Since the two major parties nominated their presidential candidates, Nigeria’s presidential election (now scheduled for March 28, following a six-week delay announced earlier this month) has been, effectively, a two-man race. These two men are incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan represents the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), while Buhari is the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), a coalition of opposition parties.
In much international coverage of the race, whether by non-Nigerian journalists or Nigerians speaking to international audiences, the two candidates have been presented in crude and one-dimensional ways. The narrative at work in such commentaries says that Jonathan is a bumbler – a nice guy perhaps, but ultimately an “accidental president” who is in over his head, too incompetent to deal with problems like corruption or the violence caused by Boko Haram in the northeastern part of the country. Meanwhile, the same narrative tells us that Buhari is a thug – an essentially military man whose record is fatally tarnished by his regime’s actions in the 1980s, and whose prospects for winning the presidency have grown only because of Nigerians’ anxieties about Boko Haram. The narrative goes on to say that Nigerians face two very bad choices for president – perhaps implying that “the devil they know” is the better choice.
Some critical omissions have led to this distorted narrative of “the bumbler vs. the thug.” Not only does the narrative misrepresent both men, it obscures shifts at work in Nigerian politics. It may be a two-man race, but there is a larger cast of characters involved in deciding who will be Nigeria’s next president.
Jonathan as a Deliberate Choice and a Deliberate Policymaker
Nearly every profile one reads of Jonathan in the international media calls him the “accidental president.” The idea of Jonathan’s accidental rise fits neatly with the idea of him as an incompetent bumbler. He just kind of ended up in his position, we hear, so it’s no surprise that he has trouble dealing with the country’s major problems.
And indeed, Jonathan was twice elevated to higher office by accident – first from Deputy Governor to Governor of Bayelsa State in 2005, when his predecessor was impeached on corruption charges; and second from Vice President to Acting President and then President in 2010, when his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua fell ill and then passed away.
Jonathan was not, however, an accidental vice president, and that fact is often forgotten. After President Olusegun Obasanjo (served 1999-2007) lost his bid to engineer constitutional changes that would have permitted him a third term, he handpicked a ticket he believed would be politically effective and biddable. Yar’Adua was the brother of Obasanjo’s deceased former second-in-command from Obasanjo’s time as a military ruler (more on this below). Yar’Adua hailed from the north, thus fulfilling a PDP internal agreement to rotate the presidency back to that region. Jonathan was (and is) an Ijaw from the Niger Delta, an oil-producing region where militants, many of them Ijaw, had recently begun a wave of attacks on government and oil industry targets. There was nothing accidental about Jonathan’s selection.
The other problem with the “bumbler” narrative about Jonathan is that it overlooks the sophistication of his team. Jonathan’s Finance Minister is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director of the World Bank (and also Finance Minister under Obasanjo). Jonathan’s Central Bank Governor (until they fell out in 2013-2014) was Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a Northern aristocrat and banker who won international acclaim for his response to the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Jonathan’s National Security Advisor is Colonel Sambo Dasuki, the son of a former Sultan of Sokoto (the pre-eminent hereditary Muslim ruler in the North) and a professional military man. One could point to current and former members of the team with less stellar reputations – but the point is that the president or his handlers have deliberately chosen a number of figures who are both (a) recognized experts in their fields and (b) exciting and credible to international observers. Ultimately, I think it’s immaterial whether Jonathan himself is a highly capable individual or not; what matters is the administration as a whole.
I see two views one could hold about this team. The charitable view would credit them with rapid economic growth and offer a list of their accomplishments in infrastructure development and other fields. The charitable view would say that the team is doing the best it can in difficult economic and security circumstances. In contrast, the uncharitable view would argue that the administration has deliberately ignored key problems in its approach to Boko Haram (problems such as corruption and systemic human rights abuses by security forces) and has deliberately chosen economic policies that leave poverty and inequality untouched. Whether one is charitable or uncharitable, it is hard to say that the president is a bumbler – either he and his all-stars are doing the best they can in trying times, or he and his all-stars are making choices that privilege certain regions and social groups over others.
Buhari as a Seasoned Politician Assembling a New, Geographically Diverse Coalition
Many profiles from the 2014-2015 campaign discuss Buhari as though he has never run for president before – as though he is a former military ruler who exploded back onto the political scene in response to Nigerians’ anxieties about Boko Haram. The narrative of “Buhari as thug” is perpetuated by thinning his resume, decontextualizing former military rulers’ continued role in Nigerian politics, and misreading the Nigerian political map of 2015.
On the topic of Buhari’s resume, the first thing to note is that he was the runner-up in the past three elections – to Obasanjo in 2003, to Yar’Adua in 2007, and to Jonathan in 2011. So he has been running seriously for president as a civilian for over six times as long as he ruled the country as a military dictator (1983-1985). The other thing to note about Buhari’s resume is his long experience in the petroleum sector, both in the 1970s and the 1990s. This experience should not be invoked to minimize the serious allegations of human rights abuses and violations of civil liberties stemming from his time as military ruler, but the experience does round out the portrait of Buhari as a multi-faceted candidate.
On the subject of Buhari’s military past, the implication that he is an anomaly among current Nigerian politicians – or that his candidacy’s strength is primarily a result of current insecurity – is ludicrous. Since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, many leading politicians have either been former military rulers or figures closely connected to them. Obasanjo was military ruler from 1976-1979. Yar’Adua was the brother of Obasanjo’s second-in-command. Former military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida has sought the presidency. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (served 1999-2007) was close to (Shehu) Yar’Adua. At the state level, various governors and former governors (for example Jonah Jang of Plateau and Murtala Nyako of Adamawa) were military governors prior to 1999. Even Jonathan has connections (as noted above, he was Obasanjo’s pick for Yar’Adua’s Vice President in 2007) to former military rulers. In this context, Buhari’s candidacy is not anomalous – and it does not automatically make him a thug.
Finally, Buhari’s candidacy in 2015 is a different thing than his candidacy in 2011. His campaign has certainly gained strength from anxieties about security – but I would argue that it has gained far more from the skillful politicking of APC leaders, particularly former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu.
In 2011, the electoral map in Nigeria looked simple: Buhari won twelve northern states, Jonathan won the rest of the country. The 2011 map fit the international media’s narrative of Nigeria as divided into a “Muslim north” and a “Christian south.” Buhari appeared to be the Northern Muslim candidate, end of story.
That map and that narrative may not work in 2015. The APC’s path to victory involves holding the northern vote but also expanding it to make gains in the southwest (the home turf of Tinubu and many other APC leaders, as well as Obasanjo, who recently endorsed Buhari) and the Middle Belt (an ethnically and religiously diverse section of the old “Northern Region” from the early days of Nigerian multiparty politics). Buhari may be the face of the APC, but the party has sought to turn its state-level strength in the southwest (where it holds several governorships, including Lagos) into a core element of a presidential victory. It is no accident that Buhari’s running mate is Yemi Osinbajo, Tinubu’s former attorney general and a friend of an influential Christian pastor in the southwest.
The trope of “the bumbler vs. the thug” distorts understanding of the two leading candidates in Nigeria’s presidential elections. Moreover, the “bumbler vs. thug” narrative directs our attention to the far northeast as though Boko Haram is that only force that matters in Nigerian politics, and thereby distracts us from the evolving and contested electoral map.