Nigeria’s Anti-Corruption Vote

Buhari promised an end to graft and corruption. Now he’ll have to deliver.

Supporters of the All Progressives Congress rally as they celebrate the re-election of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Kano on Feb. 27. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of the All Progressives Congress rally as they celebrate the re-election of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Kano on Feb. 27. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigerians get very little from their government, but decades of political failures haven’t yet lowered expectations. Coming off one of the more successful presidential administrations since the country returned to democracy in 1999, they rewarded the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, with a victory that looks decisive by the numbers but feels far less so. A smaller number of people than in previous rounds opted to vote, and the new mandate sounds more like “OK, but do better this time” than it does “thanks and keep at it.”

Before addressing their concerns, Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) must await the results of a court challenge to the election outcome. His party won 56 percent of the vote in the presidential election held on Saturday and Sunday. The main challenger, Atiku Abubakar, running for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), took 41 percent and alleges rigging, voter suppression, and other irregularities. Meanwhile, voter turnout fell from 44 percent of the electorate in 2015 to 36 percent this time around, and the number of votes cast for long-shot candidates tripled to 3 percent of the overall vote.

It was the second election in a row that featured a delay to the original voting date and fatal violence at polling stations. Yet it was also the second in a row in which two major parties fielded a candidate who won a significant number of votes and for which an outcome was not obvious ahead of time. In the four previous elections since the current democratic era began in 1999, the PDP and its candidate were opposed only by small and fragmented opposition parties and figures.

Even if Abubakar’s court challenge is rejected, the process could diminish Buhari’s standing as a leader and Nigeria’s status as a young but maturing democracy. In January, he suspended the country’s chief justice, the person who would preside over any resolution of electoral disputes. And early impressions from international observers suggest this election wasn’t as cleanly contested as the last one.

Buhari was a military dictator in the 1980s, and his actions today look more suited to that kind of leader than to the head of a modern democracy.

Buhari was a military dictator in the 1980s, and his actions today look more suited to that kind of leader than to the head of a modern democracy, but the abuses of power that Nigerians seem to most care about are the ones that line the pockets of elites. And on that score, Buhari took office in 2015 pledging to combat corruption, and he won some important battles in the long-term war. During his term, the government recovered billions of dollars in stolen assets, and financial flows through government ministries and agencies are now easier to track, which makes corruption harder.

Buhari has also proved willing to go after prominent elites. The government has prosecuted high-profile figures such as former Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke and seized assets belonging to Patience Jonathan, the wife of former President Goodluck Jonathan. It also ended a monopoly over services at some ports that had been held by a company owned in part by several Nigerian elites. Abubakar was one of those with a stake and had once called it his most lucrative venture.

Beyond the anti-corruption campaign, Buhari’s administration proved adept at finishing what others had started. On his watch, several railroad projects were revived or are in process, and developers of private sector power plant projects that had stalled under the previous government got the final approvals they had required. In 2018, the government unearthed 690 shipping crates of electricity equipment that past governments had imported and then abandoned in shipping yards and has begun installing it.

Buhari’s predecessor, Jonathan, did not have as many wins to brag about when Buhari defeated him in 2015, but nonetheless both that campaign and the one just finished were primarily about the shortcomings of incumbents. Buhari’s critics mention his botched economic policy and his declaration of victory over the terrorist group Boko Haram despite the continued threat.

Supporters say the focus on his failures and not his successes is because of the Buhari team’s communications limitations. But even when it comes to the anti-corruption campaign, which is at the core of Buhari’s political appeal to Nigerians, it’s easy to see why negatives crowd out positives. Buhari may have pursued some wealthy Nigerians, but he is widely perceived to have also used corruption investigations to hurt enemies and spare friends. APC Chairman Adams Oshiomole touted this approach at a campaign rally in January. “Once you have joined APC,” he told the crowd, “all your sins are forgiven.”

Abubakar also has a history of corruption, and that’s clearly still on the minds of voters. His past includes transferring $40 million in suspect funds to an account in the United States when he was serving as vice president of the country from 1999 to 2007, according to a U.S. Senate investigation. And an alleged bribery scheme in 2005 may have resulted in a travel ban from the U.S. government. (It is not apparent whether such a ban was ever issued.) During the campaign, Buhari’s team dared Abubakar to attempt a landing in Washington, and this led to his hiring lobbyists in D.C. to address “visa issues.” Abubakar led a high-profile delegation that checked in to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., in January. He wasn’t the only Nigerian presidential candidate to show up that week at 1100 Pennsylvania Ave.—one of the long-shot presidential candidates was spotted dining there, as were two Nigerian senators and a member of the country’s House of Representatives.

But there’s been no sign of Buhari at the famous hotel. He paid a visit to the White House instead, in April 2018, after which President Donald Trump reportedly called him “lifeless.” Nigerians might agree—Buhari was tagged “Baba Go Slow” when he took most of a year after his election just to choose a cabinet. With one already in place this time, and without a currency crisis to deal with, perhaps Buhari can show more life in the battle against corruption, which Nigerians so badly want him to fight.

MATT MOSSMAN is an emerging markets political risk specialist based in Washington, D.C.

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