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Can a 72-Year-Old Former Military Dictator Bring Nigerians the Change They Have Voted For?

Some analysts say Muhammadu Buhari has truly changed since the days of his ruthless military rule. Others say his victory is simply a reflection of Goodluck Jonathan's failures.
Image via AP

The 72-year old former military leader Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), has become the first Nigerian presidential candidate to defeat an incumbent at the ballot box - a major step forward for democracy in the country. After five years of ongoing corruption, worsening security and widening inequality, the Nigerian people have delivered a defiant message. Their leaders can no longer afford to rule them poorly and get away with it. If they fail, they will be voted out. This development is a new one and is being hailed across Nigeria as a political turning point.


When voting day came, one of the major stories related to a hoary old election cliché: mobilize your base. Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the southern state of Bayelsa, in the Niger Delta, had hoped that by recording massive victories in his southern heartlands he could overcome inevitable defeats in the north, where Buhari is strongest. As it was, there was only a 37 percent turnout in the south-east, down from 67 percent at the last election.

Even in Bayelsa, which Jonathan won easily, there was dissent. Bokolo Nimiteinbofa, a disaffected voter, told VICE News in an interview conducted through the citizen journalists collective On Our Radar, that, "Although I am from Bayelsa, I chose to vote APC - I did not listen to the Goodluck propaganda about being a good Christian. I am voting APC because I believe they will bring a change. We are suffering with corruption. I believe Buhari can make us less corrupt."

Nigeria Reacts to a Historic Change as President-Elect Buhari Prepares for Power

Turnout was down in all the states Jonathan had relied on. The PDP alleges that this is a sign of vote rigging on the APC's part. But, as James Schneider pointed out in New African Magazine, another explanation could be the "increased transparency of the polls brought about by more effective management by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the introduction of biometric voting cards."


Overall, Buhari won 21 states, while Jonathan took 15 along with the territory of the capital, Abuja. Nigeria's two biggest cities, Lagos and Kano, both went for Buhari and the APC. As well as getting its base out, the APC was also able to reach out beyond regional and ethnic blocs. In a country of 170 million, with three major faith groups - Christian, Muslim, and traditional - and over 300 languages spoken, building coalitions is vital. This is what the APC, whose leadership contains a number of former PDP big shots who decamped to form the party in 2013, managed to do. They have also engaged with young Nigerians and social media in a way that the PDP has palpably failed to. As the social entrepreneur 'Gbenga Sesan pointed out on Twitter: "Social media doesn't win elections. Yet, it moulded opinion, helped create viral campaigns, checkmated irregularities, locked down results". Buhari reaped the rewards.

The West's fascination with Boko Haram often means that the group's importance is overstated, but at this election the militants' rise became a symbol of the government's failure to engage with growing insecurity in Nigeria, as well as a genuine and pressing concern for those living in the affected areas. Buhari, a former general, was able to convince the electorate that he would tackle this problem.

In the three north-eastern states that make up Boko Haram's base - Borno, Yobe and Adamawa - Buhari recorded crushing victories, thus confirming that Jonathan's decision to postpone the election by six weeks in order to secure the territory against the militants had backfired. Why, people asked, did Jonathan need six more weeks to tackle Boko Haram when he'd spent years not dealing with the problem? If it was something that could be sorted out in such a short period, why had it not been done before?


A day before the vote, Nigeria's army claimed to have "re-taken" Gwozo, Boko Haram's "headquarters." This news, too, failed to have the desired effect, being dismissed as a potentially misleading piece of propaganda. Revelations that the multi-national force tackling the militants is dependent on apartheid-era South African mercenaries have hardly helped.

But the military past Buhari has touted as a reason to trust him when it comes to Boko Haram is also a source of concern for others. Born in Daura in north-western Nigeria in 1942, Buhari was involved in a number of military overthrows before taking power for himself in another coup on New Year's Eve, 1983. The civilian government he replaced had come to power in Nigeria's first spin-doctored election. Widely denounced as illegitimate, the government was hated for stealing the vote - and for stealing state resources. Buhari's coup, then, was welcomed. Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential and an experienced Nigeria analyst, told VICE News that the current mood of jubilation in the country  was redolent of that night: "People were shaking hands and saying 'Happy new year, happy new government'".

It was as leader that Buhari's reputation was made and, though he may have replaced a hated government, his time as leader was hardly rosy. In the words of Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi, Buhari and his deputy, the late Tunde Idiagbon, "ran the country as stern, unsmiling, bordering-on-ruthless military generals. They jailed hundreds of politicians (a good number of them unfairly; such was the blanket nature of the clampdown), muzzled the press, retroactively instituted the death sentence for drug trafficking (resulting in the execution of three convicted persons), and generally presided over an increasingly stifling atmosphere."


Buhari's Singaporean-style "War on Indiscipline" turned the country into a parade ground. The military was out on the streets. People were humiliated. The policy, the legendary Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka wrote in his 1996 book The Open Sort of a Continent, reached "sadistic levels, glorying in the humiliation of a people in an exercise that was remarkable for its selectively regional application." But in the course of his anti-corruption drive, Buhari over-reached and uncovered malpractice in his beloved military. The military struck back. In 1985, General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew Buhari.

Now that he is back at the top, the question is how much Buhari has changed since those days. He is the first man to democratically unseat an incumbent president but he is also the second man, after his ally Olusegun Obasanjo, to rule Nigeria both as a military dictator and an elected president. Aware of these doubts, Buhari seems to undergone a very significant transformation, dressing not just in traditional clothing but in the more Western attire of the south and of Lagos, and stressing that he is a changed man. He has, in short, come clean about his past.

In a talk at Chatham House in London recently , Buhari spoke carefully but zealously about democracy, its rise and history in Africa, as well as its future on the continent. He said that the fall of the USSR had convinced him that "change could be brought about without firing a shot." The "global triumph" of democracy has turned him away from the idea of military rule. "It is an important lesson I have carried with me since," he said.


Patrick Smith, who has interviewed Buhari a number of times, said that he has "certainly changed since the military days. He's come back surrounded by a new generation of Nigerian politicians who are committed to reform and change." Even Soyinka is re-assessing. "My memory of General Buhari has become rather mixed up. Four years ago I certainly wasn't even prepared to consider the possibility of a genuine 'born-again'. But at the risk of being proved wrong, I think we have a case here of a genuine 'born-again' phenomenon," he told The Guardian. The Nobel laureate has suggested that if Nelson Mandela could forgive apartheid politicians then he, as a Nigerian democrat, can forgive a former military leader.

Of course, not everyone is convinced. One Nigerian analyst told VICE News that he thought Buhari's victory was merely an indication of quite how bad Jonathan was and that it was "a bit bizarre that the world is cheering a 72-year-old former military dictator." Ken Henshaw, who works for the campaign group Social Action in Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta, told VICE News that "the enthusiasm over Buhari reminds me of the enthusiasm over General Obasanjo in 1999. That quickly faded away. The same enthusiasm greeted President Jonathan in 2011. We can see how fast that got frittered."

Another criticism is that Buhari ran a campaign based on the problems of the Jonathan administration, rather than any particular solutions. "Buhari is not propelled by an overarching ideology that can be a catapult or a driver… there's a softness there," a source in the Nigerian energy sector, who did not wish to be named, told VICE News. His economic competence has also been questioned.


Faced with a choice, though, Nigerians have gone for change. Goodluck Jonathan's time in office was dogged by allegations of corruption, his reformation of the energy infrastructure in a country crippled by a lack of proper electricity production has so far been a failure and he blithely let the situation with Boko Haram deteriorate. Inequality and unemployment have risen. Poverty is widespread. The Niger Delta is held together by an unholy alliance of corrupt politicians, multi-national oil companies and local militants. It is a protection racket that needs to be broken up.

At Chatham House, Buhari said that "mismanagement, profligacy and corruption" have led to Nigeria's economic growth not benefiting the people. It was, he said, a "sorry tale of two nations" in which there was one economy "for a few who have so much in their tiny islands of prosperity" and another for those who have "so little in their vast nation of misery." Buhari's aim, he says, is to change this. His party's symbol is a broom. They will come in and sweep away corruption.

In this case, another political cliché applies: the first 100 days are vital. If Buhari can come in and quickly begin tackling corruption in the oil and gas sectors particularly, then he will have a chance of retaining the public's trust. He has said that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation's (NNPC) revenues will be publically disclosed and regularly audited and that any war on corruption will not be to settle old scores - something he was accused of in the past.

On corruption, his record is strong. As the Nigerian historian Max Siollun notes: "Pre-election promises to tackle corruption are routine in Nigeria and usually ignored because of an unspoken understanding that such promises will not be acted upon. However, Buhari's previous record on graft gives the impression that he means what he says."

He will need to mean what he says in order to tackle Nigeria's problems with corruption. For too long, political power has provided access to great wealth, something that has come at the expense of the majority of the people. For now, though, hope courses through Nigeria. There has even been some redemption for Jonathan in defeat. His decision to concede the election has been widely praised. At the end, he put the safety and harmony of the country before his political ambition. Had he gone raging, he would have lit a fire of violence. Instead, he urged those who felt there had been electoral malpractice to follow due legal process.

In return, Buhari told journalists and supporters that "President Jonathan was a worthy opponent and I extend the hand of fellowship to him… We have proven to the world that we are people who have embraced democracy. We have put one-party state behind us."

Nigeria, often thought of as the uncontrollable giant of the African continent, has shown the world that its democracy is here to stay.