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Could Nigeria's recent presidential election cause a shift in power resulting in a return to power of oppressive military leadership?

Playing with Fire in the 2015 Nigerian Presidential Election  

March 8, 2015

By Lauren Stauffer – Research Assistant

For more than fifteen years since the end of military rule, the People’s Democratic Party has held unwavering power in Nigeria.  However, this political monopoly may soon come to an end as current Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is being challenged in a close presidential race by the All Progressives Congress’ candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari, who previously ruled Nigeria in a dictatorship that lasted from 1984 to 1985.  Buhari’s surge in popularity is primarily due to the increased violence and mass killings being committed by Boko Haram in the northern region of Nigeria, where Buhari was once governor.  President Jonathan’s failure to thwart Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist movement that killed an estimated 6,347 civilians in 2014, has caused many Nigerians to forget Buhari’s repressive dictatorship and, instead, rally behind his campaign promises of stopping the Islamist insurgency.  Thus, Nigeria’s 2015 presidential election, which was postponed from 14 February to 28 March supposedly due to security threats, may not only result in a political party power shift, but also the return to power of a military leader who could potentially revert to his previous oppressive policies in order to stop Boko Haram.

To understand General Buhari’s public appeal, one must first analyze how Nigerian citizens have reimagined his once threatening policies and political agenda into examples of strength and strong leadership capabilities.  Buhari came to power in 1984 through a staged military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government and quickly established a twenty month rule that came to be characterized by secret tribunals, a broad curtailment of civil liberties, and executions for crimes that were not capital offenses.  Additionally, this self-proclaimed “war against indiscipline” was best known for the “Dikko Affair” that involved Umaru Dikko, transport minister and second-in-command under the former democratic government, fleeing to the United Kingdom – a move which prompted an attempt by the Nigerian intelligence service to kidnap him.  Although Buhari’s government denied any involvement, the incident sparked a serious diplomatic crisis between the U.K. and Nigeria, which resulted in the suspension of diplomatic relations for two years.  Thus, in Buhari’s short rule, Nigeria experienced a restriction of personal freedom, increased governmental threats, and a worsening of international relations, especially in regards to the West.  However, today, Buhari’s “war against intolerance” has come to offer hope for many Nigerians who need the government to take a more aggressive stance towards ending the Islamist insurgency.  For example, Hardiza Bala Usman, who was the primary campaigner for the return of 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last spring, says that she supports General Buhari because his militaristic experience allows him to recognize that “the resources meant for the military don’t go to the military; the bullets and boots don’t go to the soldiers”.  Therefore, Buhari’s ironhanded past has transformed him into President Jonathan’s main contender and into a political leader who could launch a second “war against intolerance” that is directed at Boko Haram.

Yet, it is not just Buhari’s reputation that has propelled him towards the forefront of this presidential race: President Jonathan’s failure to identify an appropriate military strategy to deal with Boko Haram has caused many citizens to question his leadership capabilities.  Boko Haram’s attempts to establish an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria began in 2009, and it has since embarked upon a large-scale terrorist campaign within the region that has led to brutal killings and the displacement of 1.5 million people.  Although the Nigerian government, with help from neighboring countries like Chad and Niger, recently launched a successful military operation that killed 300 rebels and recaptured the town of Munguno as well as ten other communities in the north, Jonathan’s government has failed to regain the public’s confidence, with elections being postponed due to threats from Boko Haram.  Thus, Boko Haram continues to negatively impact everyday Nigerian lives and cause a breakdown of governmental control as it continues its pursuit of waging terror and keeping the elections from being held.

As reflected in mounting political tensions between the two candidates, Boko Haram has become the key feature of this presidential race.  Not only has General Buhari accused President Jonathan of using Boko Haram’s presence as an excuse to delay the elections to provide more time to win support for his re-election campaign, but the General has also appealed to Nigerian citizens and the international community by providing a more concrete strategy of how to fight Boko Haram by recognizing past failures, such as misspent money, a lack of weaponry for soldiers, and a lack of motivation for the fight.  Buhari has stated that the current “government is not prepared to fight Boko Haram…the government has failed to do its principle duty of protecting life or property of all beings inside its territory…the government is not serious about curbing the insurgency in the northeast”.  With such bold statement, it is thus unsurprising that Buhari seems to have gained greater momentum over the past several weeks as President Jonathan continues to struggle with a weak military and rhetorical response.

If General Buhari wins, President Jonathan claims that Buhari will look to expand Sharia law beyond the northern Muslim region and into the southern Christian region.  Although there is no firm evidence to support this claim, it is very clear that both candidates are invoking fear of each other or of Boko Haram to gain more public support for their campaign.  Hence, utilizing fear is a crucial political tactic that may help decide the winner of this presidential election.  However, fear can also overshadow rationality and, in the case of Nigeria, citizens could potentially elect a new leader who could resort to his own past strategies of terror and oppression to fight Boko Haram.  Thus, to say that Nigeria is playing with fire would be an understatement.  Electing General Buhari could very well result in a transformed political leader who successfully disposes of Boko Haram, but at the risk of Nigerian citizens potentially trading their civil liberties for a militaristic dictatorship that promises to restore national security.  Therefore, this presidential election is one that is very important for the international community to watch as Nigeria aims to democratically end the current dominance of Boko Haram while also determining the future character of their government.

About Lauren Stauffer

Lauren Stauffer is an Associate Fellow in the Security and Defence division. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut where she is studying foreign relations history, specifically in regards to U.S.-NATO relations, and human rights. Lauren received a B.A. in History (Hons) from Vassar College and wrote her senior thesis on the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. During her undergraduate career, she also studied abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Previously, Lauren has worked at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center and served as a Vassar Ford Scholar. Lauren’s research interests include transatlantic relations, Western security, humanitarian intervention, multilateral institutions, human rights, and post-conflict reconciliation.