Nigeria: Controversial strongman steps up, says he can save the country


Retired Nigerian General Muhammadu Buhari announced that he may run for president again in 2015. Here Buhari is campaigning in the 2011 election, which he lost to President Goodluck Jonathan.


Pius Utomi Ekpei

ABUJA, Nigeria — Charging that “Hell was let loose” in Nigeria and that he is the one who can fix it, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari announced that he might run for president. Again.

The election is not scheduled until 2015 and Buhari had already pledged not to run, but this week he said the country’s security and corruption crises are so severe that he might have no choice but to run again. And from the amount of news he is generating, it appears Buhari has already begun campaigning. 

This is bad news for President Goodluck Jonathan.

Even Jonathan’s most ardent supporters say that after two years in office, the president’s tenure has been marred by tragedy, scandal and a lack of forceful action.

Buhari, a former military head of state who came in second in the 2011 presidential elections with 32 percent of the vote, has been quick to blame Jonathan’s ruling party for growing security threats, increasing poverty and stolen public funds.

Corruption in the ruling People’s Democratic Party is at the heart of most of Nigeria’s troubles, he said, citing the June 3 plane crash that killed more than 153 people when it crashed into a residential neighborhood in Lagos.

Related: Why so many planes crash in Nigeria

“This pervasive corruption by the successive PDP-led federal governments as regards to the administration of the aviation sector has corrupted this important sector,” Buhari said in the days after the crash.

In 2011, Buhari’s campaign promised to root out corruption, beef up security, and attract foreign investment, a platform similar to Jonathan’s. As the military head of state from 1983 to 1985, Buhari gained a reputation for being a non-corruptible leader — a rare commodity in Nigeria. 

“He is generally regarded as one of the more honest politicians we have in Nigeria today,” Aderemi Oyewumi, a Nigerian international relations scholar, told GlobalPost.

Buhari’s tenure as head of state began after a military coup that overthrew civilian President Shehu Shagari, after the leader was accused of corruption and indiscipline. The Buhari regime jailed about 500 officials and businessmen accused of corruption, according to a BBC profile.

Buhari’s rule is also remembered for what was known as the “War on Indiscipline.” Civil servants were publicly humiliated if they were late to work, and riders of public buses were kept in neat queues by guards with whips. Legislation restricted press freedoms and detentions were used to silence critics.

Buhari was overthrown in 1985 after being accused of not prioritizing a return to civilian rule.

Many Nigerians, however, even fans of the current ruling party, discount what outsiders perceive as human rights abuses, saying Buhari was gentler and more honest than other military leaders that headed Nigeria between 1983 and 1999, when the country transitioned back to civilian rule.

Maxwell Kelechi, a businessman who runs a shop in the capital that sells shoes, perfume and bedding, is a fan of President Jonathan. He also believes Buhari is a “capable” leader. Buhari’s military past, he added, is irrelevant because his strict leadership was par for the course in the time of military rule.

“If you think of the other military rulers we had …” he told GlobalPost, shaking his head dismissively.

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Ruling party leaders, however, say Buhari’s past proves his lack of commitment to democracy. They accuse him of trying to incite violence by predicting an uprising if Jonathan wins at the polls in 2015. The party blames Buhari for post-election violence in 2011 that killed more than 800 people, according to Human Rights Watch.

“We appreciate Buhari’s frustration and antagonism towards the PDP,” said national publicity secretary Olisa Metuh, according to Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper. “He has lost three times at the polls. But is Buhari really a democrat? Why is the blood of innocent Nigerians the only thing sufficient to quench his thirst for power?”

Buhari has publicly condemned the 2011 violence and claims his statements on the 2015 elections were misinterpreted. Former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell says Buhari’s popularity among the people, who are growing increasingly distrustful of the government, makes him a threat to many powerful Nigerians.

“Buhari is a Muslim who takes his religion seriously,” he writes in his Council on Foreign Relations blog. “For that reason, along with his intolerance for corruption, he is often viewed with suspicion, especially by Christian elites.”

Oyewumi, the scholar, said he supports Buhari and believes Nigeria’s economic and security crises need powerful government intervention. 

“There are serious challenges that Nigeria is facing,” he told GlobalPost. “I don’t think you can solve these problems though adopting a softly-softly approach. What I think we need is what Margaret Thatcher once called the ‘smack of strong government.’”
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