Nigeria’s New President Is No Messiah, But He Is Showing Potential

Nigeria’s New President Is No Messiah, But He Is Showing Potential
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari

AFRICANGLOBE – It will be 100 days since Muhammadu Buhari took on arguably the most important job in Africa on Sunday: the presidency of Nigeria, the most populous nation and largest economy on the continent.

Expectations were huge after Buhari’s inauguration, which followed a hard-fought election victory over former president Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari, a tough-talking ex-general with a reputation for incorruptibility, was viewed by many Nigerians as an almost messianic figure who would rescue the country from its kleptocratic ruling elite and crush Boko Haram, the homegrown jihadi group responsible for thousands of deaths in recent years. Does the first lap of Buhari’s presidency suggest this confidence was justified?

Buhari appears determined to halt the systematic looting of Nigeria. He has initiated reforms in the country’s state-owned oil company, NNPC, widely considered a black hole of corruption, launched financial investigations of public officials and vowed that those who are accused of looting billions of dollars under the Jonathan administration will be prosecuted in the coming months. He has also started a campaign to recover some of the country’s stolen wealth, most of which has been transferred to Western banks, securing assurances of cooperation from the US and UK among others. An August survey showed 95% of Nigeriansback Buhari’s anti-corruption efforts.

The new president has been less convincing in dealing with Boko Haram. Though Buhari launched his presidency with a flurry of diplomatic activity, including a trip to the White House to mobilise support for the battle against the Islamic extremists, his government is now sending mixed signals on its strategy towards them. While campaigning for president, Buhari vowed to “crush” Boko Haram, dismissing offhand any suggestions of negotiation with the group. Yet last month, his spokesperson, Femi Adesina, said if Boko Haram “opt for negotiation, the government will not be averse to it”, arguing that the US has, after all, negotiated with the Taliban. This would appear a most extraordinary about-turn.

Could it be a strategy aimed at fostering divisions within Boko Haram’s ranks between those determined to fight to the death and those who may be getting battle weary? Or has Buhari, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt by the group last year, seen the reality on the ground and stopped believing it’s feasible to defeat the group by military means? Meanwhile, Boko Haram have actually ramped up their attacks since Buhari took over, killing more than 700 people since May. Improvement on the security front is thus yet to materialise.

Dangerously for Buhari, and Nigeria, the grumbling over the ethnic composition of his political appointments so far has been growing louder. The complaint is that the overwhelming majority of the significant positions Buhari has filled have gone to people from northern Nigeria, from where he hails. This may seem a trivial or even parochial concern to the western reader, but maintaining a sense of equity in representation among Nigeria’s diverse ethnic nationalities is not an issue to be scoffed at. In a country where ethnic grievances led to a civil war (1967-70) that claimed more than a million lives, every head of state must be particularly sensitive to perceptions of ethnic favouritism or marginalisation.

Naturally, complaints of exclusion are loudest among the political elites of groups underrepresented in Buhari’s appointments, those who are unhappy with their lack of access to power and privilege. The average Nigerian is less bothered about which region or ethnic group the new army head or presidential chief of staff happens to be from. They just want to see improvements in their daily lives. But Buhari cannot ignore the reality that frustrated elites can be very effective in persuading others that they are the victims of group discrimination, often using arguments along the lines of: “Yes, appointments should be on merit but is the government claiming none of the millions of people from our neglected region is qualified for those positions?” Right now, Buhari is supplying ethnic jingoists with unnecessary ammunition and he should take steps to rectify that before the complaints of a few become the perception of many.

He also needs to be savvier in dealing with a factious national assembly whose support he will need to enact some of the energy sector and other reforms Nigeria desperately needs. Buhari seems distasteful of the backroom dealings with unsavoury characters that effective politics often requires. But he can’t expect to reform Nigeria and come out smelling of roses. He must be ready to make difficult compromises on the road ahead. Otherwise, the “change” he promised in his campaign will remain simply rhetoric.

For now, Buhari remains popular, with the most recent poll giving him a 69% approval rating. What I find most encouraging about his first months in power is that he is the first Nigerian president in my lifetime that doesn’t seem to be in the job for the money and the ego trip. His discipline and dedication – some of his young staffers reportedly have trouble keeping up with the 72-year-old’s 18-hour daily schedule – and readiness to go up against the powerful interest groups that have been holding the country hostage, have given the people of Nigeria warranted hope that this time, this government will be different.

Buhari is no messiah, but he has shown he has the potential to steer Nigeria towards the path required for it to one day emerge as the indisputable success story its citizens and the rest of Africa need it to be.


By: Remi Adekoya