It’s an eerie paradox: an ex-military general, for the second time, has won the general election in the short eighteen years since Nigeria returned to democratic rule. Even writers and journalists who have been adamantly opposed to military rule, and had suffered its repression seem to have thrown their lot in with former General Muhammadu Buhari. So, what is going on here?
In a recent introduction to a collection of essays by a number of Nigerian scholars, Nigeria: What is to be Done, they described both candidates as perfectly unacceptable. For many, Goodluck Jonathan’s lackluster response and ineffectiveness with Boko Haram’s terrorism in the northeast of the country only exacerbated years of frustration with the status quo of festering corruption and the lack of any real change for common Nigerians in terms of improved infrastructure, education, or jobs. It is no wonder that General Buhari, on his third run for the presidency, looked so appealing. However, before we look closely at General Buhari’s appeal and prospects for Nigeria’s future, it might be important to ask some questions about Nigeria’s path toward democracy thus far.
As a historian, I can’t help but start the process of making sense of this path with a reflection on the twentieth anniversary of the state sanctioned execution of nine Ogoni activists – including beloved playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa – in 1995. They were killed because they dared to question, and raise international awareness of, the looting and environmental damage linked to oil extraction in the Niger Delta, a region that is devastatingly impoverished despite providing 70% of Nigeria’s revenues. Their execution was a harrowing climax of the brutality of what was by then par for the course under almost thirty years of military authoritarianism. The strength and visibility of the Ogoni struggle raised the possibility for other Nigerians to hold their government accountable, and this is why they were such a threat to the Nigerian state.
How can Nigerians develop the kind of robust civil society needed to establish its own democratic culture? In a country where most of the government’s revenue comes from extraterritorial, multinational corporate investments in its sweet oil, and where a good portion of Nigerians make less than $2.00 a day, what leverage does the average Nigerian have on his/her government? Who are its real citizens? The Ogoni Nine’s tragic end showed us most strikingly who the real citizens of Nigeria were…and still perhaps are. As I recall this potent example, I am wary of this transition.
It is worth noting that Buhari has tried multiple times to run before his success in this election. How can we make sense of a political environment that allows a man who was notorious for his brutality and aversion to democratic principles when he overran a democratically elected president more than thirty years ago, to contemplate – without any sense of irony – contesting for office again? In Nigeria, former General Olusegun Obasanjo, a popular dictator who was the first to hand over power to a civilian government in 1979, set the precedent for a born-again democrat to win office. Like Obasanjo, Buhari’s character and some of the actions he took as dictator made him a plausible candidate, especially when Nigerians had endured the clumsiness of Jonathan’s administration. Buhari made it his primary goal then, as it seems to be now, to wipe out corruption, a scourge that has plagued Nigeria for most of its life as an independent nation. That he left office without enriching himself increases his appeal. Nigeria, at the moment, stands to gain plenty from correcting this deep flaw if it is to embody the economists’ characterization of it as the largest economy on the African continent.
President-elect Buhari has a lot to accomplish in the coming four years. If he pursues his anti-corruption campaign, and he is able to bring discipline and order to a dysfunctional military (necessary in the fight against Boko Haram), as he has outlined as part of his agenda. His plate then, is already quite full.
We must also acknowledge a fundamental element in what just happened in Nigeria: we just had a relatively peaceful transfer of power from one party (which has ruled for the entire sixteen years since the end of military rule) to its opposition. President Goodluck Jonathan, to his credit, did concede graciously. For these things, we must be proud and cautiously optimistic.