Muhammadu Buhari or Goodluck Jonathan? Nigeria’s Fateful Choice

By Richard Joseph and William Miles

One week before Nigerians expected to vote on retaining Goodluck Jonathan as president, or removing him for Muhammadu Buhari, the Electoral Commission was forced to postpone the election. Military and security officials insisted on having six more weeks to try and decimate an almost six-year insurgency. The gamble is clear: Jonathan’s chances, and that of his political associates, could depend on whether Nigerian armed forces, bolstered by neighboring troops, can make major gains in combating the jihadists. 

In anticipation of the election, Richard Joseph was interviewed on February 5th by Alexandra Salomon of WBEZ/NPR in Chicago. She raised in her first question the prospect of a postponement of the elections. Goodluck Jonathan is now widely known, but Buhari is much less so. An edited transcript of the interview is provided here followed by a commentary from William Miles who reflects on his personal meeting with Buhari. Crushing Boko Haram has now been given precedence over defeating Buhari’s multi-party alliance. The military and political contests will intensify in the national cauldron known as Nigeria.

Alexandra Salomon, WBEZ: The growing violence may prevent hundreds of thousands of Nigerians from voting in the upcoming elections. Boko Haram has attacked villages, churches, and mosques and burned people alive in its latest attack on the Cameroonian town of Fotokol. Nigeria is supposed to hold presidential elections on February 14, but the violence may keep many people from voting. At least a million people have been displaced by the violence. Some politicians say the elections should be postponed. Richard Joseph joins me to talk about what is at stake in Nigeria. The Nigerian government has taken a lot of criticism for not being able to contain the insurgency. Is Boko Haram gaining ground?

RJ: Well, certainly if you look over the last five years, they have gained a lot of territory. I have suggested states like New Jersey to give Americans a sense of the area under its control. Despite frequent attacks, Boko Haram has not threatened the major northeastern city of Maiduguri. However, it has won control of a wide surrounding territory. What is noteworthy is the group’s resilience. So far it has proved to be more inventive and intrepid than the Nigerian military.

Will Nigerians Bring Back Buhari? Source: osundefender.org

Will Nigerians Bring Back Buhari?
Photo Source: osundefender.org

AS: Now we’ve seen that some of the neighboring countries—Chad, Cameroon, and Niger—along with the African Union, are putting together a multinational force. How important do you think this will be in combating the insurgency?

RJ: It is extremely important and, in fact, imperative. For some time now, I and others have called attention to the fact that the Nigerian military did not appear up to the task and that external military assistance was required. However, in the Nigerian context, ths is a very difficult step. Nigeria is a very nationalist country, a very proud country. The argument that Nigeria needs the help of external forces to defeat the insurgency is not easy to advance. External military and intelligence agencies, such as those of the United States, have found it very difficult working with the Nigerian government and the Nigerian armed forces. Even routine training exercises, as take place in many other countries, have been stymied by logistical and other problems.

AS: All of this is casting a shadow, if you will, over the elections. Boko Haram is effectively in control of a huge section of the country where many people may not be able to cast their ballots. What does it mean for the upcoming elections that you have a chunk of the country under the control of an insurgency and displaced people who probably won’t be able to vote?

RJ: The Nigerian Constitution and the Electoral Act allow for successive rounds of voting in the country’s 36 states. In the first round, a winning candidate must get a plurality of the popular vote and a quarter of the ballots cast in two-thirds of the states. This means that even if the elections cannot take place in the area in which Boko Haram is dominant, a presidential election can still be won without those votes. It would be better, of course, for the greatest number of Nigerian voters to cast their ballots freely.

There is a broader issue. The first question is will Boko Haram conduct attacks outside its core zone. It is known that it has cells in other parts of the north, and even in other parts of the country. To what extent will Boko Haram activate them to try and disrupt the elections? Secondly, Nigerian elections are never smoothly run affairs. There is a high level of dysfunction given the complexity of running an election in a country of its size and with deficient infrastructures. There is therefore going to be disruption. There will be violence. There will occur vigorous protests over alleged rigging, problems with the voter lists, and so on.

Disruption and violent events, to an even greater degree than occurred during the insurgency in the Delta, will take place alongside atrocities committed by this cultist and pathological group. There is a third factor about which little specific is known but which cannot be discounted. This concerns deliberate efforts by politically-motivated persons, as we have seen in Kenya, to engineer disruptions to serve themselves and their political parties. Such activities have, sadly, become a staple of Nigerian electoral contests, with gangs of young men doing the bidding of their patrons.

AS: Are people going to be afraid, then, to come out and vote because of the risk of violence?

RJ: I don’t think so. Obviously, in the area of the insurgency, that will be a factor. But most of Nigeria is reasonably calm. There is the usual degree of civic violence and crime, but many Nigerians will still come out and vote. A question has been raised about the distribution of voting cards. Every so often, Nigeria tries to introduce a more sophisticated system to reduce fraud. But then the Electoral Commission runs into trouble administering it. That is another cloud hanging over these elections. So there might be problems regarding the logistics and mechanisms of the electoral process. But that is nothing unusual. Blatant rigging and fraudulent conduct, however, have been reduced during the leadership of the Commission by Professor Attahiru Jega. The police and army have provided increased security during recent state elections, but that has been criticized as being aimed at dampening opposition voting.

AS: Let’s talk about the two candidates who are really the main focus here. There are several candidates in the field, but really two main ones. There is the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, and the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari has an interesting background. He came to power in a coup. Remind us about who he is and his place in Nigerian political history.

RJ: Buhari is a retired military officer who has had a distinguished career. He first came to national awareness following a military coup in 1975, when he was appointed to serve as a military governor in the northeast region (now the site of the insurgency). In the federal cabinet, led by General Olusegun Obasanjo, he oversaw the petroleum ministry and became a member of the Supreme Military Council. A civilian government to which the Obasanjo government handed power in 1979 was overthrown in a coup led by Buhari in December 1983. There then ensued a period of draconian rule. Numerous arrests were made for dissidence or corruption and gross abuses of human rights occurred. After 20 months, a palace coup led by Ibrahim Babangida, a member of the junta, removed Buhari and his deputy Tunde Idiagbon. He was then imprisoned for three years.

Buhari returned to prominence as Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund in the 1990s intended to finance development projects. His resurrection as a political leader continued and he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2003, 2007, and 2011. Gradually, he became the most prominent political figure in northern Nigeria and is now the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Outside his northern political base, the strongest component of this four-party alliance is the Action Congress, dominant in the southwest. His running mate from that sub-region, Yemi Osinbajo, is a distinguished lawyer, academic, former state attorney general, and church pastor.

AS: So here’s a person who was not known for his respect for civil rights during his time in office, but the polls show that the race is tight between him and Goodluck Jonathan. Why do you think Nigerians may be looking to him now?

RJ: Many Nigerians have been critical of Buhari’s actions during his stint as military head of state, for the reasons you mentioned. There is also opposition to him for positions he has taken on religion. He has been a strong advocate of Sharia in Nigeria. Overriding all this, however, is Buhari’s reputation for integrity and firmness. The country is in such a terrible situation that Nigerians are looking for a way out. Obviously, many no longer believe that Goodluck Jonathan is the man to do it. Assuming a fair vote, the election is a tossup. It is as fateful a choice as the country has faced in its 55 years as an independent nation.

AS: Nigeria has often been divided along religious lines—the Muslim North, the Christian South—and ethnic allegiances. With the race as tight as it is, are you concerned that those divisions will be exacerbated? Are we seeing a rise in sectarianism? 

RJ: When you think of Nigeria, think of countries such as India, Brazil, and Indonesia. These are large and complex countries that are committed to constitutional democracy. The other important fact is that while there are sectional divisions—North and South, Muslim and Christian—there is also a degree of multi-ethnicity, of trans-ethnicity. The transcending of ethnic, religious, and regional lines is a vital part of the Nigerian national character. After years of deliberate manipulation, especially during the eight-year regime of Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993), an election took place in June 1993 in which a geo-political reconfiguration seemed likely. Unfortunately, the Babangida regime cancelled those elections on spurious grounds. The 2015 elections may be Nigeria’s second opportunity to get beyond the firm grid of sectional frameworks. The APC has brought together two ethno-regional groupings (among others) that have usually been opposed: the core Hausa-Fulani North and the predominantly Yoruba southwest.

AS: With regard to other issues on the table, there was a recent op-ed in the New York Times by one of Nigeria’s well-known fiction writers. She discussed the fact that she doesn’t have reliable electricity at home and how she copes with that grim challenge. But she is one of the privileged persons who still manages to write superb novels in that context. What is the likelihood that this election will enable Nigerians to acquire basic things like electricity? Or see a crack-down on widespread corruption? What can these elections do for the average Nigerian?

RJ: The article by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well worth reading.[i] It is relevant in three ways. First, it suggests why the Nigerian army has not been able to defeat Boko Haram. It has been corroded by corruption as many other Nigerian institutions. You are not going to have electricity, clean water, good roads, and other necessities because of the inadequacies of core public institutions. The second thing is that this election is really about Nigeria overcoming what has held it back for so long. Goodluck Jonathan has fitted right into the prevailing system of competitive clientelism. He had never run anything of significance in his professional life. He has found himself in positions that enabled him to be pulled up all the way to the presidency. [ii]

The third concern is about Buhari. If he comes to power, will he mobilize the enormous resources of this country to address its many problems? Nigerians have had high hopes in their leaders for decades only to see them dashed. Obasanjo was arrested for his opposition to Babangida’s prolonged rule and released after four years in1998. When he became an elected president the following year, there were hopes that he would decisively carry the country forward. While he did so in some regards, he disappointed in others. Will Buhari, who turned 73 last December, with all the experience he has acquired, become the kind of leader for whom Nigerians have yearned? That prospect may emerge in the fateful 2015 election, three decades after Buhari forcefully ended a corrupt and dysfunctional civilian government.

William Miles: Buhari, A Born-Again Soldier Democrat

It seemed surreal when former Nigerian president and retired major general Muhammadu Buhari invited me into his home in the far north of Kaduna State four years ago. It was the same man who had taken power in a military coup on New Year’s Eve 1984. On that earlier occasion, I was living in a mud hut in a nondescript village off an unpaved road twenty miles away. Barely out of graduate school, I was completing a year of Fulbright-sponsored research and trying to stay under the Nigerian government’s radar.  

Now we were sitting in his small inner receiving room in Daura, separated only by the customary tray of soft drinks, bantering in Hausa. Hausa is Buhari’s native tongue, the same language I had learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in nearby Niger Republic. Whenever you utter the phrase “Boko Haram,” you are speaking Hausa. That linguistic link is one reason Muhammadu Buhari could be elected the new president of Nigeria.

At the start of 1984, Buhari was Nigeria’s head of state, leader of the Supreme Military Council, and commander-in-chief of Africa’s largest army. During the year and a half he ruled Nigeria, Buhari was feared, not only by law breakers and coup plotters executed by firing squad, but by the population at large for his domestic War Against Indiscipline. Village friends who were caught crossing the nearby border with Niger Republic, closed by the coup, recounted the humiliations and tortures they were forced to undergo by Nigerian soldiers: crawling on their knees on the pavement, elbows touching the ground; running and barking like a dog; holding their ears, for hours at a time, arms under their legs; jumping like a frog; dragging their buttocks on the stone-strewn ground; being cut on the head with broken glass.

During his time in office, the military crushed a precursor to Boko Haram – a millenarian Hausa-speaking movement led by a neo-Luddite, Cameroonian-born, Muslim preacher called Mai-Tatsine – “he who curses.” Like Boko Haram, followers of Mai-Tatsine (who was killed before Buhari took power) visited violence upon mainstream Muslims whom they accused of apostasy, according to a corrupted version of Islam that rivals Boko Haram in its theological bizarreness. Buhari is a devout Muslim whose father hailed from the ethnic group (Fulani) associated with the jihad that drastically expanded Islam in Nigeria after 1804. In his renewed campaign for Nigerian president, he claims that he can quash Boko Haram as he did the Mai-Tatsine movement.

Certainly, Buhari has stronger credentials than the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan who has been hapless in tackling the insurgency. Buhari has combat experience and military command skills, insights into the culture, language and worldview of Boko Haram, and a reputation for personal honesty and integrity. What most struck me during our chat was the political change of heart, almost a religious conversion, that he expressed. It took place during his three-year imprisonment after he was overthrown. He reflected, he told me, on his authoritarian creed and, in the privacy of his cell and soul, decided to embrace democracy. As presidential candidate for two previous political parties, he underwent three successive electoral defeats. Now, as the candidate of the All Progressives Congress, he could see the fulfillment of his jailhouse vow.

If elected president, will this retired military officer and born-again democrat mobilize the nation against Boko Haram while strengthening the civilian, constitutional, and electoral institutions of Nigeria’s Third Republic? While the Hausa would probably respond with Allah kawai ya sani – “God only knows” — the answer to this critical question transcends Nigeria and its internal religious conflicts. The ability of any majority-Muslim nation, wracked by Islamist terrorism, to extend and preserve its people’s democratic aspirations is a challenge that concerns the entire world. This is one reason Nigeria’s upcoming election matters so much, and why Buhari’s true convictions are so important.

Photo-William MilesWilliam F. S. Miles, a professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston, is author of Elections in Nigeria: A Grassroots Perspective (1988) and editor of Political Islam in West Africa.


[i] “Lights Out in Nigeria,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/opinion/sunday/lights-out-in-nigeria.html?_r=0

[ii] Sean Braswell, “The End of a Goodluck Streak?” http://www.ozy.com/rising-stars-and-provocateurs/the-end-of-a-good-luck-streak/39173. See also, Richard Joseph and Darren Kew, “Confronting Obasanjo’s Legacy,” Current History (April 2008), and Richard Joseph and Alexandra Gillies, “Nigeria’s Season of Uncertainty,” Current History (May 2010).

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