As in the United States, there is a hiatus between a president’s election and his inauguration in Nigeria. Muhammadu Buhari will be inaugurated as president of Nigeria on May 29. In the meantime, President Jonathan remains in charge, but with little prestige and insufficient credibility to take the initiative in the aftermath of his election defeat. There will be gubernatorial and local elections on April 18; rivalries are often intense at that level, and there could be considerable bloodshed.
The crowds of Buhari’s broom-waving supporters celebrating his victory over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan were but one sign that the Nigerian people want change. But, Buhari’s election does not represent a revolution. The cooperating and competing elites who have benefitted from the current system and have run Nigeria since the restoration of civilian government in 1999 are still there and largely still in charge. They dominate Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) just as they do Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Buhari, a retired general and a former military chief of state, is a member of those elites, though unlike many others, he has never enriched himself at the public’s expense.
Buhari faces the challenge of popular demands for fundamental change with few bureaucratic tools. The civil service, which played a crucial role in holding the country together during the 1967-70 civil war, is a corrupt shadow of its former self. Other national institutions, including the military, are a shambles.
Buhari has been out of office for decades and his style is something of a lone wolf. This is especially significant in Nigeria where political parties are not based on policy but rather on personality. Between now and May 29, it is to be hoped that Buhari will assemble a team with whom he can work to initiate change. On the positive side, his political allies in the just-concluded campaign include Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former governor of Lagos state, and Babatunde Raji Fashola, the current governor. Both are first rate political operatives. (Lagos is commonly regarded as the best governed state in the Federation.) He can also call on Mohammed Rabi’u Kwankwaso, the governor of Kano state. Lagos and Kano are the two largest states in the Federation.
Buhari’s two campaign themes were that he would fight corruption, which Nigerians agree is out of control, and that he would destroy Boko Haram, the radical Islamist insurgency in the northeast. He has reiterated those themes in his post-election comments. The Nigerian people will give Buhari a short honeymoon. But, they will be increasingly impatient that he start to show results. Yet, corruption and security are issues that will take decades to address. Nevertheless, there are early steps that Buhari could take to build popular confidence in his agenda.
After his May 29, inauguration, with respect to corruption, Buhari should move quickly to revivify existing anti-corruption institutions, especially the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). New and credible appointments will be necessary as well as Buhari’s visible support. Prosecution of egregious cases of corruption could start to change the current culture of impunity and signify to the public the new government’s commitment to an anti-corruption agenda. In the past, the EFCC and other anti-corruption instruments too often were subverted by the short-term political goals of the government in power. With that baggage from the past, the EFCC’s choice of whom to prosecute will be crucial to re-establishing its credibility.
With respect to destroying Boko Haram, that too will take time, given the movement’s deep roots in the marginalization and impoverishment of northern Nigeria. In the short term, President Buhari should move to shore up Nigeria’s relations with Niger and Chad, including taking the lead in the coordination of joint military activities. He should reduce Nigeria’s current use of outside mercenaries. He should end the Jonathan administration’s policy of stone walling credible claims of security service human rights abuses. If he were to investigate those claims and, where warranted, prosecute offenders, he would open the door to the possibility of closer security cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom that up to now has been largely blocked by laws against assisting governments culpable of human rights abuses.