The Buhari Challenge: Making Nigerian Democracy Work

By Richard Joseph

Nigeria’s president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, has few illusions. He has been in and out of power at the highest level since the 1970s. He has already spoken boldly about tackling corruption and the Boko Haram insurgency. And he recognizes the need to rebuild fractured ties among Nigerian communities and between Nigeria and its global partners.

It can be expected that the United States will no longer be blamed for not providing enough armaments for Nigeria’s ineffective armed forces. No longer should the giant of Africa depend on a small autocratically-run neighbor, Chad, to reclaim its border towns from the insurgency. And no more should office holders pilfer public funds with impunity while their people lack clean water, electricity, and gainful employment.

The clock is ticking. Nigerians were forced to wait six weeks to register their judgment on the Goodluck Jonathan presidency at the polls. They must wait another six weeks to witness the ceremony in which power will be transferred to the new head of state. However they voted on March 28, and in state-level elections on April 11, Nigerians must now rally behind Mohammadu Buhari and the drive to reduce regional, ethnic, and religious tensions.

The Nigerian transition could echo the assumption of power by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in South Africa and the building of a rainbow nation. In myriad constitutional exercises over a half-century, the core principles intended to guide Nigerian party politics were identified. It is now up to Buhari and the political class to make the federal democracy work in the interests of a much abused population.

On April 9, Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ/NPR in Chicago interviewed Richard Joseph on the surprising conduct of the Nigerian presidential elections. They discussed the prospects of Nigeria moving out of the rutted tracks of its corrupt prebendalist politics. An edited version of this exchange complements other recent WBEZ interviews.1

buhari jonathan

Jerome McDonnell: Nigeria has certainly made history at the polls on March 28. Muhammadu Buhari is the first opposition candidate in Nigerian history to unseat a president through the ballot box. I was really surprised by the elections. After the delay last month, it seemed like matters were working in Goodluck Jonathan’s favor, and that he was going to finagle this election.

Richard Joseph: The word ‘surprise’ is the one many scholars and others are using. A colleague, Professor Darren Kew, who recently returned from Nigeria, stated that the election was far better than he expected. Of course, there were problems.

JM: Yes, but it sounds like the man in charge of the electoral commission, Prof. Attahiru Jega, deserves a lot of credit. There was a new voting system that people said was not working so they had to delay the election. But it seems like the extra time did help, and that he helped a lot.

RJ: The appointment of Prof. Attahiru Jega as Chairman of the Electoral Commission was a decision many of us applauded. We can take a little pride because he has a PhD in Political Science from Northwestern University. He has also served as a Professor and Vice Chancellor of Bayero University, Kano.

JM: I assume that he was under an enormous amount of pressure.

RJ: Yes, and we will probably never know the extent of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were risks to his life. Senior military and security figures, and major politicians who invested a lot in the election, became concerned that the man in charge of the electoral process was not going to play ball. They ramped up the pressure but he withstood it.

JM: What else was interesting about the election? I thought how people voted didn’t break down along the normal regional and sectarian lines. Is that the case?

RJ: In fact, the zonal pattern of Nigerian party politics persisted. What happened is that the alignment of the zones shifted. Understanding this zonal pattern is key. If you compare the 2011 presidential election, which Jonathan won against Buhari (there were other minor candidates), the pattern is clear. In 2011, Buhari swept the north and Jonathan won the south. They had some support in each other’s area, but that was basically the pattern. As demonstrated in the electoral map below, Buhari’s strong showing is in shades of green while Jonathan’s is in shades of red

2011 Nigerian Election. Map by GeoCurrents.

2011 Presidential Election. Source: GeoCurrents.

In March 2015, however, the Yoruba southwest that went with Jonathan in 2011 voted for Buhari. And the Middle Belt states between north and south, which Jonathan carried in 2011, were now divided between the two candidates.2 The rest of the country, the south-south, what is also called the Delta, and the southeast stayed with Jonathan. It was still a zonal pattern, but one that had shifted.

Source: Nigeria Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)

2015 Presidential Election. Source: Nigeria Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)

JM: Is there something to be optimistic about in that shift?

RJ: Perhaps hopeful. There were three key figures in this election: Buhari himself, the 72-year former military ruler; second, Prof. Attahiru Jega; and, third, a person who would not be widely known outside Nigeria, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos state (1999-2007). Tinubu has become the political chieftain of the Yoruba southwest. The decision of the political faction he led to align with Buhari, and oppose Jonathan, was an important factor in this election.3

JM: Why did he do it?

RJ: Tinubu would have preferred to run for president.4 Yoruba politicians, inspired by their renowned leader, Obafemi Awolowo, have opposed “playing second fiddle” to the Hausa-Fulani in the north.5 What has often happened is that when the northerners dominated the federation, they partnered with the Igbo in the southeast, and linked other groups to this axis. The Yoruba thus found themselves outsiders. This time, however, Tinubu was able to maneuver the Yoruba into being part of the national equation. The two-year process to engineer this coalition, and combine Buhari’s and Tinubu’s parties in an electoral alliance, is the underlying story of the 2015 elections. If Tinubu and the southwest had stayed with Jonathan, the latter could be heading for another term as president.

JM: Buhari is in a situation where a lot of people are expecting a lot of him. He has promised to free Nigeria of corruption; that nobody is going to take money under his watch. How will he do that, even if he was a stern military leader? How can you change the system? I saw quotes from people saying that “deals have been made and things are owed”. He’s been trying to get elected for a long time and people expect payback.

RJ: Nigeria has had two previous heads of state who made similar commitments. The first was Murtala Muhammed, who came to power in a military coup in July 1975 but was assassinated in February 1976. He insisted on the need for discipline, for Nigerians to get out of their behavioral ruts. The second was Muhammadu Buhari , who first came to power in December 1983, overthrowing an elected government, but one that was in a shambles. For 18 months, Buhari insisted that Nigeria needed discipline, and he locked up many people and abused human rights.

JM: —He locked up the musician, Fela Ransome Kuti!

RJ: Yes, he locked up a lot of people. But then he was pushed aside by his military colleagues who declared that he didn’t know how to govern Nigeria. Another member of the junta, Ibrahim Babangida, came to the fore. Babangida was the Nigerian military ruler who mastered Nigerian politics. But he wouldn’t go. It was the familiar case of a military regime neither withdrawing nor preparing to go.

Buhari has returned as a born-again democrat. He has shown his democratic commitment by running for the presidency three previous times and contesting his defeat each time up to the Supreme Court. He had good grounds because those elections were flawed. Each time that the court ruled against him he didn’t take to the streets and rally his supporters.

JM: But a thousand people died after the 2011 election.

RJ: Yes, but he didn’t call on them to do so. It was a terrible uprising. This leads us to another surprise about these elections. There was great anxiety about outbreaks of mass violence. It didn’t happen perhaps for two reasons. First, Buhari won, and therefore northerners could say, “OK, our man is back”. Second, Jonathan did a really surprising thing: He called Buhari, congratulated him, and conceded the election. Many of his political associates were shocked because they were ready to fight back. But Jonathan said “No. We accept the results and the transition will begin”. That made a huge difference for Nigeria.

JM: Back to Buhari rooting out corruption. How far can he go?

RJ: His elected term is only four years and he’s seventy-two years of age. He should focus on big items. The first obvious one is the petroleum industry.6 That operation is an example of what my Northwestern colleague, Will Reno, calls a shadow state. The second one is the military. The armed forces have not been able to defeat Boko Haram because they have become so corrupted.

A third focus should be dealing with elected officers. The National Assembly consumes a lot of Nigerian national income. Corruption is not confined to the executive branch. The former Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, (now the Emir of Kano) strongly criticized the financial resources the National Assembly was consuming. All the elected officers—national legislators, state governors, and others—must be reined in. That is going to be a huge challenge. Buhari can’t do it alone. But, along with the courts, civil society, and faith-based organizations, the campaign can make major advances.

JM: The oil situation has got to be a tough one for Buhari. Even though he once directed the Petroleum Trust Fund and seems to know the oil business, it is down and there’s not enough to go around these days. How does he deal with that?

RJ: Some progress was made under Jonathan with regard to particular aspects of the petroleum industry. Parts of it have been privatized. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. It is not only the production and export of crude oil, it is also domestic energy. Most Nigerians do not have electric power from the national grid, even though the country possesses a lot of oil and natural gas. Buhari has to carry forward policies that have been on the table since Jonathan’s predecessors, Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua. The wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented. A commission can be convened and given the charge: “How do we make the oil and gas industry operate more efficiently?”. That’s one aspect of the challenge. Another is that Nigeria needs to become a leader in global efforts such as “Publish What You Pay” and the “Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative”.

With “Open Books” governance, Nigerians can learn how national revenues are generated, and where the leakages are. It used to be that when governors got their states’ allocation, the foreign exchange markets would light up because the money was going straight out. The system of public finance that involves myriad ways of basically stealing money and taking it out of the country, or recycling it into property and other assets, has to be reformed.7

JM: How much should Buhari go back and try to prosecute people who have taken money? If up to $20 billion of oil revenue was stolen, and that is a figure that is out there, should he go after the perpetrators?

RJ: Yes, the example was set by Nuhu Ribadu when he headed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (2003-2007). Because of Nigeria’s clientelistic system, it is expected that people in government are going to have access to financial resources and are expected to distribute lots of it. Even running for office incurs debts to sponsors and patrons who have to be paid off. Still, office holders have to be held accountable. Buhari has said that Jonathan has nothing to fear; but there are individuals who must be held accountable for huge losses to the public purse.

JM: What does this mean for other countries? Do other countries in Africa look at what’s happening in Nigeria and get inspiration from it?

RJ: They certainly will. We have witnessed the decline in respect for the Nigerian government among its own people, and also continentally and globally. Over the years, Nigeria became associated with scams and corruption of all sorts. Buhari can change that perception by showing that Nigeria is back in business, but a different kind of business. Nigeria can become a leader again in West Africa and in the continent. It can regain its rightful place globally as a major democratic country that is multi-religious and multi-ethnic.

Buhari and other political leaders can step forward and say “enough is enough” in terms of what I call prebendalism—how political offices are appropriated and their resources diverted into private pockets justified as communal sharing of the “national cake”. People in other African countries are adopting this concept because they observe the same practices at work. In light of what Nigeria represents in the size of its population, and its great economic potential, Buhari and the new political leadership can have a wide impact if they pursue good and honest government.

Copyright © 2015 AfricaPlus


  1. The interview was conducted by Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ/NPR, Chicago: https://soundcloud.com/wbez-worldview/an-update-on-nigeria-post-elections. 
  2. In 2015, Jonathan won Nasarawa, Plateau, and Taraba states, while Buhari took Adamawa, Benue, Kogi, and Kwara. 
  3.  The victorious All Progressives Congress (APC) was put together from several parties, notably the Buhari-led Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and Tinubu’s Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). 
  4. Or at least Buhari’s vice-president, but a Muslim-Muslim ticket was not an attractive proposition in 2015 (as it was in the annulled election of 1993). Buhari accepted Tinubu’s choice for vice-president of Yemi Osinbajo, a Yoruba Christian pastor and lawyer. 
  5. Awolowo died in 1987 but his influence persists. See Wale Abebanwi, Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency (Cambridge University Press, 2014). 
  6. See Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth (Public Affairs, 2015). 
  7. Major steps were introduced by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Finance Minister under both Obasanjo (as civilian president) and Jonathan, to promote transparency in revenue allocation. It will be debated how much was actually accomplished by these initiatives. 
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