Buhari Is the Man to Defeat Boko Haram

Tens of thousands of people have died in Nigeria’s war against homegrown extremists. But the country may have finally elected a leader who can turn things around.

People stand by the wreckage of a car that has been blown up by suspected Boko Haram militants in Nigeria's troubled northeastern city of Maiduguri on March 25, 2014, killing five police officers, while a separate blast killed three. The attacks were the latest to hit the Borno state capital, which is the epicentre of Boko Haram's brutal insurgency which has killed thousands since 2009, including more than 700 this year. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Before sunrise on the morning of March 28, Boko Haram militants entered the Nigerian town of Miringa and proceeded to set it aflame. Members of the country’s homegrown Islamic insurgency torched homes and shot residents who tried to escape. In all, 25 people died — victims of Boko Haram’s months-long effort to keep Nigerians from the polls and to overthrow the secular Nigerian state.

That day, tens of millions of citizens cast their vote in a presidential election that pitted incumbent Goodluck Jonathan against former military chief of state and retired general Muhammadu Buhari. For most Nigerians, the morning attack — just one of several that day — was an unnecessary reminder of what was at stake. In many ways the election was a referendum on Jonathan’s failure to bring security to the country’s north, where tens of thousands of people have died in the ongoing conflict.

On May 29, the new administration — Jonathan conceded to Buhari three days after the election — will inherit a war effort marred by graft, sclerotic government institutions, and an unaccountable security force. But the president-elect is not Jonathan. Buhari, a Muslim with an uncompromising governing style, may be primed to be a stronger foe to an insurgency that has blossomed under his predecessor’s watch.

Since May 2011, Boko Haram has killed over 11,000 people, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker (NST). (An additional 10,956 have died as a result of fighting between the movement and the security services.) The insurgency has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Despite a recent offensive ahead of the elections, the movement is far from defeated. Instead it has reverted to its earlier tactics of attacking civilians in public places with little or no security presence, such as markets and transport hubs, especially by using suicide bombers. Since February alone, hundreds have died in the conflict.

Many in Nigeria assume that a Buhari-led administration can reverse this trend. In popular lore, Buhari, who served as military chief of state from 1983 to 1985, is remembered as a strongman with an iron will. During his reign, he cracked down on corrupt politicians and led the “war against indiscipline,” which sought to bring a culture of patriotism and order to society. (For example, he introduced and enforced rigid sanitation regulations for the streets of Lagos.) Governmental corruption has fueled Boko Haram’s ascension. Despite a security services budget that approaches $6 billion (U.S. dollars), soldiers go unpaid and are sent into battle with too little ammunition. To no surprise, there have been mutinies. Nigerians hope that the ascetic, incorruptible military man will be well placed to combat the graft that feeds the insurgency.

Buhari may also have cultural and religious factors on his side. A Hausa speaker as well as a Muslim, he has long been highly popular among northern Nigerians; in the 2011 elections, as in 2015, Buhari carried every northern, predominately Muslim state. He is better placed than his southern and Christian predecessor to rally the moderate Islamic elites, who felt marginalized by Jonathan, against Boko Haram. These potential allies in the north could inoculate their supporters and dependents against the appeals of extremism.

Nevertheless, in charting a new way forward, Buhari faces formidable difficulties. The Nigerian military, especially the army — a body once regarded as a genuinely national institution above ethnic and religious considerations — is no longer the monolithic guarantor of the state. Since the 1990s, successive governments have starved the military for resources to reduce its capacity for coup-plotting. In the shorter term, Buhari will need to marshal nationwide political support to reform and rebuild the security services if it is to defeat Boko Haram. In the longer term, Buhari can’t simply rely on getting the military’s house in order: He will also need to address the social and economic challenges of northern Nigeria, which is dramatically poorer than the rest of the country.

To accomplish this, Buhari, who is known as reserved and cerebral, will need to demonstrate higher political skills than he did when he was military chief of state. Buhari the strong-willed disciplinarian must accept the compromises and deal-making necessary to win over political allies. In order to enact the necessary reforms to eradicate Boko Haram, Buhari needs the country’s civilian elites.

Some of these elites are genuine democrats who have uneasy memories of Buhari’s stint as military chief of state, in which he ran roughshod over the rule of law. His administration, for example, detained critics for indefinite periods without formal charge. Today, human rights abuses by security forces, including extrajudicial killings and torture, have helped to coalesce some support for Boko Haram among the civilian population in the north. However, in a moving February 2015 speech at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, Buhari argued credibly that he is a convert to democracy and the rule of law. If he can indeed make good on this campaign promise, it would go a long way towards regaining the trust of civilians in the north — not to mention that of the United States, which has been hesitant to provide robust support for a corrupt and abusive security force.

As Buhari takes up the presidency on inauguration day, his government faces a fundamental contradiction. He ran as a reformer, but the election of 2015 was no revolution. The problems that undermined Jonathan remain entrenched: Nigeria’s armed forces are weaker than when he was military chief of state; a culture of corruption permeates government institutions. Buhari must convince, cajole, and compromise if he is to make progress in eradicating Boko Haram — but, unlike Jonathan, he may be uniquely positioned to do just that.

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John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007 and as U.S. counselor for political affairs in South Africa from 1993 to 1996.