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.
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.