In what surely has been the most hotly anticipated vote in an African country in many years, General (ret.) Muhammadu Buhari, who some thirty years ago ruled Nigeria with an iron fist as head of a military regime, decisively defeated the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan. The large and populous (175 million) West African country voted, and expects to see a peaceful transition of power, in difficult conditions — an Islamic terror campaign in the north and an abysmal economic crisis — which should be cause for at least some bitter-sweet satisfaction. The only words from the U.S., however, through the mouth of its highest diplomatic officials, are to the effect it better stay on the free-and-fair straight and narrow, or else. This rather sanctimonious — to put it mildly — attitude is reflected in U.S. press coverage, which has concentrated on General Buhari’s severe 20-month period at the helm in the early 1980s, while largely ignoring the lousy performance of Jonathan’s administration (and practically all its predecessors, democratic or military).
Such attention, or non-attention, to the Nigeria that is, in real life and present time, trying to take charge of its fate, is somewhat paradoxical, because there is a consensus in the U.S. media that Nigeria is the most important country in Africa. It is true that no one has ever demonstrated why this is so, apart from mentioning the population (biggest in Africa) and the oil (major producer). What remains unexplained is why Nigeria’s vast wealth has been of no evident benefit to 99 percent of Nigeria’s people, who put up with interminable lines at gas stations, shortages, and outrageous prices a the pump.
Nor, despite the attention lavished on Nigeria over the past few weeks of presidential campaigning, has it been explained why the Nigerian security forces, once the elite of West Africa, have been unable to… maintain security, and in fact have lost large swathes of the northeast, particularly in the northeasternmost state of Borno, to Islamist insurgents who call themselves Boko Haram. At various times allied with al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Boko Haram movement by all evidence represents a serious threat to the entire region, but there have been no investigative reporters probing why the U.S. response has been, basically, “Not our problem.”
Which maybe it is not. But in that case, why is the conduct of Nigerian democracy our problem? This is why it seems dissonant to read in every dispatch from Lagos or Abuja (Nigeria’s economic and political capitals, respectively) that Nigeria is Africa’s most important country, its biggest economy (with a tanking currency), and so on. Why it is more important than Burkina Faso, a hospitable little place in the same region (usually referred to as West Africa), or Botswana, a no less hospitable little country, not in the same region (it is in southern Africa), may be one of those mysteries that only the American foreign policy establishment understands.
When the campaign for the presidency got underway in earnest, Secretary of State John Kerry made a fly-by visit to warn Nigeria’s political class that if the upcoming presidential election did not meet the platonic standards that exist only in the minds of the know-it-alls in Washington who have been systematically subverting the American position in the world since the end of the Reagan administration, there would be hell to pay, or something. No one in Nigeria paid any attention to this petulant nonsense; Nigeria had problems more serious than whether it would pass muster with the striped-pants boys (and girls) in Foggy Bottom or the make-work zeros at the National Democratic Institute, or whichever helpless, hopeless crew was being sent over to make sure the Nigerians voted just like Americans.
Far more significant were the consultants hired by General Muhammadu Buhari. His party, the All People’s Congress, asked David Axelrod’s firm for help and advice. The hope-and-change team delivered, showing the tough retired general, or rather his campaign operatives, how to make use of all the modern gadgets that worked so well for Barack Obama in 2008, while at the same time maintaining, and projecting, the image of their man as the one with the old-school virtues, come to clean up the house the dishonest politicians had turned into a joint Boss Tweed would have been right at home in.
However, it does not seem, from the distance, that campaign gimmicks were decisive. Nigerians have lived under governments run by the party of the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, since 1999, when his Progressive Democrats (PDP), then led by Olusewon Obasanjo, himself a retired general, took over from the soldiers who, under a variety of leaders, had been running the show, to their immense benefit.
Fifteen years is a pretty good run, and more than enough to draw some conclusions. President Obasanjo concluded that the country needed a jolt, and threw his support to Buhari; several PDP bigs did the same, including a number of state governors. The conclusions a solid majority of Nigerians drew, as we learned earlier in the week, are that the PDP is a bunch of thieves, or at least is unable to bring under control the prevailing attitude of take-it-when-it’s-there. While taking care of themselves, the political elites have exposed the whole country, and in particular the states in the northeast, to a terror onslaught that has killed tens of thousands over the past six years and driven a million or more from their towns and villages.
President Jonathan banked on the idea that voters outside the zones of conflict did not care, and would vote for him because they had a better chance of getting a few crumbs (patronage, subsidies) from him than from Buhari, which may be true given the latter’s puritanical work ethic.
There is, in fact, some basis for the theory of politics on which the PDP based its campaign. Southern, western, eastern Nigerians — anyone not in the north — have their own problems. That these problems are largely the result of half a century of post-colonial mismanagement by civilians as well as soldiers is not lost upon the electorate, however. While southerners may well be less troubled by the violence in the north than by their own day to day struggles to get by, this does not mean they do not see in the security failures of the PDP government a reflection of its failures in every other area as well.
Muhammadu Buhari, in any case, did not campaign on the security issue alone. He painted the PDP as synonymous with corruption. Fair or not, it is a theme that works, because Nigerians see corruption every day, and monumental revelations, such as the alleged disappearance of $20 billion in oil revenue due to the state last year, whether or not they are true, are bound to take on a life of their own. A citizen who cannot report a crime without paying off a police inspector is going to believe that even if it is not 20 billion, it could be. Even if President Jonathan did not make half a billion dollars (U.S.) during his term-and-a-half (he was filling in for President Umaru Yar’Adua, who died in office, when he was elected in his own right in 2011), surely he made something in that neighborhood, people were likely to think, or why would he refuse to disclose information about his assets, or threaten journalists with libel suits for pursuing the story?
In the end, Jonathan was able to hold on only to his core regional vote in the southern states of the oil-producing Delta. In taking commanding leads almost everywhere else, Buhari demonstrated not only the quasi-universal disgust with the way Nigerian democracy has functioned, but he gave the lie to the facile cliché that the country is divided between north and south (and Muslim and Christian).
What next? The transition does not happen until the end of May. Presumably, Buhari will send emissaries abroad to plead his case: he is picking up the pieces after many years of awful government, and he needs help in the form of bridge loans to tide things over until some sense can be made of the federal government’s accounts and some frameworks can be put in place to let loose the tremendous entrepreneurial energy that is available and that too often has been deflected into nonproductive sectors such as credit card fraud.
If Buhari can convince potential Western partners, notably London and Washington, that Nigeria is viable and (at last) ready for work, he should be able to get, concurrently, help in rebuilding an army of which he once was a proud representative and leader. Demoralized and led by venal careerists, Nigeria’s security forces have watched with some embarrassment as those of neighboring countries, notably Chad and Niger, have broken the Boko Haram insurgency, retaking many towns in the northeast. (This was not from altruism: Boko Haram was extending its grasp and spreading its terror to Nigeria’s northern neighbors.) Now the Nigerians themselves will have to take over the long-term work of pacification and policing, while stomping on likely Boko Haram attempts to seize the initiative again. The President-elect, who escaped a Boko Haram assassination attempt last year, certainly has the résumé and the character to take over this job, but he will require credits for new equipment and, most important, fresh recruiting and training.
Tall orders on all fronts. The Obama administration, unsuccessful in so many of its foreign policy efforts after a term and a half, may find in Nigeria an opportunity to show that it can be counted on by people who want to be America’s friends and who want to be free.