No one is sure what the outcome of the Nigerian elections will be. In recent days the state-by-state projections have multiplied, occupying the front pages of major Nigerian newspapers. The opposition believes that had the elections held as originally scheduled, in February, before a controversial postponement, General Muhammadu Buhari would have won comfortably over president Goodluck Jonathan.
But six weeks, in politics, is an eternity. Since the postponement the momentum has swung away from Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, towards the ruling Peoples Democratic Party. What is unclear is the extent to which the gap between the two parties – if indeed there was any – has narrowed.
There is understandable nervousness regarding these elections, never before now, it seems, have the stakes been this high. If the election takes place as planned (there are a number of court cases that appear aimed at scuttling it) and is not attended by a stalemate, and Buhari is declared winner by the electoral commission, here are five things the new President should – or will have to – do:
Thirty years ago Buhari and his deputy, the late Tunde Idiagbon, ran the country as stern, unsmiling, bordering-on-ruthless military generals. They jailed hundreds of politicians (a good number of them unfairly; such was the blanket nature of the clampdown), muzzled the press, retroactively instituted the death sentence for drug trafficking (resulting in the execution of three convicted persons), and generally presided over an increasingly stifling atmosphere. While they may have had good intentions – cleaning up in the wake of a corrupt and inept set of politicians – and while it is important to understand that a dictatorship, by its very nature, requires dictatorial action, I still think that Buhari owes some people, or groups of persons, an apology; a symbolic action to turn the page on a past that was as marked by error as it was by its idealism. People like Adeyemi Adefulu and Tinuoye Shoneyin, who insist the Buhari regime unjustly treated him – even while taking their place on a growing list of Buhari victims who have since forgiven him and are now championing his candidacy. Shoneyin’s daughter Lola, a writer, is even on Buhari’s campaign team and has written on this.
Adefulu says: “I [would] still like Buhari to vocalize an apology and offer some succour to people like me whom his government brutalized in the past. It is the least he can do. To do so is not weakness. Indeed, it is strength to admit the mistakes of the past and to promote national reconciliation.”
There will be hundreds of appointments to be made, starting May 29 – ministers, special advisers, senior special assistants, special assistants, ambassadors, members of governing boards for tens of federal government bodies, possibly even new leadership for the military and police. Much of the attention will be on his choice of chief of staff, finance and petroleum ministers, and his economic management team.
In his book, The Sixteen ‘Sins’ of General Muhammadu Buhari, Tam David-West, Buhari’s minister of petroleum during his days as military head of state, and an enduring supporter, says his appointment as a minister came as a surprise; based purely on his resume and his reputation. While Buhari’s pedigree suggests that in making his key appointments merit will stubbornly trump political pressure, it is important to note that he is also now, in his most recent incarnation as presidential candidate of a motley coalition of politicians, a much more pragmatic player than ever before.
Nigerians will also be expecting him to provide moral authority and hands-on leadership to the team. He has himself hinted, in a recent letter to Nigerians, of his desire to ensure “the Federal Executive Council, which has been turned to a weekly session of contract bazaar, will concentrate on its principal function of policy making.”
Four years of $100 plus per oil barrel prices have come to an end, and Nigeria hasn’t got very much to show for it; understandable when you consider that the last four years have been awash with stories of dodgy oil deals and large-scale oil bunkering. Buhari’s first task will be to assess just how bad things are. (We already have an idea, Nigeria is expected to earn, this year, only two thirds of what it earned in oil revenues last year). In recent speeches Buhari has repeatedly hinted at drawing a line between past and present, by which he means restricting his anti-corruption clampdown to infractions that occur on his watch as president, and not those that preceded him. This seemingly mollifying stance is likely to have arisen on account of the frenzy with which the ruling party has sought to portray him as being still as obsessed with sending perceived opponents to jail as he was three decades ago. As a civilian President he will probably realize that he has to decide, on a case-by-case basis, where that line-drawing will apply, and where it will not.
Finally, Nigerians deserve, within Buhari’s first hundred days in office, a State of the Nation Address, in which he will provide an honest and detailed view of the country’s financial situation. Which leads to the next point:
The entire system of government communication requires overhauling. Currently it’s divided among several officials, including a minister of information, a special adviser to the president on media, and any number of presidential assistants and special assistants assigned to specific functions like “social media”, “new media” and “public affairs. The result is an alarming incoherence, visible every time you open a newspaper, or your Twitter feed. As president Buhari should immediately take steps to streamline government communications, and create a unified, hierarchical structure in which all roles and responsibilities are clarified. He may also want to consider creating a central management team for government communications, similar in intent and style to the one former president Obasanjo created for the economy.
Boko Haram has in the last few years proven to be the ultimate disciplinarian of the Nigerian state. If elected, Buhari should take immediate steps to shore up the confidence and capacity of the Nigerian military. His opponents have worked hard at labeling him an Islamic fundamentalist, an apologist for Sharia Islamic law, and even a Boko Haram sympathiser. On the strength of available evidence – including testimonials, and his record as Head of State – the allegations are implausible. In his book Honour For Sale, Debo Bashorun, one-time Nigerian presidential spokesperson (during the regime of military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, who overthrew Buhari in August 1985) suggests that Babangida, not Buhari, was the one who tolerated religious fundamentalism. Bashorun writes of the “sudden re-emergence” during Babangida’s time, of “self-proclaimed clerics and Islamic fundamentalists whose nocturnal and divisive activities had earlier been effectively curtailed during the Buhari/Idiagbon administration.” As head of state Buhari showed little mercy or tolerance towards religious extremists or militant challengers of the Nigerian state whether they were Chadian bandits laying siege to the northeast at that time Boko Haram, or the rump of the Maitatsine sect, a 1980s precursor of Boko Haram. A similar approach to Boko Haram will be required.