Five Recommendations to the USG on Engaging the Buhari Administration

Yesterday, after a hard-fought election, Nigerian President Gooduck Jonathan conceded to General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military and four-time presidential candidate. Buhari will take office May 29. His party is the All Progressives Congress or APC.

Nigeria is by many measures (population, economy, cultural production, etc.) the most important country in Africa, and it is a key partner for the United States. Under Jonathan, the U.S.-Nigeria relationship has been strained at times. Buhari’s presidency will offer an opportunity for a fresh start.

The issues the two countries can work on together are obvious – countering Boko Haram, strengthening democratic institutions and economic development, etc. But just as important as the substance of the partnership will be its form. Jonathan often seemed isolated behind a wall of sycophants, which made him difficult to reach – not that the U.S. has major leverage over Nigeria in any event, but it’s even harder to have influence when you don’t have a strong relationship. Here are a few basic suggestions about how to get off on the right foot with Buhari and his administration:

  1. Treat Buhari as an equal. Don’t start the conversation with a list of “asks” or “advice” that are in reality just demands. Talk to Buhari the way you would expect a foreign leader to talk to the United States. Send someone very senior (cabinet rank at least) to his inauguration. And President Obama should visit Nigeria at some point in 2015 or 2016. In light of this election and this historic transition, the old justifications for not visiting (worries about seeming to endorse the incumbent, tolerate corruption, etc.) no longer seem strong enough to warrant ignoring Nigeria.
  2. Engage Vice President-elect Yemi Osinbajo early and often. Buhari’s allies in the South West played a major role in his election – perhaps even making the difference between 2011 and 2015. Osinbajo will be that southwestern cohort’s most senior formal representative in Buhari’s government. As an accomplished politician in his own right (he was Lagos Attorney General from 1999-2007) and an influential Christian leader, he will likely play a stronger role in Buhari’s government than outgoing Vice President Namadi Sambo played in Jonathan’s. If I were a US policymaker, I would figure out what issues Osinbajo cares about and stay in touch with him about them. In other words, don’t just call him when you have an ask – cultivate a real relationship, and not just an ad hoc one managed by the Embassy in Abuja. A congratulatory phone call from Vice President Biden would be a good way to start.
  3. Keep in close touch with Bola Tinubu. If Osinbajo is the southwest’s formal representative in the next government, former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu was the campaign’s mastermind and will likely remain the APC’s informal leader. As such, he will likely have an influential voice in shaping the government’s decisions, especially with an eye to politics and 2019. This relationship, too, is worth cultivating and maintaining. A quarterly call from Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield to Tinubu would give Washington a strong line to the new administration’s political nerve center.
  4. Bring all the governors to Washington. It’s not just about engaging the federal government – sub-national actors, especially state governors, are hugely influential in Nigeria, including on security and development issues. In March 2014, the U.S. Institute of Peace brought most of the northern Nigerian state governors to Washington for a symposium and for meetings around town, including with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Given that many of the governors elected on April 11 will be new faces (due to term limits), it would be wise to repeat the endeavor, and this time by inviting all thirty-six governors.
  5. Continue to think long-term about Boko Haram. The final weeks of the presidential campaign saw some military progress against Boko Haram, although the effort was marred by the murky quality of some information (making it unclear whether some towns had really been recaptured or not) and by the complaints of Nigeria’s neighbors that Nigerian forces were not coordinating with them effectively. Hopefully Jonathan will sustain the gains and improve the regional coordination in his final weeks in office, and then Buhari will consolidate the progress and address any remaining problems of coordination after he is inaugurated. Even in this best case scenario, however, long-term challenges will remain: preventing Boko Haram from regrouping, prosecuting and/or reintegrating its fighters, holding security forces accountable for abuses, addressing joblessness and underdevelopment in the northeast, etc. There is even a danger that a moment of euphoria over recapturing territory could divert attention away from these long-term issues and encourage a premature declaration of victory. Washington should give the new administration time to breathe, but should from time to time respectfully remind them that the goal is not just to defeat Boko Haram, but also to prevent it – or anything like it – from re-emerging in the years to come. As I said above, though, a conversation like that can only happen if deep relationships are cultivated from the start.

What Does Kaduna’s Tragedy Teach Us About Nigerian Politics?

During Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, there has been a tradition and an expectation that if a Christian southerner holds the presidency, a Muslim northerner will hold the vice presidency, and vice versa. The sample is small, so we should not perceive the pattern as written in stone, and religious dynamics in Nigeria are much more complicated than a “Muslim north” and a “Christian south.” But since 1999 the pattern has held: the southern Christian President Olusegun Obasanjo and his northern Muslim Vice President Atiku Abubakar from 1999 to 2007, northern Muslim President Umaru Yar’Adua and his southern Christian Vice President Goodluck Jonathan from 2007 to 2010 and, presently, President Jonathan and his northern Muslim Vice President Namadi Sambo. All of these politicians have come from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Kaduna State, a PDP stronghold, has had a version of this rotational system, though usually under Muslim governors. The Muslim Governor Ahmed Makarfi from 1999 to 2007 had two Christian Deputy Governors: first Stephen Shekari until his death in 2005, and then Patrick Yakowa until Makarfi was term-limited in 2007. The Muslim Governor Namadi Sambo succeeded Makarfi, with Yakowa continuing on as Deputy; when Sambo ascended to the vice presidency in 2010, Yakowa became Governor with a Muslim, Mukhtar Ramalan Yero (who is seen as close to Sambo), as his Deputy. Yakowa, who won an extremely close re-election battle in 2011, was the State’s first Christian governor, and the first governor from the southern zone of Kaduna.

Kaduna city was the capital of the defunct Northern Region, and Kaduna is part of northern Nigeria. But some also consider the State (or its southern zone) part of the “Middle Belt,” a zone of tremendous religious and ethnic diversity. The Nigerian census does not ask respondents for their religious affiliation, so the religious demographics of states are unknown, but Kaduna is religiously mixed. Kaduna State has a history of interreligious violence that includes periodic riots since 1987, including major riots in 2000 and 2002 as well as recent clashes stemming from the ongoing cycle of church bombings in northern Nigeria. While the causes of riots and interreligious clashes should not be reduced to religion, religious identity is one focus of tension in the state. That helps explain why it matters who holds the posts of governor and deputy governor (though the complexities of officeholders’ religious identities turn on more than just questions of conflict).

On December 15, Governor Yakowa died in a helicopter crash that also killed former National Security Adviser Owoye Azazi and others. Deputy Governor Yero has taken over as Governor. The transition introduces various political complexities, including the immediate question of whom Yero will appoint as deputy (perhaps Yakowa’s widow) and what will happen with the governor’s seat in 2015.

Here are three takes on those questions and their significance:

The Guardian predicts that while the new deputy will come from Kaduna south, it will be some time before that zone produces another governor. This situation may produce dissatisfaction in the southern zone:

To what extent will [Yakowa’s] death alter the political configuration of the state? What is apparent is that Southern Kaduna has lost the chance to produce a governor that spent a full tenure in office. Will Yero, who is also from Kaduna North like Sambo and Makarfi, step down in 2015 and ask the Southern Kaduna zone to throw up a candidate to finish Yakowa’s tenure. This scenario is unlikely, following the precedent set by President Goodluck Jonathan when he did not step down for the North to produce someone to complete the tenure of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in the 2011 election.

The Southern Kaduna senatorial zone had waited for a while to grab the chance that made Yakowa governor…

And it is almost certain that Yero, the incumbent governor will appoint his deputy from the Kaduna South, to maintain the political balance that had secured peace and kept everyone satisfied in the state. With the belief that the next deputy governor would come from the Christian-dominated Southern Kaduna, there are long faces asking that ‘certainly we are not likely to rejoice over that for a number of reasons,’ after previous nominees, Shekari and Yakowa have died in office.

It is a cheering prospect for a people who since the history of the state had only one chance of occupying the seat of power, a chance cut short by death, after two years. What will 2015 offer the people of Southern Kaduna?

Vanguard, depicting Yarowa as a unifying figure, suggests that Yero will have to work hard to manage the state’s interreligious tensions:

As governor Yakowa undoubtedly had his job well cut out. Given the history of delicate relations between the Muslim and Christian populations in the state, Yakowa as governor was always quick to calm tension that repeatedly broke out during his short reign. He was particularly passionate in wooing the Islamic population.

Though he had a difficult time winning election in 2011, he was by some account already worming his way into the heart of the muslim population through his government’s charm offensive to Muslims through such programmes as Ramadan feeding and hajj sponsorships…

Yakowa was, off course not universally popular among Christians at the time of his selection as Sambo’s deputy in 2007. He was regarded in bad light for having helped what some regarded as the conspiracy to frustrate their brother, Isaiah Balat in the 2007 gubernatorial primary. He, however, over time won all but extremists to his side.

Nigeria Intel portrays the interreligious politics around Yakowa differently, suggesting that Yakowa’s story – coming to the governor’s seat only through Sambo’s elevation to the vice presidency, and then struggling bitterly to retain the seat in 2011 – illustrates division rather than unity. The difficulty Yakowa had in obtaining and holding his post, the author writes, “raises serious concerns about our brand of politics, the concepts of majority and minority, competence in the selection of candidates and the entire electoral process itself.” Somberly, the piece continues:

In essence, at a time when Nigeria should be electing its best people to strategic positions, too many states and local government areas in the country remain bogged down by the politics of balancing ethnic and religious interests. Thus, competence, capacity, qualification, experience, honesty and other considerations that should determine a candidate’s eligibility and electability are relegated to the background.

In the final analysis, this is a time when Kaduna, like other states battling with majority/ minority agitations should reach out to all groups to forge a consensus. This is a sombre, delicate dance that the new leadership must do in order to rebuild trust and togetherness.

In Kaduna’s tragedy and its political aftermath, then, we find much to ponder about Nigerian politics.

A Wave of Boko Haram Micro-Attacks in Damaturu, Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, and Elsewhere

Yesterday morning, suicide bombers suspected of being from Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect struck two police targets in the northwestern city of Sokoto (map), claiming at least four lives (more here). Police reportedly repelled a third attack Monday evening.

Assuming Boko Haram is behind these incidents, the attacks in Sokoto mark one of the largest strikes the movement has carried out west of Kano.* Their attacks in Kano since January have themselves represented a significant geographical expansion for the group; a presence in Sokoto is yet another stage in this expansion, particularly if attacks become semi-regular there as they have in Kano.

Yesterday also brought an apparent assassination attempt against Nigerian Vice President Namadi Sambo, as “gunmen on motorbikes” shot at one of Sambo’s houses in Zaria, Kaduna State.

The Sokoto bombings and the Zaria attack follow a wave of micro-attacks elsewhere in the North: raids on police stations in Borno and Bauchi States last Wednesday and Thursday, clashes in Damaturu on Friday, reported battles in Maiduguri and Damaturu on Sunday, and gun attacks in Kano on Sunday. Despite the fact that these attacks have caused relatively few casualties, their wide geographical range and their somewhat unpredictable character sends a message to ordinary people in Northern Nigeria: violence could come at any time, in any major city, and the authorities have difficulty preventing it. Most people are simply trying to carry on with their lives, of course, but the cumulative effects of these micro-attacks likely include an increase in the tension people feel and a decrease in their faith in the government and the security forces.

Calls for dialogue have continued; many elites believe there is no purely military solution to this crisis, and that resolution must come at the negotiating table. On Sunday, former Nigerian heads of state Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida released a statement on the violence in the country:

Without mentioning Boko Haram by name, they called for “community involvement” in addition to security measures to resolve the crisis, urging efforts from local governments, religious leaders and grassroots organisations.

“Religious leaders, in particular, have an even greater challenge to use the immense virtues of this holy period (Ramadan) to inculcate among the millions of citizens the spirit of mutual respect, humility and forgiveness,” the statement said.

“Ample opportunities are therefore at hand to bring all armed belligerents to table for meaningful dialogue with the authorities for our future and that of our children and grandchildren.”

It is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of successful dialogue. Obasanjo has already made personal efforts at peacemaking, without great success and even with some backlash, but if nothing else such statements show the deepening concern among Nigerian elites regarding Boko Haram and other violent actors in the country.

*Prior to these attacks, the only major incident I am aware of in Sokoto was this March, when an attempt to rescue to kidnapped Europeans resulted in gun battles (and the deaths of the hostages). The question of what role Boko Haram played in those kidnappings remains somewhat murky in my view. For more, see Andrew Walker’s discussion of the subject here (.pdf, pp. 10-11).

Goodluck Jonathan Picks Namadi Sambo as Vice President

Since Goodluck Jonathan became official president of Nigeria, observers have speculated about who he would choose as his new vice president. Yesterday we learned the choice: Namadi Sambo, who was elected governor of Kaduna State in the North in 2007.

Kaduna, Nigeria

Mr Sambo, 57, must now be approved by both houses of parliament.

[…]

Whoever is named as vice-president is seen as a strong contender for the 2011 presidential elections in Africa’s most populous nation, analysts say.

[…]

The BBC’s Caroline Duffield in Lagos says Mr Sambo is not a prominent politician, does not have a big power base and his name did not figure in public speculation about likely vice-presidents.

But she says he is likely to be confirmed by the Senate, which is expected to meet later on Thursday.

Married with six children, he is a qualified architect who became governor in 2007.

He is an ally of former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, who recently said he would seek to contest the elections, our correspondent says.

She says he has taken security very seriously since becoming Kaduna governor.

Some analysts say he may have been chosen because he would not pose a threat to President Jonathan.

Jonathan has not yet announced a run, though close advisers say he will be a candidate. Based on what people are saying about Sambo, it seems Jonathan has left that route open. Will the choice of a Northerner for vice president reassure leaders in the region that Jonathan is taking their interests into account? Or would a presidential run by Jonathan cause some Northern politicians to split away from the ruling party regardless? And what of Sambo’s ties to Babangida – how does this affect the retired general’s campaign for the presidency? Questions galore, but with the major elements of the transition from Yar’Adua to Jonathan concluded we have much more information than we did a week ago.