Nigeria: A Statement by General Buhari on Boko Haram, and Its Aftermath

Speaking to supporters on May 14 in Kaduna, General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) made several incendiary statements, calling the Federal Government (FG) of Nigeria “the biggest Boko Haram” and saying that presidential elections of 2015 must be free and fair, warning (as the press has translated it), “If what happened in 2011 should again happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood.” These statements have caused considerable uproar in the Nigerian press and major controversy among the political class. (Some say that Buhari, who spoke in Hausa, was misquoted and misinterpreted; see here for an interesting discussion of the Hausa proverb “kare jini biri jini.”)

Buhari, who was military head of state in Nigeria from 1983 to 1985, was runner-up in the last three Nigerian presidential elections. Buhari challenged the results in each case; since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has won all four presidential elections the country has held. Boko Haram, of course, is the violent movement based in Northeastern Nigeria that has carried out numerous attacks over the past two years on government and Christian targets, mostly in the Northeast but also in Kano, Kaduna, Abuja, and elsewhere.

The significance of Buhari’s statements is, for me, two-fold.


First, Buhari’s remarks show that politicians are already looking to the next presidential elections in 2015. On one level, Buhari’s rhetoric is aggressive campaign rhetoric. In his remarks, he stated that he does believe there is a real movement called Boko Haram, as well as associated patterns of criminality. He implied that the FG is incapable of dealing with the insecurity, partly because in his view Federal leaders do not listen to Northerners. The idea that President Goodluck Jonathan is incompetent on security issues is an extension of Buhari’s campaign rhetoric from 2011.

Calling the FG itself “the biggest Boko Haram,” meanwhile, is a provocative political move, one that aims to redirect attention from the violence in the North to the violence and theft allegedly perpetrated by the FG. This accusation plays directly into Buhari’s image, among his primarily Northern supporters (see a map of the 2011 election results here),  as a tough leader who would end legal and financial abuses within the FG.

Buhari said after 2011 that he wouldn’t run again, but now it seems he may be changing his mind; some observers expect Jonathan not to run, but he may do so as well. If the 2015 election is a rematch between Jonathan and Buhari, then it looks like Buhari may already be firing the opening shots.

The administration has already fired back. Playing into Buhari’s image among many of his opponents as a partisan of Northern Muslims, an administration spokesman decried the General’s comments:

We find it very sad that an elder statesman who once presided over the entirety of Nigeria can reduce himself to a regional leader who speaks for only a part of Nigeria. We now understand what his protégé and former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Malam Nasir El’Rufai, meant when he wrote in a public letter in October of 2010, telling Nigerians that Buhari remains “perpetually unelectable” and that Buhari’s  ”insensitivity to Nigeria’s diversity and his parochial focus are already well-known.”

The president and Buhari are not the only politicians participating in the debate, of course. Some Northern heavyweights have defended Buhari, either by supporting him, by saying that he was misquoted, or by using the remarks to call for electoral reform. Other Northern groups, though, have condemned the remarks.

What do we make of Buhari’s invocation of violence? 2011 has the image, internationally, of having been Nigeria’s “cleanest” election since 1999, but according to Human Rights Watch it was also “among the bloodiest”: over 800 dead, and some 65,000 displaced. Much of the violence occurred in Northern states, when protests by Buhari’s supporters “degenerated into violent riots or sectarian killings.” In this context, Buhari’s suggestion that 2015 could be violent has ominous overtones.

Inter-Communal Tensions

Second, Buhari’s statements have significance in that they contribute to ongoing interreligious, inter-regional, and inter-ethnic tensions in Nigeria. Boko Haram’s uprising, and particularly the sect’s violence against Christians, has intersected with long-standing inter-communal tensions in different parts of the country such as Jos and Kaduna. As Boko Haram’s violence continues, some Christian leaders have taken tough rhetorical stances, warning of Christian “self-defense” in ways that imply the possibility of Christian reprisals against Muslims. Buhari’s statement has produced concern in places like Jos, while the Niger Delta Youth Leaders Forum has raised the issue of reprisal violence, implying that if Buhari’s words incite Northern youth to attack Southerners in the North, they will respond in kind. Several Nigerian press articles say that Buhari’s statements are “overheating” Nigeria, a powerful image. Buhari has raised the temperature further by daring Jonathan to arrest him.

As a coda, I should say that Buhari does not speak for all Northern leaders. His statements on Boko Haram exist as part of a continuum of Northern leaders’ responses to the problem, which have ranged from proposing dialogue to condemning the FG’s approach to, if some allegations are to be believed, actively supporting the movement. Looking more closely at this continuum would be worth a separate post; I will tackle that in June if the news cycle allows.


18 thoughts on “Nigeria: A Statement by General Buhari on Boko Haram, and Its Aftermath

  1. The tragedy of contemporary Nigeria is that we are even more polarised today than we were in Abacha’s days and statements like Buhari’s merely add to the polarisation.

    Buhari is not the simple, straight-talking, anti-corruption crusader he likes to portray himself as. He has a complicated history. He led one of the most brutal Military dictatorships Nigeria has ever known. In 1984, he applied RETROACTIVELY applied a law to execute two “drug smuggling suspects”. He also used the notorious “decree no.4 of 1984” to jail two journalists (Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson) for simply expressing their opinions.

    He is no democrat, and his latest utterances cement that impression.

    Buhari’s most controversial role was as head of a massive parallel government under Abacha (the Petroleum Trust Fund). That he did this when other prominent Nigerians like Obasanjo and Shehu Yar’adua were incarcerated hasn’t been forgotten. He later went on to defend the Abacha regime.

    Buhari has massive support in the North, but his support base is limited to the Muslim population of Northern Nigeria. He holds no appeal among Christians in the North and his support base does not extend to places like Jos. His greatest Achille’s heel is a dysfunctional party organisation (CPC is a mess), tin ears and the opposition of the Northern elite (Babangida and Atiku would rather die than allow Buhari get to Aso Rock).

    You wrote: “As a coda, I should say that Buhari does not speak for all Northern leaders”. Interestingly, the question in Nigeria today is “who are the Northern leaders?” and “where are they?”.

    Towards the end of 2010, there was a lot of sound and fury over the “Northern challenge” to Jonathan’s presidential ambitions. At the end of the day, Atiku Abubakar (of all people!) was chosen to represent the North at the PDP convention. I remembered Virgil who remarked that “the Mountains have gone into labour and have given birth to a mouse!”.

    It didn’t get better from then on. Bola Tinubu played a fast one and got Nuhu Ribadu to tag on as the flag bearer for ACN (Tinubu never took the process seriously), Mallam Shekarau launched a quixotic bid for the presidency and there was Buhari with his hordes, the rest is history.

    Why am I emphasising the lack of leadership in Northern Nigeria? Because Northern Nigeria has very serious issues to deal with, issues that cannot wait till 2015 to be solved. A recent news report claimed that 50% of all primary school teachers in Sokoto State cannot read! Northern leaders should be less focused on 2015, they should focus more on demanding accountability from local administrators when delivering services.

    I am yet to hear anything constructive from Buhari about how to deal with the problem of Boko Haram which is not only killing people but DESTROYING the economy of Northern Nigeria and possibly setting the stage for a massive humanitarian crisis (many farmers missed this planting season).

    Buhari will never be Nigeria’s president. He is too toxic.

    • u know after going through some of d articles on bh & buhari i come 2 wonder why the passionate buhari, in all his ‘peace speeches’, has failed 2 give a reasonabl solutn 2 d BOK HAR saga

      • The Solution Has Open It Face Now. The Bh Have Been Displaced. Give Another Criticism For Us To Tackle, Its Just A Matter Of Time, All Thing Will Return To Their Nomalcy Suppose You Can Be Patient.

  2. Just to add.

    No one has ever heard of the group, “The Northern Youth Movement for Positive Change” that “condemned his attacks”. This group looks and sounds like the usual “youth for hire” that politicians use to discredit their opponents.

    Having said that, it is extremely worrying to observe that virtually no genuine Northern group has come out to condemn Buhari’s attacks. This could be due to fear (Buhari is extremely popular among Muslim youth) but the implications for Muslim/Christian and Northern/Southern relations are extremely grave.

  3. This is terrible and unacceptable. AQIM is let to grow up to Nigeria and GWOT is just a joke. AQIM is supported by known bedfellas. Otherwise, how they can grow and play geopolitics like graduates of Harvard or Sandurst? Think about it.

    31.05.12 Nigeria Focus Killing of German national highlights northern kidnap threat

    According to reports, a German national kidnapped in the northern city of Kano in January has been killed in a failed rescue attempt. At the time of his abduction, Edgar Fritz Raupach had been working as a supervising engineer for the Nigerian construction company, Dantata and Sawoe (D&S). A video message recorded by Raupach was sent to the German government in March by the kidnappers, whom he claimed were ‘Mujahid’. The kidnappers are believed to be members of Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in neighbouring Niger and Mali, and which is believed to have links to the domestic Islamist group Boko Haram.
    Apparently, Raupach was killed during a raid by Nigerian security forces at a location in Kano’s Danbare Quarters, near the new campus of Bayero University. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen his corpse inside a military vehicle transporting militants away from the site following the conclusion of the raid.
    Although at a relatively low level compared to the peak of expatriate kidnapping in the Niger Delta, abduction of foreigners is increasing across the north of the country as armed Islamist groups expand their activities – indeed, an Italian engineer was reportedly kidnapped on 28 May in Kwara State (western Nigeria).
    The government is struggling to respond to the threat – Raupach’s killing is the second time in four months that a rescue attempt has failed, resulting in the death of the captives. In March, a Briton and an Italian national were killed in a botched rescue attempt in Sokoto, despite assistance from British security forces.
    Although at a less extreme level, the challenges posed by Islamist kidnapping are of a different order to those in the Delta. The groups involved appear less motivated by financial reward: the demand of Raupach’s kidnappers was the release of a Muslim woman imprisoned in Germany.
    Non-financial demands make it more difficult to secure the release, since most governments refuse to bow to ‘political’ demands. In the north, abductees are often transported across substantial distances, impeding detection. The abductee may also change hands between groups, further complicating efforts to identify the kidnappers.
    For more news and expert analysis about Nigeria, please see Nigeria Focus and Nigeria Politics & Security.
    © 2012 Menas Associates

    • A group of about twenty American “know it all’s” (scholars), who claim to know Nigeria better than Nigerians recently wrote a letter advising the US government not to designate Boko Haram as “a foreign terrorist organisation”.

      One of the reasons given was that “Boko Haram has no known links to foreign terrorist organisations”.

      Recent events are likely to show that these scholars don’t really know what they are talking about.

  4. I can see that buhari is talking out of annoyance. U can see that president Goodluck is not capable of tackling bokoharam in this country, then it ring at the back of my mind that he is aware of this in the issue of elections He should not impose governors on Nigerian state again. E.g. Case of benue. When those things happen one can ingeenier anything tackles of making bad comments.

  5. You don’t seems to be a Nigerian Chavuca, and you may never know the problem of Nigeria. During Buhari’s regime no single church or mosque was burnt, no single cristian or Muslim was killed in the name of religion, no single bom explosion was herd and no stealing of public money. So Chavuca what is your problem with Buhari? Even if you are a Nigerian I suggest you should just go back to your store and continue selling spare parts!

    • Ibrahim,I thought you were going to say Buhari didnt do all those things Chavuca mentioned,instead you are mentioning others he didnt do. What exactly is your point? Killing is killing,it doesnt matter the method used and Chavuca’s point is that Buhari is not the saint he wants people to think he is. What has selling spare parts got to do with anything? You cannot even make a valid point yet you choose to get spiteful for no reason. Is it because he sells body parts that he is not qualified to air his views on issues? Smh

  6. Buhari is a man of people n god selected him among d ordas deu to his kindness n good mind dt he has 4 many n let me tell u some thing dt many pples dnt knw g buhari is a man of peace mr good luck is a man dt willing 2 destroyed d country deu 2 d way is tenue is destruction of human life n at dsame term too much bomb blast n we steel hv stupid people among d good ones dt steel want dis man called bad luck

  7. If rearly our country is practicing democracy, all this statement or news should have not been coming up. But infact, to be sincere, what system of government nigerian is practicing? Then let us secure ourselves because we are not more secured again. Please citizens, no one is to rule us, let us rule ourselves for our benefit and self endourment because everything is beyond reasonable control Blessed shall be over us in his Name.

  8. I tink buhari is nt fighting for only northerns bt for muslim , he wants to become president in order to make Nigeria a muslim country and implement sharia law. U can imaging some one who want to b a president saying tins dat re evil dat he will do, instead of tinking of hw to rulr dis country in love peace unity abd harmony and also tink of d welfare of those he want to do. He is tinking of islamising all, tinking only abt himself , northerners most especially d muslim . To me Buhari is nt worth @ all being d president of Nigeria after all he has rule during military rule and is old so he should just leave politics for those who re still young agile, PDP go on we Nigerians will vote for Pesident Goodluck Ebele Jonathan , PDP continue ur good work we will always support u .God bless u all

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