Nigeria’s President-Elect Aims to End Boko Haram
Africa’s newest elected leader is a former military strongman
The Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram has killed thousands of people, kidnapped school girls and allied itself with Islamic State. The organization is one of Africa’s greatest security threats … and was a major talking point in Nigeria’s recent presidential campaign.
Muhammadu Buhari won that election by promising to end the violence. Both Africa experts and Nigeria’s citizens believe he’s up to the challenge.
Sunday’s election was a historic event. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, the ballot box and not the military ousted a sitting president. Outgoing Pres. Goodluck Jonathan took the unprecedented step — at least in Nigerian politics — of calling Buhari to congratulate him.
Jonathan later publicly conceded defeat after the electoral commission published the election’s final results. Thirty million people voted and Buhari won by 2.5 million.
It will be his second term in Nigeria’s highest office. Buhari is a former major general who took power in a coup d’etat in 1984. A year later, another general overthrew Buhari and took power.
The embattled military man then decided to use peaceful means to approach the country’s highest office. He unsuccessfully ran for president in the democratic elections of 2003, 2007 and 2011.
Buhari’s human rights record is less than stellar. During his first term as president, he used secret police to spy on citizens, executed drug offenders and enforced harsh penalties for moral and ethical violations.
Students caught cheating on exams faced decades in prison.
“I did all those things you allege under military administration,” he told CNN. “Since then, I am a converted democrat.”
But that strongman image may have helped Buhari win in 2015. He made his predecessor’s failed approach to the Boko Haram insurgency a cornerstone of his campaign, and the stink of failure mixed with memories of Buhari’s militant leadership were an intoxicant to voters beset by violence.
More than 20,000 people have died in the fighting with Boko Haram during Jonathan’s term. Buhari, a former military officer and a Muslim hailing from Nigeria’s north — where the insurgency began — represented a way out.
He takes office on May 29.
“Given his roots as a northern politician, people suffering from Boko Haram’s violence will be hoping Buhari will make a priority of tackling the insurgency,” Andrew Noakes, director of the Nigeria Security Network, told War Is Boring.
“If Buhari chooses to do so, we could expect new funding, equipment, and training for the army.”
Buhari has already publicly promised to do just that. “Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will,” he said in his first public address. “We should spare no effort until we defeat terrorism.”
David Zounmenou — researcher at the South African Institute for Security Studies — said that the military and material aspect of Buhari’s approach to Boko Haram won’t be that different from his predecessor.
“There will be a difference in leadership and in strategy,” Zounmenou said.
Noakes agreed. The new strategy could see Buhari’s administration putting “more emphasis on tackling the underlying causes of the conflict such as under-development, political marginalization, and human rights violations,” he said.
Buhari’s military credentials won’t make the biggest difference against Boko Haram, though his insider knowledge of the country’s powerful security apparatus won’t hurt.
Instead, to make his presidency successful, Buhari needs to find an answer to Nigeria’s pressing social problems. Nigeria has Africa’s strongest economy, yet its terrible at eradicating poverty.
“After more than a decade of sustained economic growth, the number of people living under $1.25 a day … hardly budged from 61.8 percent in 2004 to 62 percent in 2010,” Nigerian commentator Zainab Usman wrote.
This is despite the country’s vast oil wealth. Usman holds the People’s Democratic Party — Jonathan’s party — responsible for the country’s dire situation. The PDP has been in power since the country’s democratization in 1999, and the economic situation has not improved.
Nigeria’s oil companies, growing telecommunications sector and widespread corruption have produced a wealthy upper class, but the majority of the country still lives in extreme poverty.
The Boko Haram insurgency, conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta and high crime rates all have roots in this wealth disparity.
During his short first stint as president, Buhari made a name for himself as an anti-corruption zealot. “He has the credibility,” Zounmenou said. “Of all of Nigeria’s former leaders who are still alive he is the least corrupt.”
In contrast, critics have accused Jonathan’s administration of widespread corruption, mostly involving the country’s Excess Crude Account. The account is a savings fund meant to help insulate the country from volatile oil prices. Critics say it’s missing $30 billion.
But Buhari’s election is also symbolic. “Since 1999, Nigeria has not experienced such a peaceful election,” Zounmenou wrote.
Despite the high stakes, most observers ruled the process to be largely free and fair. Jonathan’s immediate concession of defeat will also go a long way towards limiting the potential for conflict.
Nigeria has traditionally been a country divided between the largely Muslim north and Christian south, but Buhari was able to clinch a majority of the votes in most of the country, except the southeast and some federal states in the center.
“Buhari’s victory is likely to ease concerns in the north over political and economic marginalization, thus reducing the risk of a north-south split,” Andrew Noakes explained.
“But much of the south will be disappointed by Jonathan’s loss, not least Ijaw militants in the Niger Delta and southern army officers.”
Buhari himself has asked for some measure of patience from his people. “We are asking Nigerians for their cooperation,” he explained. “They shouldn’t expect miracles to happen a couple of months [after the election].”
But there’s reason — for now — to be optimistic. Buhari has called corruption and economic underdevelopment “even worse” than the Boko Haram crisis.
It’s true. Nigeria probably won’t stop the terror group without addressing those root causes.