On March 28 General Muhammadu Buhari made history as the first ever opposition candidate in Nigeria to defeat a sitting president through democratic elections. On May 29, 2015 when he takes office, a peaceful transfer of power from Goodluck Jonathan, who ruled Nigeria from 2010 to 2015, is expected.
Buhari is a retired Nigerian Army major general who was previously Head of State of Nigeria from 1983-1985, after taking power in a military coup. He ran and lost three previous Nigerian presidential elections, but presented himself in the campaign this time as a “converted democrat.”
The President-elect of Nigeria has huge popular expectations to live up to — especially in his commitment to keep his government free of high-level corruption and to overhaul the economy. The world is also keenly watching to see how he handles radical Muslim insurgents Boko Haram.
Of his list of tasks, once he’s in office, the first will be to appoint Ministers and a cabinet — and these inevitably will have to come from the various parties that made up the alliance known as the All Progressives Congress (APC) who chose him as their candidate in the poll. Thus several senior members of Buhari’s new government will be from the south-west, titans of the Yoruba-speaking political scene such as Bola Tinubu who will not be intimidated by a strict, austere General Buhari. They did not come into politics to be poor. Buhari may have more choice within his set of northern colleagues, but there again there are grandees who might seek their rewards — no matter how much APC’s sweeping victories in the northern states were due to Buhari’s own personal charisma. It’s easy to be against “corruption,” but Nigeria’s political system (like most of the world’s systems) runs on rewards.
That done, Buhari’s next target for immediate action is to shut down Boko Haram (or Jama’at ahl al sunna li dawa’ wa’l-jihad). Currently (early April, 2015) the Nigerian Army and its more effective allies (forces from Chad, Niger and Cameroon) have greatly reduced the towns under Boko Haram’s control. Indeed, BH was already evacuating the headquarters of its “caliphate” Gwoza well before the Nigerian army moved in. They were killing their women ahead of the evacuation so as to prevent them falling into the hands of those they labelled kuffar, infidels.
Boko Haram (BH) simply went into the neighboring steep, rocky Mandara mountains where the Nigerian Army’s vehicles cannot go; and the open Cameroon frontier is, anyway, close by. Holding towns was always an unwise tactic for BH if only because towns are an easy target, and usually have large civilian populations who will need not only controlling but perhaps feeding too.
BH itself was always running short of supplies — hence its raids on army bases from which it got its supplies of fuel and ammunition as well as weaponry. But if a quick raid turned into a long occupation, then BH needed to appoint judges, run a hisba police force and install a formal emir and an imam to lead the prayers and do the Friday khutba. They also would have needed guards to take charge of any of the prisoners they took. In practice, they offered prisoners the choice of joining BH, and those who declined the offer they shot, sometimes en masse. And of course, BH still needed a defense force to fend off any attempt by the Nigerian army to re-capture the town. But all this needs men, and thus occupying a series of towns depleted the fighting force, unless they could attract (or compel) recruits. The pay they initially offered was very good by local standards (up to 80,000 naira a month; or $400), and the rewards from looting were substantial: BH fighters could save money, having friends who’d deposit the naira they made into local banks (which is perhaps one reason why BH’s bank raids have largely ceased?).
Boko Haram is now a leaner, much depleted operation, dispersed into rough countryside and probably more a mafia-style organization than a religious, millenarian sect. It still has a cell-based structure, which makes effective infiltration by Nigerian intelligence (or indeed the media) de facto an impossibility. In short, BH are back to being guerrillas rather than an army. Hence, Gen. Buhari has two immediate tasks: the first is to re-organise the Nigerian Army’s top brass (as is normal when a new President/Commander-in-chief is installed), and then re-imbue the rank-and-file with good morale, good equipment and a new sense of discipline, and perhaps as importantly, ensure that the ordinary soldiers actually get paid what they are due, regularly. It will mean, too, that soldiers who have deserted or ‘absconded’ are properly removed from the units’ rolls. (As of now, such ‘phantom’ soldiers provide their officers with extra pay. Absconders aren’t being searched for)
There is a wide “disconnect” — especially among those from the southern, Christian part of the country — from the disasters afflicting the north-east at the hands of Boko Haram and the Nigerian Army. The fact that it took the army just six weeks to do what they failed to do in six years confirmed for many voters a belief that Jonathan’s government ultimately did not care (or, worse still, were profiting financially from the crisis).
The “disconnect” affected the army too, many of whom came from the south — to the extent that officers could pay not to be posted to the frontline. Gen. Buhari, then, has somehow to ensure all Nigerians realize that Boko Haram is truly a national problem, and not just the particular problem of the distant, over-populated Muslim north-east where a few more civilian deaths and abductions, sad though they are, do not really matter.
Making the fight against Boko Haram a wider public priority can probably be done quite rapidly. The men in many frontline units (e.g. in Maiduguri) voted for Buhari and danced with joy at his victory. More difficult will be working out and implementing an effective strategy for defeating the guerrillas, without alienating or harming further the civilian population. A central element may be a program to rehabilitate the many communities in the north-east that have been devastated by some six years of insecurity.
Boko Haram tended to burn down or otherwise destroy existing buildings and homes – their explicit explanation was that they wanted to re-build from scratch a new land, even to re-allocate farmland. Consequently, there are huge numbers of displaced persons, who took refuge in camps near safe, big cities. There may well be a need for a massive “Marshall Aid” scheme financed, one hopes, by the world community – but it will no doubt take years. Now however, militarily, Gen. Buhari needs a counter-insurgency strategy suited to the vast expanses of Borno and Yobe and to the hills of northern Adamawa where roads are few. Helicopters may help with access, but they are neither stealthy weapons nor expert — flying so many hundred feet in the air — at distinguishing civilians from insurgents; let alone insurgents who might camouflage themselves by dressing in women’s robes.
Boko Haram apart, Gen. Buhari has an economy to overhaul – revenues are down due to low oil prices (and oil-stealing), and Nigeria’s debts are big enough now to require re-scheduling soon. He needs too to re-invigorate the energy industry and get electricity supplies to be constant as well as nationwide. And he needs to find ways of reducing the massive youth unemployment.
The lists of tasks to be done is of course very long, and people’s priorities may not be the same as the new government’s, but almost any visible improvement would be welcome. Here’s hoping that this year’s rains and harvests will be good. Last year they were good enough to keep basic food prices still relatively low up until now.
Security will also need to be much improved. As the whole north-east prepares the fields for farming, basic security will be needed, not just on the roads (so supplies, like fertilizer, can get in) but in the wider countryside. Last autumn security in rural areas generally was dire – worse than I have ever seen in the 40+ years I have been visiting deep-rural farmsteads. The insecurity comes, not from Boko Haram, but from ordinary criminal gangs, armed with modern guns and ready to use them freely. The countryside is no longer a safe haven. It will, I fear, be a difficult process to re-instate the level of security people took for granted some 50 years ago.
The early colonialists did it by systematically removing serious weaponry from everyone, village by village. But could a modern government, in a country with such a huge population, ever be able to be so ruthless?
Having spent all election day (till 11pm) at the local deep-rural polling booth near where I always stay in southern Katsina, I must put on record just how truly remarkable was the calmness, the humor, the patience of the 1,000 plus voters whose identities were carefully checked one by one (using fingerprints) until there was no one left in the orderly queue, and then they could all finally cast their votes — the majority by torchlight. The process was overseen by some six young officials who kept cool heads amidst the loud noise of chattering women and men pressing in close around them, for hour after hot hour. (At least there was a large drum of clean drinking water, filled to the top by hand from a house’s well and strategically placed with mugs for all to use – a thoughtful provision.)
Young women voters outnumbered men by about 2:1, and they knew exactly what they were doing, how to do it and why. The incumbent President seeking re-election (Goodluck Jonathan) only got seven votes. The counting was done in public by about 11pm; all the unused ballots were cancelled one by one.
I jokingly said to the Village Head, who came up very late to check that the whole process was going well, how difficult it’d be to rig this election. He replied that the only way would be to cause chaos first. A single policeman was there, but any fracas could have been checked immediately by the mass of men. Food-sellers (mainly freshly frying fish brought up from the south) did a good trade throughout the day. It was indeed a truly memorable day — a day when, for the first time in Nigeria’s political history, every single adult’s vote counted (and counted just once). Everyone, characteristically, attributed this miracle to Allah – and thanked Him.
Editor’s Note: This report originally appeared in ISLAMiCommentary (www.islamicommentary.org) and is republished here with permission. (ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).