Nearly 200 Nigerians killed in the three weeks since he was sworn in; will the real Buhari stand up?

Uganda’s Obote, Nigeria’s Obasanjo, Benin’s Kerekou, Ghana’s Rawlings reveal that second presidential second comings mostly go right - but wrong too.

TWO female suicide-bombers detonated explosives in Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri on Monday, leaving at least 20 people dead and others injured in a crowded market, residents and witnesses said.

The deaths bring the number of people killed in various terror attacks by suspected Boko Haram militants to nearly 200 since the country’s new president Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in May 29.

“We have evacuated 20 dead from the scene,” Usman Tanimu, leader of a local vigilante group, said by phone from the Borno state capital. “Several others sustained injuries.”

Boko Haram Islamist militants are waging a six-year-old campaign of gun and bomb attacks to impose Islamic law, or Shariah, in Africa’s most populous country of 175 million people.

However, observers are expressing concern that faced with what appears to be a comeback by Boko Haram, which seemed to be on the back foot in the face of a determined pushback by combined Nigerian, Chadian, and Nigerien regional forces; Buhari has not yet appointed a cabinet to deal with that and a tanking economy.

“Long delay”

Buhari’s “long delay in appointing a new federal cabinet is detracting from his reputation as a decisive reformer and may be a sign of deep divisions within the ruling power,” economist John Ashburne at London-based Capital Economics said last week.

“The holdup means that Nigeria probably faces a long period of policy drift,” he said in e-mailed comments. Buhari, who beat Goodluck Jonathan in March elections and was sworn in last month, has made no ministerial appointments.

While earlier administrations in the country have also gone weeks or months without naming key ministers, “the new president did campaign on the explicit programme of improving slow and inefficient policy-making,” Ashbourne said.

A former military ruler, Buhari’s reputation as a disciplinarian and anti-corruption figure boosted his electoral fortunes, allowing him to defeat Jonathan in one of the most applauded and surprising elections in Africa of recent years.

It was the first defeat of an incumbent by an opposition rival in Nigeria’s history, and the first democratic transfer of power from one party to another in the country.

Battered economy

Buhari inherits an economy battered mostly by the sharp drop in oil, on which it relies for about 70% of government spending, and sapped by corruption and the Boko Haram insurgency.

 Buhari (R) and his predecessor Jonathan at his inauguration. (Photo/Getty Images).

Africa’s biggest crude producer is projected to run a fiscal deficit of 1.09% of gross domestic product.

Buhari is probably viewing his challenges with a sense of deja vu.

An oil price dip was a factor that led to his ouster in 1985. And forgotten in the frustration with the Jonathan government, and the clamour for change that swept him to power, was that Buhari’s short-lived economic record was hardly illustrious when he was oil minister in 1976, and then head of the state-owned oil company.

Presidential second comings

History has treated second presidential comings in Africa like Buhari’s unevenly; for some it has been redemption, for others ignominy.

In Uganda, for example, Milton Obote was deposed in a military coup by army chief Gen. Idi Amin.

Amin went to impose one of the worst and most brutal military tyrannies in Africa on the east African country, and was only ousted in 1979 by a combined force of neighbour Tanzania’s army and a motley of Uganda rebel groups.

The rebels had gathered in Tanzania to join the war, after Amin made one of the mostly errors of his rule and invaded Tanzania in 1978.

Obote returned to power in a controversial election in December 1980, which robbed him of political authority and he spent the next five years hamstrung by factional fights inside his ruling Uganda People Congress (UPC), and a disobedient army that was fighting a spirited guerrilla war led by current President Yoweri Museveni. In July 1985 Obote’s disastrous second rule was, again, ended by a military coup.

In Benin, Mathieu Kerekou seized office in a military coup in 1972, and was forced by the post-Cold War democracy wave to give up most of his powers in 1990.

He was defeated in elections in 1991, but returned to the presidency in a democratic vote in 1996 and was re-elected in a contentious poll in 2001.

Having long-abandoned his Marxist-Leninist ideology, he oversaw some liberal reforms, leaving office in 2006 with perhaps a better reputation than he started out with when he was a soldier ruler.

In Nigeria, before Buhari, the outspoken and combative Olusegun Obasanjo was military ruler from 1976 to 1979.

He was then democratically elected when military rule ended in Nigeria in 1999, easily winning re-election in 2003 and served to May 2007 when an ill-advised attempt to change the presidential two-term limit rule was foiled.

Escaping “Obote curse”

Obasanjo, became an internationally influential president, and remains one of the continent’s more highly regarded elder statesmen. He is credited with salvaging Nigeria’s economy and returning the country to some level of global respectability, laying the foundations that eventually made Nigeria the continent’s largest economy last year.

Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings too escaped the “Obote curse”. He took power following a military coup in 1979, handed the reins to a civilian government shortly after, but then grabbed it back again at the end of 1981.

He set up a military junta and ruled until 1992, when he resigned from the army and set up a political party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) – the current ruling party - returned the country to multiparty politics, and won elections that year.

He was re-elected in 1996 for a further four years, and final term.

As military ruler, the mercurial Rawlings had several military leaders from the past tied to barrels at the beach and executed.

However, he is credited with reforming Ghana’s institutions and its economy, and building it into its current shape.

Low-hanging fruits

Buhari, then, comes to power at a time when there are hardly any low-hanging fruits that he can pick and claim glory - apart from visibly cracking down on corruption.

Nigeria too is a very different country from the one he ruled in 1985. It has enjoyed relative freedom and an open market economy for 17 years, and found its voice, so he can’t offer it those.

When he was last president, the population of Nigeria was 83.9 million, just 48% of what it is today. It is also a far more educated country.

In the next few days, he must show those asking for the real Buhari to stand up, that that Buhari is indeed still there. 

He would have to move quickly and decisively to seize redemption. Having won office on the fourth attempt, Buhari is patient and unexcitable, and might actually be a man with a plan. A photograph released on Buhari’s Facebook page Monday, showed him deliberatively working away, perhaps a message to the country that “I got this”.

Nigeria, though, is probably no longer the kind of patient country to wait long for him, as the Americans say, to get his game face on.

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