Can strongman Buhari mend a broken Nigeria?

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According to a recent poll, an equal number of Nigerian voters—41%—fell on either side of the debate surrounding the postponement of presidential elections. It is perhaps no coincidence that those numbers almost perfectly overlap with the results of a December 2014 presidential voting survey, in which each of the two main parties racked up 42% of the total tally. By a rule of thumb, supporters of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and president Goodluck Jonathan backed the postponement, while those of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the main opposition party, opposed it.

The opposition’s candidate is Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, and three-time presidential contender, who has since his emergence undergone what is arguably the most impressive political rebranding in the history of Nigeria. A man once given exclusively to babarigas—traditional dress favored by Hausa-Fulani men from northern Nigeria—now poses for photographs bow-tied and besuited, or in the traditional outfits of southeastern Nigeria and the oil-rich Niger delta, regions in which he has consistently recorded meager votes in his three previous attempts at the presidency.

Buhari and his supporters insist that the PDP forced the postponement to undermine the APC’s unprecedented momentum, and to buy more time to work out a way of rigging an election it looks set to lose. The PDP has denied those allegations, focusing instead on querying the preparedness level of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

By all accounts, the INEC has not lived up to its responsibility. Going by several indices (distribution of biometric voter-cards, accreditation of observers, training of election personnel) the preparations have been shoddy, and a February 14 election, had it gone ahead, would have been—not uncharacteristically, it must be said—chaotic.

The PDP is also increasingly voicing its opposition to the planned deployment of handheld card-readers that the INEC wants to experiment with during the coming elections. The fingerprint technology on which the card readers are based is designed to produce greater transparency in the elections by ensuring that no one is able to vote more than once. (One of the commonest of conventional voter-fraud methods in Nigeria has been through the mass thumb-printing of ballot papers.)

On the surface, the PDP’s argument is that the card readers are untested, and that it would be imprudent to attempt an experiment using the all-important presidential election as a catalyst. The actual reason, in my opinion, is not far-fetched: by insisting on the use of non-biometric cards, the PDP will be able to throw open the elections for the sort of rigging that earned it landslide victories in the last four presidential elections.

Between insisting on the use of card-readers and biometric cards, and that the rescheduled elections must on no account be postponed again, the APC has its hands full. If it wins these two battles, its chances of forming the next central government are significant.

The party, a merger of Nigeria’s three leading opposition parties, has been fighting against-all-odds battles even before it was formally registered by the electoral commission in July of 2013. The first hurdle was a court case by an organization—presumably sponsored by the PDP—that called itself the African People’s Congress and laid claim to the “APC” acronym, insisting it had filed for registration as a political party before the All Progressives Congress.

Having been registered, the APC wasted no time firming up its position, attracting a raft of high profile defectors—including five governors—from the ruling party. The PDP, sufficiently jolted, let go of Bamanga Tukur, the divisive chairman under whose watch the defections happened, and replaced him with Adamu Mu’azu, a former governor with a knack for political strategy.

The next big hurdle for the APC was the selection of presidential and vice presidential candidates. Considering its origins as a coalition of disparate political movements, it seemed unlikely that it would manage the process of selecting flag-bearers that everyone felt were in their interest.

It spectacularly disappointed pessimists. In the days that followed, tensions swiftly rose over the choice of a running mate to Buhari. Again the party smoothed over a looming dissension, and presented a cerebral professor of law as Buhari’s deputy—a necessary contrast to the former military man’s gruff, blunt demeanor. This carefully structured campaign-organogram helped bring on board the influential interests who had lost out up until then.

Events over the last several months would then conspire to ensure that incumbent president Jonathan’s most formidable opponent would not even be the APC, or Buhari, but instead the terrorist group Boko Haram, and, to a lesser extent, the Nigerian currency (the naira).

The abduction by Boko Haram of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok last April, and the belated, incoherent response of the Jonathan government, dealt a huge blow to his reputation at home and abroad. Since then, Boko Haram has marched on confidently, seizing and holding towns and villages, keeping the military consistently on defense. Last year alone, the group’s onslaught claimed the lives of more than 4,000 persons; and more than 1.5 million Nigerians have been displaced as a result.

Around October of last year, at a time when Boko Haram was stepping up its attacks and seizing increasingly larger swathes of territory, the naira began to slump, thanks to crashing oil prices. If Boko Haram was mainly affecting people in the country’s remote northeastern region, the devaluing naira took its own fight straight to the economic heartlands of the country—the southern cities that are the hubs of Nigeria’s banking and manufacturing industries.

The net effect of terrorism and the economic downturn has been devastating for the president’s re-election prospects. Boko Haram has depleted his northern support base so profoundly that he spent quite a bit of time on the campaign stump trying to convince northerners that he is not, in fact, a Boko Haram sponsor.

The naira—which has now fallen by about 20% against the US dollar—is undermining his support among the business community (manufacturers and merchants heavily dependent on dollar-denominated imports of raw materials and machines), and among the multitudes of Nigerians paying for education and healthcare abroad. Linked to the currency crisis is a budgetary one. Nigeria, dependent on crude oil for as much as 75% of government revenues (and 90% of foreign exchange earnings), is earning much less now than it did a year ago. It is not a pretty picture at all. External reserves are down to about $33 billion, the lowest in several years. This itself raises an important question: what did the Jonathan government do with three years of record-high oil prices?

This is where Buhari enters the picture, poised to demolish an incumbent already weakened by allegations that he has overlooked monumental corruption in his government, an Islamist insurgency in the north, and a weakening naira.

Part of Buhari’s allure lies in the ambivalent affinity that Nigerians have with “strongmen”—military-style figures who sweep in to rescue a flailing country from a misruling government. Buhari has the good fortune of being a retired strongman about to get a second chance.

On January 1, 1984, when a group of coup-plotters, having just overthrown the elected government of Shehu Shagari, asked him, then a major general in the Nigerian army, to lead the succeeding military government. Over the next twenty months, he went about his redemptive task with gusto, slugging the recently deposed politicians with long jail terms, slashing public service jobs, executing drug pushers using retroactive decrees, and generally seeking to instill his own brand of discipline in a country that had long discarded restraint.

By the time he was himself overthrown in August of 1985, Nigerians had generally had enough of his highhandedness. Therein lies an interesting paradox: Nigerians, as much as they’ve loved their strongmen, have never had much patience for those ones who either went too far, or didn’t know when their time was up.

In this love-hate relationship with strongmen lies a substantial part of Buhari’s surprising popularity—and president Jonathan’s unpopularity. Here is a an incumbent who has built a reputation on not being a strongman. Months after his election in 2011, he told a church gathering that Nigerians generally want a president who is “a lion or a tiger,” or behaves like “the kings of Syria, Babylon; the Pharaoh, all the powerful people that you read about in the Bible.” He made it clear he was none of those. “I am not a lion, I am also not a general,” he said. “I can change this country without those traits.”

Now, arrayed against an ex-general who has acquired many enemies as a result of his draconian rule, and who, 30 years ago chased armed-to-the-teeth Chadian rebels out of Nigeria, Jonathan looks to many Nigerians like the weaker choice.

The obvious danger here is that Nigerians might be expecting too much from Buhari. While his army background might work some magic against Boko Haram, there are no strongmen strong enough to prop up declining federal revenues or floundering currencies. There is no amount of political will that can singlehandedly cause oil prices to break free of a $50-a-barrel curse.

As Dr. Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, director of the Center for Public Policy Alternatives, a Lagos-based thinktank, recently told me: “Since this [will be] a new government altogether, there’ll be a steep learning curve. It won’t matter that Buhari was in power once. The world was a different place, the country was a different place.”

Buhari’s best hope is that he might be better able to bandage the wounds through which the country is bleeding revenue. But considering just how numerous—and how deep—these wounds are, that in itself might be all the game-changing move this broken country needs.