New Nigerian President, Same Old Problems
Muhammadu Buhari talks a good game, but he’s already resurrecting the transactional, ethnic politics of his predecessors.
The dust has finally begun to settle. For Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, it was pixie dust, which enveloped and elevated him, along with the entire country, into an epic global spotlight that is only now starting to recede. The March 2015 presidential election marked the first time in Nigeria’s history that the ruling party stepped aside for the opposition, a story that graced the front pages and airwaves of major media outlets the world over. Buhari’s victory was framed as a new dawn for Africa’s wealthiest and most populous nation — a nation whose failure to curb widespread corruption and insecurity has been consistently blamed on the absence of strong leadership.
A little more than three months into Buhari’s presidency, it is still too early to say for sure what direction his administration is driving Nigeria. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that he’s driving too slowly. Initial efforts to sanitize the oil industry and deal with pervasive insecurity suggest that the president is at least still focused on pursing his main campaign promises. But the economy is in trouble, the ruling party is split into warring factions, and tribal tensions are brewing. If the first problem was inherited, the second two are at least partly of Buhari’s own making; his early personnel decisions have revealed that he is not entirely above the kind of transactional politics and ethnic favoritism that have been the hallmarks of previous Nigerian governments.
One of the president’s first orders of business was tackling the terrorist threat that contributed in no small part to his predecessor’s undoing. The Nigerian army’s headquarters was moved to Maiduguri, a Boko Haram stronghold in the northeast of the country, and the military’s top commanders were replaced — changes that some argue have helped turn the tide against the brutal insurgency. And there have been other encouraging developments: Better intelligence has helped the military foil potential terrorist attacks, rescue some of the civilians kidnapped by the terrorist group, and destroy a major bomb-making facility. Meanwhile, a five-nation regional coalition headed by Nigeria has succeeded in retaking territory previously controlled by Boko Haram.
Despite winning the new president plaudits, however, these achievements have done little to root out Boko Haram fighters and end the group’s reign of terror in the northeast. So far under Buhari’s watch, the body count has continued to rise, despite continued assurances that the military is wining. At least 1,000 people have reportedly lost their lives in terrorist attacks since the president took office in May, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker. Meanwhile, many of the individuals captured by the army on suspicion of being Boko Haram militants have ended up having no affiliation with the terrorist group. The military has also come under fire for massive human rights abuses, straining relations with Nigeria’s international partners.
Buhari’s efforts to rout out corruption have also been a mixed bag so far. In August, the president appointed a new management team for the oil industry, which reportedly loses billions of dollars annually to fraud, theft, and mismanagement. Recouping these losses would give the government a much needed revenue boost and stimulate the Nigerian economy. Yet the new administration has yet to articulate a clear economic and financial policy, a shortcoming that some analysts have attributed to Buhari’s delay in appointing a cabinet. For his part, the president claims he is still searching for men and women worthy of ministerial posts, a task he has described as difficult because so many qualified Nigerians have been “compromised.” “We have people, educated and experienced people, but everybody seems to be working for himself on how much they could get away with as soon as possible,” Buhari said in July.
This excuse has met with mixed reactions from a populace that is already impatient with Buhari’s delays, and could very well cause the president some serious political headaches if he fails to identify some “uncompromised” individuals soon. Not only have his comments had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the global misconception that Nigerians are mostly crooked, but the president has also set his potential cabinet picks up for an unprecedented degree of scrutiny from the opposition, which will be all too happy to point out when these officials fall short of the gold standard set by Buhari. As a result, the president’s appointees may end up spending more time defending their integrity than pursuing the crucial task of moving Nigeria forward.
Where Buhari has made appointments, he seems to be courting another source of trouble: charges of regional and ethnic favoritism. Key government positions — including the administrative head of the Treasury, the chairperson of the Independent National Electoral Commission, and the head of the Department of Petroleum Resources — have gone mostly to individuals who, like the president, are northern and Muslim. So far, of the 25 federal appointments he has announced since taking office, only 6 have gone to people who are Southern and/or Christian. In a country where ethnic tensions are always close to the surface, reactions have been predictably explosive. In southeastern Nigeria, the region that sparked the Biafran war in the late 1960s, calls for secession have again intensified as a result of Buhari’s perceived regional bias.
The president’s own rationalization for appointing more northerners has done little to assuage such fears. In a recent interview with the BBC’s Hausa-language service, Buhari admitted that his appointment choices had been doled out as rewards to those who stuck with him through the tough times, noting that this was the nature of Nigerian politics. “I have been with them throughout our trying times. What then is the reward of such dedication and suffering?” he said. The president was not wrong about the transactional nature of the system, but many were surprised to hear him explicitly endorse it after vowing to change the culture of nepotism that plagues every sector of Nigeria’s government. Buhari swept into power with lofty promises to clean up the country’s corrupt political system. How could it be that he was already contributing to the mess?
Buhari’s no-nonsense demeanor and claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it seems that his presidency will likely feature a lot of business-as-usual. And while he has promised to unveil a cabinet before the end of September — laid out like some sort of early birthday present ahead of the country’s 55th Independence Day celebration on Oct. 1 — his delays and willingness to dabble in cronyism may have already squandered the wave of goodwill and optimism that accompanied his election.
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