General Muhammadu Buhari was military ruler of Nigeria from December 1983 to August 1985. The shortcomings of his administration, including a failure to resolve Nigeria’s economic and political problems, resulted in his ouster in a palace coup. But Buhari remains tremendously popular in much of the North. Among many elites and ordinary people I talked to in Kano last summer, Buhari enjoyed a reputation for personal integrity and incorruptibility. He ran as the presidential candidate of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) in 2003 and 2007, officially receiving around 32% of the vote in 2003 and 18% in 2007 – though he mounted (unsuccessful) legal challenges to the results each time. Buhari quit the ANPP in January of this year, citing “fundamental and irreconcilable ideological differences between the leadership of the Party and myself,” and founded the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). On Thursday, Buhari declared that he will run for the presidency in 2011 against President Goodluck Jonathan (of the People’s Democratic Party or PDP) and other figures both inside and outside of the PDP, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida (whose recent actions I analyzed here). In this post I look briefly at Buhari’s message and potential impact on the race.
Buhari’s announcement included both attacks on his opponents and ideas for the future of Nigeria. Here is a look at the former:
Describing the last 12 years of the country’s democratic experience under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as a catalogue of betrayals and bungled opportunities, Buhari expressed his loss of faith in the nation’s judiciary, believing it had compromised and did not act independently in upholding the 2003 election of Olusegun Obasanjo and the 2007 election of Umaru Yar’Adua.
His words: “Our experiences at the polls are supported by credible reports from several independent, local and international observers and showed clearly that those elections were not transparent, credible, free or fair. Nor did they reflect the true will of the people.”
Recalling the judgment of the Supreme Court in the 2007 election, he said, “In the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it hardly conformed with the idea of justice and it creates the common feeling that the judiciary was not acting independently.
“This time, we are not going to court”, he said. “Democracy cannot survive if its operators refuse to play by the rules and those in authority continually conspire to subvert the system.
“Unfortunately, this country witnessed in 2003 and 2007 elections that were characterized by massive fraud, unprecedented in electoral exercises in this country.”
One could call this framing pessimistic – Buhari sounds as though he expects fraud to occur. And one could say that his words raise the stakes – Buhari sounds as though he feels this is Nigeria’s last chance to have a credible election. But if democratic politics in Nigeria cannot survive another flawed election, what is Buhari implying will come after?
At any rate, his criticism of the PDP is clear and harsh.
In terms of ideas for change, Buhari focused on the Niger Delta:
On the vexed issue of the Niger Delta crisis, he regretted that it has been allowed to turn into a full scale and sophisticated insurgency rather than the government proffering solutions to the grievances of the people of region.
According to him, “The situation has escalated from random vandalisation of pipelines, often dismissed as the work of hoodlums, to full scale sophisticated insurgency. They are well armed, have their website and established coherent communication network to both local and international media.”
Consequently, he said, “If elected as president, my promise is to engage the region’s people in dialogue. We intend to make genuine effort to tackle the problems of Niger Delta from the roots.
“The roots of the problems are corruption and the failure of the Nigerian elite to understand the grievances and deep-seated feeling of the people of Niger Delta.”
Talk of problems in the Niger Delta also, to state the obvious, reinforces Buhari’s message that the PDP is failing Nigeria.
Buhari also discussed security issues in the country as a whole:
Buhari promised to evolve an overall security effort involving the Police, armed forces, civil society, traditional authorities and the public, with a view to arresting the country’s rapid and palpable descent into anarchy.
“The main task of my government will be immediately to tackle rampant insecurity across the land because Nigerians do not feel secured in their homes,” Buhari said.
To achieve this, Buhari said recourse would be made to rural constabularies, neighbourhood watch and other forms of local and community based supervision, stressing that “deployment, remuneration and discipline would be examined and implemented in the context of their suitability to localities, culture zones, communities and traditions.”
Finally, he promised to tackle corruption.
Buhari has real support in the North, but he may lack the resources to translate that support into victory, especially if other Northerners like Babangida or other parties like the ANPP divide the Northern vote, or if some Northern governors line up behind Jonathan. At the announcement, Buhari appeared surrounded by elites, but some of the most prominent figures in attendance were former governors, not sitting ones. It is also not clear to me whether Buhari has substantial support outside of the North. Still, given the North-South tensions at play in this election and intensity of the support he does have, his candidacy will be a major factor in the race and after. Undoubtedly some of Buhari’s supporters share the general’s feeling that Nigerian democracy has reached a dangerous crossroads, and some of them may feel bitter and lasting disappointment if he loses for a third time. That bitterness could, in the event that Jonathan wins, severely undermine Jonathan’s legitimacy in the North.