May 31, 2015

Nigeria: Buhari Trumps Jonathan

Yohannan Chemarapally

AN electoral upset was always on the cards given the ham handed way President Goodluck Jonathan was dealing with the key issues of corruption and terrorism. But previous elections were marked by widespread electoral fraud and vote buying. Besides, in the checkered history of Nigerian politics, no ruling party was ever defeated since the country gained independence in 1960. Regime change was always effected through the barrel of the gun not through the ballot box. The man who won the elections that were held on March 28 was the 73 year old candidate of the united opposition, Muhamaddu Buhari. He 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 seventies and the eighties. Buhari led the military coup in 1983 which had led to the ouster of the civilian government led by President Shehu Shagari. That government, which had come to power after a decade and a half of uninterrupted military rule, had barely completed four years in office. Buhari and his fellow coup plotters had leveled charges of corruption and mismanagement of the economy against the civilian government. On the campaign trail, this time in civilian garb, Buhari was making the same charges against the government led by President Jonathan. The former General who has been a perennial presidential candidate since the restoration of democracy in Nigeria in the late nineties, managed to build a more credible coalition this time. Many of the leading actors in the ruling party – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), had defected to the main opposition party – the All Progressive Congress (APC) under the leadership of Buhari. The former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, now- a-days 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 recently resigned from the ruling party. The elections were postponed by more than a month and a half due to the law and order problems created by the Boko Haram insurgency in the north east of the country. By March end, combined action by a joint military force consisting of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, succeeded in driving away the militant group from many of the areas they had occupied. But this positive development during the run up to the elections did not bring any electoral dividends for the beleaguered Nigerian president. Credible reports that hired foreign mercenaries had played a key role in the Nigerian army's military offensive against the Islamist insurgent group, further dented the government's credibility. Buhari, during his short stint as military ruler in the 1980's had earned a reputation as a tough taskmaster, albeit one 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 launch his “war against indiscipline”. Nigerians were told to be disciplined in their work ethic and to abstain from corruption. He jailed many civilian politicians, including the former president on charges of corruption. In an incident which gained international notoriety, Nigerian intelligence officials abetted by retired Mossad agents, tried to abduct a former minister, Umaru Dikko from the UK. Dikko was the brother-in-law of Shehu Shagari, the civilian president that he had ousted. This correspondent witnessed “armed robbers” being executed by firing squad in the center of a town in central Nigeria. Under military rule then, even those attempting to commit armed robbery were summarily condemned to death by firing squad. But those Nigerians who stole millions from the government coffers with a mere signature never met the same fate. Most of the “pen robbers”, were let off after a few months in jail. Buhari himself was ousted in a coup by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Buhari's crusade against corruption was immediately put on the back burner and his successors went on a looting rampage. Gen. Sani Abacha, who had come to power after removing Babangida was among the most corrupt military rulers. Nigerians could have been influenced by Buhari's tough guy persona and his aura of incorruptibility this time around when they turned out to vote. Buhari, unlike other military men who ran Nigeria, conspicuously never enriched himself or his family. He is known for his austere life style. His military background was no longer much of a liability as many Nigerians felt the need for a strong man at the helm to tackle the serious security challenges being posed by the Boko Haram and al Qaeda linked groups. Vocal critics of Buhari, like the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, have now mellowed in their views about the former military ruler. Soyinka himself was once incarcerated by Nigeria's military rulers. The voting pattern showed that Buhari fared well in most parts of the country. In the three previous elections he contested, he did well only in the Muslim dominated north of the country. In this year's election, Buhari got 55 per cent of the votes to Jonathan's 45 per cent. Buhari has now shed the image of being the candidate of only the Muslim dominated north of the country. The elections this time have been described as being generally free and credible by both domestic and international observers. Bogus voting was curtailed to a large extent with the introduction of electronic software. Voting had to be extended by a day as Nigerians waited patiently in long queues to exercise their franchises. To Jonathan's credit, he had fulfilled his promise of ensuring fair and free elections. The opposition had feared that the ruling party would try all kinds of shenanigans to cling on to power, as had happened earlier in Nigeria and many other African countries. But President Jonathan was quick to concede defeat. To the pleasant surprise of his political adversaries, Jonathan personally called up Buhari to concede defeat and wish him good luck. He thanked the Nigerian people for giving him the privilege for leading them and stressed that he kept his word “to deliver free and fair elections”. Unlike in previous elections, there were no violent protests. In the Niger Delta region, where Jonathan received overwhelming support, there have been no reports of untoward incidents. The region produces most of Nigeria's oil and gas. The Nigerian economy still depends on hydro carbon exports for sustenance. The low price of oil in the international market since last year has had already had an adverse impact on the economy, further fueling the unemployment rate and inflation. Kudos are also being given to the head of Nigeria's Election Commission, Attahiru Jega. In the run up to the elections, he was criticised by both the ruling PDP and the opposition. The APC had alleged that he had ordered the tampering of computers to help the ruling party. The opposition was also not happy when the Chief Election Commissioner under pressure from the Nigerian army and security chiefs, postponed the elections. In retrospect, the postponement helped the people in the northeast of the country, affected by the Boko Haram upsurge to cast their votes. The army had sought the postponement to clear the Boko Haram from most of the areas they had occupied. Jega earned the ruling party's wrath when he insisted on using state of the art electronic voter card readers to check electoral fraud. Buhari urged his supporters to be muted in their celebrations, saying that the country faced huge challenges. During the campaign, Buhari was lavish in his promising many freebies for the electorate. But with plunging oil revenues, Africa's biggest economy has been adversely impacted. Buhari has said that tackling corruption and the terrorist threat would be his immediate priorities. Corruption, as is well known, has been endemic in the country since it gained independence. Some estimates claim that more than $400 billion have been siphoned away since 1960. Last year, the Governor of the country's Central Bank, Lamido Sanussi, made the claim that billions of dollars of oil revenues were missing from the treasury under President Jonathan's watch. Sanussi was removed from his post but the government did order an audit to probe the charges. The audit report has not been released but officials have stressed that the figures being bandied about were highly exaggerated. Buhari on the campaign trail had said that anyone who stole Nigeria's money would end up in the “maximum security prison in Kirikiri”. During his stint as military ruler, he sent many top politicians to the notorious prison located in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital. In the last couple of years there were some belated attempts by the government at curbing corruption but it was too little and too late. The Jonathan administration was particularly inept in tackling the Boko Haram, allowing the terror outfit to expand its tentacles to a wider area. The al Qaeda aligned group has emerged as a threat to the region, staging attacks in neighbouring countries. Since 2014, more than 7300 civilians were killed and 1.5 million people displaced. The Nigerian army failed to win many hearts and minds in their counter-insurgency operations. There were documented cases of rampant abuse of civilians by the armed forces. In many instances, in the face of Boko Haram attacks, the Nigerian army fled, leaving behind their weaponry and sometimes even their uniforms. Buhari has pledged to re instill discipline in one of Africa's biggest armies. The Nigerian army has played an important role in peace keeping missions on the continent.