Crime, Jihad, and Dysfunction in Nigeria: Has Buhari an Answer?

by Richard Joseph 


The interweaving of crime and politics is a staple of political studies.[1] Recently, the “Panama Papers” of the law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed the global networks of tax-evasion, fraud, and money-laundering. In the case of Nigeria, criminality and predation have thwarted political and economic progress.[2] A year after the election of Muhammadu Buhari, and the historic transfer of power among political parties, the glow of political renewal has dimmed.

After huge expenditures, and structural reforms by successive governments, the provision of electricity has dropped. Queuing for petrol by motorists has returned, and businesses, hospitals, and universities are hobbled by fuel scarcity. How, it may be asked, can petroleum be scarce in a leading producer of the commodity, and during a global glut in oil supplies and collapsed prices? Deepening the distress is an attempt to stem inflation through currency control. The maintenance of an official price for the Nigerian currency, while the parallel rate soars, facilitates profiteering. The broader economic consequences of this policy are sadly predictable.[3]

Conversations with Nigerians eventually turn to the webs of criminality in which they are mired.[4] Everyone must look after self and family thereby justifying survivalist and institutionally corrosive behaviors. As in other world regions, a toxic mix of jihadism, cultism, and banditry is transforming citizens into suicidal murderers. Boko Haram is an outgrowth of socio-economic decline in the country’s northeast, a deliberately seeded extremist ideology, and decades-long disrespect for lawful governance.

Can Nigeria be extricated from this swamp? Can the Buhari government nurture a developmental rather than dysfunctional state? Answers to these questions have wide implications. As Egypt descends into an authoritarian sinkhole, Brazil succumbs to a quagmire of corrupt governance, and the ANC in South Africa’s drifts from liberation politics to predation, Nigeria’s performance as a federal democracy has global significance. In an April 5 interview with Jerome McDonnell of the NPR/WBEZ program, Worldview, Richard Joseph discussed the acute challenges posed by corruption, cultist jihadism, and dysfunctional institutions.

Listen to the interview

WBEZ: It seems that Muhammadu Buhari has prioritized the fight against Boko Haram: good decision or bad decision?

Joseph: Inevitable decision. The marauding of Boko Haram contributed to the downfall of the Goodluck Jonathan government. Buhari was seen as someone who could improve that fight. You also mentioned corruption in the program’s introduction. These were the two major concerns that he brought to the Nigerian presidency.

WBEZ: Do Nigerians look at the situation today and not see a lot of progress being made in Buhari’s first year? While there has been progress against Boko Haram, it seems like most people’s lives didn’t get any better. In view of the oil situation, their lives might have gotten worse.


Nigerians struggle to buy petrol. (Source: Agora’s Blog)


Joseph: As I said in an earlier interview, Buhari does not have a magic wand. Moreover, Nigeria is an extremely complex country. It has also suffered from the great fall in petroleum prices. Awaiting Buhari, therefore, was a depleted treasury caused by extensive corruption and mismanagement. In confronting these challenges, the Buhari administration has performed moderately well. It was important that he tackle corruption. He has gone after some very senior people. They include the former national security adviser (and retired army officer), Sambo Dasuki, for the diversion of funds intended for the fight against Boko Haram.[5] He has pursued major reforms of the oil industry; and his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo (whom I heard during my visit to Nigeria in early February), is overseeing a social reform program with very interesting elements. The government’s performance should also be judged in the context of the current global turmoil.

WBEZ: It is often said, regarding corruption, that Buhari has garnered no convictions against corruption in his first year. Is that fair?

Joseph: Not entirely. Nigeria is a constitutional democracy and a very litigious society. Individuals caught up in corruption, especially the big guys, can hire teams of lawyers. The court system is no longer as clean as it once was. We have therefore seen some of the old Buhari emerging, namely, declaring he is not going to let people play legal games to evade justice. But he doesn’t have the power to convict anyone. All he can do is have the prosecutors go after those charged with offenses. They must then contend with a court system that can be manipulated.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 10.50.13 AM

David Mark (Top Left), Bukola Saraki (Top Right), Diezani Alison-Madueke (Bottom Left), Sambo Dasuki (Bottom Right)

WBEZ: A lot of people were surprised by what has been happening with Boko Haram. Huge numbers of young women have been found. How did that play in Nigeria? How did it sound to Nigerians and how did they react?

Joseph: I spent over a week in Nigeria and, quite frankly, the issue of Boko Haram seldom came up in my conversations. And why? First of all, many Nigerians have become somewhat jaundiced about these incessant attacks. Secondly, most acts of terrorism take place in a distant part of the country, the northeast. This is a very different area from the vibrant southwest corridor that I visited. Also, Nigerians have so many problems to cope with, such as electricity and fuel scarcity, unpaid salaries, and numerous daily insecurities. Boko Haram has sadly become one of the ills with which the country must cope.[6] I am not saying this to downplay the problem. After several years, however, jihadist violence has become part of the Nigerian context.

WBEZ: How do you explain the larger context? There are hysterical reactions when a bomb goes off in Europe, drawing a huge amount of focus. In Nigeria they go off pretty frequently and it sounds like even Nigerians have become a little weary.

Joseph: There is obviously a great disparity between the treatment of terrorist attacks in Europe and those in other parts of the world. Many reasons have been given for this. In the case of Nigeria, we sometimes lose a sense of the human factor. Each time one of these bombs explode – and in some cases we’ve seen atrocity of atrocities such as the bombing of refugee camps – we are dealing with a level of inhumanity that is beyond comprehension. I often reflect not only about the numbers who are killed, but those who are injured and maimed. These attacks occur in areas lacking the medical care of the West. The global response reflect not only racial or cultural factors, and the difficulty of getting access to information. There is also a numbness that is setting in because these atrocities have become so prevalent.


Boko Haram fighters. (Source: Sunday Express)

WBEZ: In the case of these young women, it is hard to imagine what is going on when half the suicide bombers appear to be captured young women. It is awful to contemplate what is going on there. The cultish atmosphere of Boko Haram is unbelievable.

Joseph: I agree. I have called it cultist jihadism. My students are currently reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with President Obama published in The Atlantic.[7] It is good to see Mr. Obama dealing frankly with the nihilism, and the degree of inhumanity, displayed by these jihadists. And remember that it has been two years since an estimated 269 girls in Chibok were taken away. As far as I know, apart from those who were able to flee, they have not been rescued. They have disappeared into the maw of this death cult.[8]

It is good that President Obama mentioned that these atrocities didn’t just happen. There was a seeding of this ideology by clerics in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. They have facilitated funding for madrassas and seminaries and provided training for acolytes in these now affected countries. The treatment of women has been gravely affected and includes their full veiling. President Obama mentioned this development in Indonesia, but it has also occurred in Nigeria. A deliberate process of dehumanization has taken place that includes misogyny. It has reached the point at which women and young girls are turned into sex slaves, and even suicide bombers. Frankly, we do not have the language to deal with this catastrophe. I cannot come up with the appropriate words to describe the depths of this tragedy.

WBEZ: I’ve been reading a few articles about the recovery of young women. If the medical care is insufficient to deal with explosion victims, psychological care is also lacking when it comes to the trauma of these young women.

Joseph: Exactly. The fact that you can take young people, brainwash them, and have them become indiscriminate mass murderers. While we are talking about Nigeria, I also have in mind what is going on in Belgium and France. We have young people being induced to destroy themselves in a very brutal way. They are flipped from what we consider the essence of humanity to the very opposite. This phenomenon is now global. Not long ago, it was often stated that there’s no way a Nigerian would become a suicide bomber. Nigerians love life too much. Now, look where we are.


Copyright © 2016 AfricaPlus


[1] See, for instance, Jean-François Bayart, Stephen Ellis, and Béatrice Hibou, The Criminalization of the State in Africa (James Currey and Indiana University Press, 1999).

[2] Still unanswered is Stanislav Andreski’s prognosis of kleptocracy being perfected in Nigeria: The African Predicament: A Study in the Pathology of Modernisation (1968).

[3] Walter Lamberson, “How to Save Nigeria’s Economy and Stop Corruption”

[4] Much attention has focused on attempts to prosecute the current president of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, by the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Meanwhile, his long-serving predecessor, David Mark, a retired general, has been implicated in the “Panama Papers” regarding ownership of overseas shell companies.

[5] Another high-profile accused, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, Minister for Petroleum Resources in the Jonathan government – and an occupant of ministerial posts in the previous administration – was arrested on charges of bribery and corruption by British authorities in London in October 2015.

[6] For a searing depiction of the backwardness of Nigeria’s northeast – “the forgotten backyard of the country” – and the stolen girls of Chibok being “another great misfortune in a land where tragedy is an everyday occurrence”, see Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, “What’s Worse Than a Girl Being Kidnapped?”

[7] “The Obama Doctrine”

[8] For a grim update, see

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