National Security Organisation (NSO) became the principal instrument of repression. Buhari introduced the some infamous decrees: the number four forbade any journalist from reporting information considered embarrassing to any government official whilst The State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree Number Two gave the Chief of Staff at Supreme Headquarters the power to detain for up to six months without trial anyone considered a security risk. Special military tribunals increasingly replaced law courts and followed further restrictions: trade union ban, detention for trade union leaders, critics, students and journalists, any organisation or popular activities was harassed or repressed. Despite the increased efficiency with which Buhari and his associates tackled the national crisis, the regime’s inflexibility caused discontent, especially within the army apparatus and will materialise in a coup led by Major General Babangida and Brigadier Sani Abacha to oust Buhari and continuing the long history of military regimes until 1999.
Nevertheless, Buhari’s legacy of those years split Nigerians over the judgement of his figure: uncompromising, ruthless, incorruptible, disciplinarian, authoritarian, determined and a strong leader. Those who followed him as a politician appreciated his qualities above against the new corruptible system represented by the PDP. Those who dislike him accuse Buhari of poor human rights records, his questionable appetite for democracy, authoritarian tendencies and a divisive figure over ethnic and religious affairs. The election of 2015 proved stronger than all these objections.
If the above paradigm ensured PDP victories in series from 1999 to 2011, the tide started to change in the last presidency of Jonathan Goodluck. PDP was built as a formidable electoral machine, rich, powerful, backed by prominent businessmen and the always important lobby of retired generals who manipulated Nigeria’s politics in the past. PDP was so efficient and able to win easily every election that can be considered a sort of Nigerian version of the Mexican PRI, made to govern 70 years. But recent cases of corruption scandals, failing leadership after the stronger years of Olusegun Obasanjo, increasing security threats from Boko Haram and inability of the government to get hold of the interest of the federation, raised questions inside the PDP before the society. Obasanjo tearing apart his PDP card was more than a symbolic gesture, it was an actual end of a mighty machine, several governors changed attitude toward Buhari defecting and joining APC (those of Rivers, Adamawa, Kano, Jigawa and Kebbi), and the same Obasanjo said about Buhari “would not be a good economic manager but will be a strong, almost inflexible, and a courageous and firm leader”.
Buhari in the past challenged lost election for frauds or recounts, but this time, when appeared that Buhari was actually on the verge of victory, the places changed. President Goodluck and PDP tried to stay in power launching a strong and powerful slander campaign against Buhari but at the same time this generated fears that an opposition victory would not be accepted by the ruling party, thus paving way for possible violence. Nevertheless, the Nigerian elections have been historical especially for overcoming these fears, the PDP party accepted defeat and President Goodluck acceptance was a duty from a Head of State to avoid disaster, or worst civil war, which gave huge credit to his figure. Nigeria showed great maturity and consolidation of its path to become a stronger and solid democracy.
However, is not all roses for Nigeria, as Buhari’s election also represents some limits of the current Nigerian political system where, for an example, an ex-military ruler is needed to change from the ruling PDP and open questions on the absence of new and younger political figures able to be identified as “national” by the population. Although Nigerians remember and are divided by the judgement over Buhari’s past, the overwhelming victory was a clear message for action, safeguard of the federation, end of the corruption cancer and especially to tackle Boko Haram in a more decisive manner than PDP has shown.
Nigerians cannot forget that, mainly in the past, several movements were often assisted or orchestrated by security forces to undermine civilian governments, able to create chaos but easy to bring back into order when needed. Boko Haram fell into this category at least until 2009 when a backlash from security forces lead to the murder of his leader Yusuf. Since then Boko Haram was lost of sight, let dangerously to reorganise underground and to become the movement that is today. Nigerians accused PDP and security forces of inertia and incapacity of dealing with the group, and the abduction of 200 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014 was an international humiliation that could not save President Goodluck and the ruling party from failure.
Whether Buhari will be able to achieve all this, it will be a matter of time, but at least one element is sure: the time of inaction is finished and, as per his tradition, Buhari will certainly act swiftly on the main Nigerian issues. The only problem will be to see whether Buhari will distance himself from the past and will use his quality of a strong leader/action man within the federal and democracy framework. The real danger for Nigeria could be Buhari exceeding his powers with consequences far more dangerous than 20 years ago. Nigerians know that and his enemies know even better.