April 29, 2021, 6:35 AM
In 2015, Muhammadu Buhari was elected president of Nigeria, a country sometimes touted as Africa’s largest democracy, if only in name. Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, whose major achievement during his tenure as president was leading the nation in becoming Africa’s largest economy. But Jonathan’s failures in national security—including the notorious kidnapping of 276 girls from a secondary school in Chibok in April 2014 by the terrorist group Boko Haram—proved disastrous for his political future. Buhari, a former military general, ran and was at least partially chosen by a majority of voters due to his promise to end security issues in areas of conflict, notably in the country’s northern region.
Seven years after the Chibok kidnapping, 112 of the girls are still missing. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported in March that since last December, more than 800 children have been abducted in the country, a majority in Nigeria’s north and northeast. For the kidnappers, called bandits in the country, many request ransoms, sometimes as much as 500 million naira (approximately $1 million).
A 312-page report recently released by the International Committee on Nigeria and the International Organization for Peace Building and Social Justice has detailed how Boko Haram’s offensive and attacks by Fulani herdsmen have left tens of thousands of Nigerians dead in what is tantamount to religious genocide and ethnic cleansing. Buhari, who is from the north, in a nation where its north-south split is erroneously used as a proxy for its religious and ethnic differences and tensions, has undeniably failed to keep his security promises.
Yet security is just one among this administration’s many deficiencies. Buhari has failed to expand the economy, reduce the country’s dependency on oil, and follow through on his anti-corruption pledges. Indeed, he may be presiding over the least effective government since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. Sadly, the current state of the country under Buhari was eminently foreseeable based on his political past.
On Dec. 31, 1983, Buhari was among a group of military leaders who overthrew the short-lived Second Nigeria Republic, led by the democratically elected President Shehu Shagari. After the coup, Buhari became the country’s military ruler, and by then, he was no rookie.
Trained in Nigeria, Britain, the United States, and India, Buhari and several officers undertook a countercoup that replaced one military general with another in July 1966, when Buhari was just a lieutenant. It was a response to the bloody January coup of the same year that triggered the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, which raged from 1967 to 1970. After almost a decade of prosperity in the 1970s following the horrors of the civil war, by the early 1980s the economy was in decline, partially due to the fall in global oil prices in 1982 and the country’s dependence on its crude production. It was on this basis, coupled with his assertion that the civilian government was corrupt, that Buhari justified the 1983 coup.
Yet Buhari’s military government was not only unable to turn around the dire economic realities, but his authoritarian methods were widely loathed among various classes of Nigerians. Citizens presumed to be security risks could be detained without charges for up to three months, his government banned protests and strikes, and he even jailed his critics, including the pioneering Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti.
In 1985, Buhari’s time as military ruler ended when another military general, Ibrahim Babangida, overthrew Buhari’s government in yet another coup. Thereafter, Buhari spent three years in detention in a residence under house arrest before resuming civilian life. He returned to public service in the early 1990s under the government of one of Nigeria’s most brutal dictators, Sani Abacha, as the chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), a government body that utilized the revenue from petroleum for the nation’s infrastructure and development programs.
While Buhari has in the past pointed to his management of the PTF as an achievement, an alleged 25 billion naira ($65 million) during his tenure was mismanaged or stolen, according to a report by the Interim Management Committee of the subsequent democratic government. With Abacha’s death in 1998, and the return to democracy in 1999, rather than fade into political memory, Buhari would contort himself into a new shape suitable for his endless pursuit of power.
When the All Progressives Congress (APC) party was formed in 2013 from a merger of three parties opposed to the nation’s then-ruling Peoples Democratic Party—which had won every presidential election since 1999—Buhari emerged as the APC’s front-runner thanks to name recognition and supposed experience. But this was after several attempts for the presidency. He had run in 2003 and 2007 as a candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party and in 2011 as a candidate for the Congress for Progressive Change party, both of which became part of the APC. In 2015, as Jonathan struggled to inspire confidence, Buhari advertised himself not only as the nation’s savior but as a “converted democrat.” Today, it is clear that he is neither.
After several decades aiding and abetting coups and then lusting for the presidency as if it were his birthright, Buhari finally obtained it and, for the past six years, has demonstrated what most right-thinking Nigerians knew all along: He does not have what it takes to do the job.
His incoherent protectionist economic policies have sparked increasing inflation that, as of April, is at an annual rate of 18 percent, the highest it has been since January 2017. Under Buhari, in 2018, Nigeria overtook India as the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty. As of last year, that meant 40 percent of the population—82 million Nigerians—was living in extreme poverty. Last month, Bloomberg reported that Nigeria would soon become the country with the highest jobless rate. In a nation where “jobless” is a joking reference to people who are not busy enough and therefore attentive to trivial matters, its connotation will surely cease to be funny moving forward.
Moreover, parts of Nigeria are no safer now than in 2015; in truth, many are less secure due to the government’s failures at combating extremism coupled with an increase in poverty. The state’s response to the #EndSARS protests last October that galvanized global support to end police brutality in the country was a reflection of the nation’s leader: Protests in the country were met with violence by Nigeria’s armed forces toward protesters and onlookers alike, and threats were made by state and city officials, as well as Buhari, who implied that such dissent threatened the country’s stability. And in the end, judicial inquiries set up to investigate the events of last October were little more than a charade that failed to hold perpetrators of violence accountable.
Throughout his time in office, Buhari has also sought to suppress the Nigerian media, including illegally detaining journalists. In 2016, when an anti-social media bill was introduced in Nigeria’s Senate, Buhari appeared to distance himself from it in order to keep up a pro-democracy image. But in 2019, when the bill was reintroduced after being thrown out on its first attempt, first lady Aisha Buhari came out in support of it. However, the president himself has remained noticeably silent on the issue, as the bill continues to be held up in the legislature.
Buhari has shown that he has neither the skill nor the courage nor the will to lead a country as complex as Nigeria. He also does not have the values. Buhari has long faced allegations that he is an ethnocentric and religious bigot for, among many reasons, his lackadaisical handling of the Fulani herdsmen crisis (he is Fulani); his decision to address a linguistically diverse nation in Hausa, a language predominantly spoken in the north; and, by his own confession after his 2015 electoral win, his admission in a small press meeting in the United States that he would address the needs of citizens based on how regions in the country voted.
More recently, many Nigerians have called for the resignation of Communications and Digital Economy Minister Isa Ali Pantami following an exposé by the Nigerian journalist David Hundeyin that revealed the minister as an al Qaeda, Taliban, and Boko Haram sympathizer. It is disgraceful that Buhari himself did not demand Pantami’s departure. Instead, the president’s administration released a statement that it was standing behind Pantami because the minister apologized, having previously said that he was young and did not understand “international events” in explaining away comments that endorsed the terrorist organizations. In truth, the minister was well into his 30s when he voiced some of these views.
Despite his litany of failures, Buhari remains both a symptom and a symbol of Nigeria’s failed political systems and political culture. After all he has and hasn’t done, he is still beloved by some and ultimately tolerated by many more. This demonstrates a deep rot in Nigeria’s democracy and exposes the country as one ruled by tired, unimaginative, anachronistic men whose thirst for power has delayed and deferred any real progress for generations. Nigeria is also a country so beholden to its divisions that no matter how well it is doing, decline always feels possible and, in Buhari’s case, imminent.
The question that remains for the country is one that all democracies must contend with: Are Nigerians ultimately getting the government they deserve?
In a country like Nigeria, given the discrepancies between the powerful and powerless, idealism is a fool’s errand. The political system is less a democracy and more an ode to oligarchy—a system in which some citizens get to exercise their human rights sometimes. In short, Nigerians do deserve better. If nothing else, because they have never truly been given the opportunity to participate in a functioning government run by those whose interests are not beholden to a sect or an ethnic group or a religion but to a people who—like it or not—will either flourish or perish together.
Buhari, who has certainly brought Nigerians closer to perishing, was never the person for the job. And it becomes clearer with each passing day, each reported failure of his administration, that the unknown future of his departure is preferable to this dreadful present. The next presidential election is in 2023, and heaven knows, in Nigeria, there are seldom ever good choices, but there are sometimes less damaging ones.
One can only hope that Nigerian voters remember this in two years. In the meantime, I am not sure the nation can afford to wait—in terms of its security and economic health, Nigeria is on the brink. Buhari can finally accomplish one lasting, good thing for the country: He can resign. And in so doing, he can finally put the nation out of its misery.