Muhammadu Buhari, the leading opposition candidate in Nigeria’s upcoming presidential election, delivered an address at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in London on February 26. The speech appears intended for an international audience. In it, Buhari revisits his campaign themes: the importance of democracy and of credible elections, the struggle against corruption, and military reform in the face of Boko Haram.
In the last paragraph of the address, Buhari confronted what many consider the ‘elephant in the living room’ with regards to his presidential candidacy, his twenty-month tenure as military chief of state between December 31, 1983, and August 27, 1985. To attain this role, Buhari led a coup against the civilian, democratically elected government of Shehu Shagari, whose administration was characterized by rampant corruption. Buhari’s government was overthrown by another military coup led by Ibrahim Babangida, who was motivated, in part, by Buhari’s harsh anti-corruption policies.
In his Chatham House address, Buhari took full responsibility for what occurred during his military rule and said that dictatorship cannot be separated from military rule. In effect, he said he has since changed. The collapse of the Soviet Union, communism, and the spread of democracy throughout Africa convinced him that change “can be brought about without firing a single shot.” For him, this realization was a turning point: “So before you is a military ruler and a converted democrat who is ready to operate under democratic norms and is subjecting himself to the rigors of democratic elections for the fourth time.”
Buhari ran as a civilian for the presidency in 2003, 2007, and 2011. He lost to the incumbent each time in elections characterized by irregularities. Each time, Buhari appealed to the courts, and each time he lost in judgments that were questionable, at best. After his last judicial episode, he said he would never again appeal to the courts. Nevertheless, in the event of disputed elections in March, it is to be hoped that Buhari would again appeal to the courts, a move that would demonstrate his true conversion to democracy.