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Probably no other leader in Nigerian history has had a deeper fund of goodwill to tap into at inception than Muhammadu Buhari did when he took the reins in 2015. Nor could the public mood at the time of his inauguration have been more auspicious. On the one hand, Nigerians seemed to have had enough of Goodluck Jonathan’s habitual dithering. As time went on over the course of his presidency (2010- 2015), Jonathan had looked increasingly out of sorts, reinforcing the belief that, dumb luck apart, he had no business in the exalted office.
Buhari, on the other hand, seemed ready to get back in the saddle after a previous controversial stint (1983- 1985) as military ruler. He was widely perceived as above board, a rarity for a former Nigerian public office holder. Furthermore, his military pedigree was deemed essential given the unchecked rampages of the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency, which had ramped up under Jonathan, who initially downplayed its gravity before turning to South African mercenaries in desperation as the 2015 elections loomed. In any case, or so it seemed to a segment of the Nigerian electorate at the time, anyone so desperate for the nation’s highest office as to run four times (Buhari had previously run unsuccessfully in 2003, 2007 and 2011) had to have something special up their sleeve.
Heads of State and Government
That Buhari managed to turn such wild enthusiasm about his candidacy into grave disappointment, going from a regime of which many, rightly or not, had high hopes, to one that most can’t wait to see the back of, ranks among the most remarkable instances of reputational collapse in the whole of Nigerian political history. It was clear within the first few months—the initial struggle to put together a cabinet being particularly telling—that Buhari, for all his desperation to take power, had not done his homework and was ill prepared for the demands of the office.
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Nor did he seem particularly eager to embrace the role of uniter, something that the political divisions in the country at the time clearly demanded. Addressing an international audience at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in July 2015, Buhari signaled that he would favor the regions of the country which voted for him against those which did not: “The constituencies, for example, that gave me 97 percent cannot, in all honesty, be treated equally on some issues with constituencies that gave me 5 percent. I think these are political realities.” Buhari had secured the lowest percentage of votes in the Igbo dominated southeast region.
In any fair assessment, the verdict of failure on the Buhari presidency would seem unavoidable. The economy, for one, is in a far worse shape than Buhari met it when he took office eight years ago. According to the World Bank, following a period between 2001 and 2014 when, with an average growth of seven percent, Nigeria was “among the top 15 fastest-growing economies globally,” Nigeria entered a period of stagnation in 2015 as “oil prices fell, the security situation deteriorated, macroeconomic reforms were reversed, and economic policies became increasingly unpredictable.” Unsurprisingly, real per capita income fell during the same period, reaching its level in the 1980s by the end of 2021. His fiscal indiscipline, highlighted by an appetite for borrowing unmatched in Nigeria’s annals (with less than two weeks to the end of his tenure, Buhari has requested the approval of the Senate for an 800-million-dollar World Bank line of credit) has put the country in an improbable seventy-seven trillion Naira hole.
Similarly, the security situation took a turn for the worse on Buhari’s watch, an irony, given justifiable popular confidence at his inception that this was one sector where the president’s military background gave him an edge over his predecessor. Buhari himself was not above pointing to this apparent advantage on the campaign trail. Yet, since 2015, amid deteriorating public safety, at least sixty-three thousand Nigerians have been killed in various acts of state and nonstate extrajudicial violence, with attacks by Islamist insurgents, assorted armed bandits, and kidnappers claiming the most lives. Numbers aside, a real sense of lawlessness pervades, with a growing recourse to vigilante justice signaling popular frustration at law enforcement and the judicial system.
Corruption, too, has worsened. Last year, a Nigerian newspaper lamented that “cronyism and nepotism in Buhari’s key appointments have conflated with the working of government agencies at cross-purposes to fuel corruption.” At the same time, “serial interference” by the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice appears to have stymied the work of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the state’s anti-graft agency. State pardon of top public officials convicted of corruption has both tarnished Buhari’s image as a beacon of transparency and stiffened common perception that his commitment to transparency is merely rhetorical. Paradoxically, his administration may have borne out Buhari’s private fears that, as he once confided to a top US diplomat, “the legacy of corruption in Nigeria will endure much longer than the legacy of colonialism.”
Heads of State and Government
To say that Buhari has failed is not to hold him personally responsible for all of Nigeria’s failures. Not only is he ultimately emblematic of the prevailing political culture, Buhari, in so many ways, merely played the hand that he was dealt. In any event, there is the reality that no single leader, not even one more intellectually gifted and administratively astute than Buhari, can be expected to take on and solve Nigeria’s socioeconomic problems (for such are their entanglements and intricacies), never mind within eight short years. Monocultural economies are not so easily detached from their accustomed moorings, and, in any event, no single individual can be held responsible for the ups and downs of the global oil market, the reported theft of an estimated 437,000 barrels of crude oil on a daily basis, or the serial collapse of the national power grid (the official count is 99 times over the course of the Buhari presidency). That said, Buhari could doubtless have done more with what he was given and may well regret until his dying day his failure to leverage the favorable public mood in the immediate aftermath of his inauguration for tangible social transformation.
By and large, Buhari failed simply because he lacked the wherewithal to govern. For one thing, if he had anything resembling a coherent economic vision, he never once articulated it, and for a man who was once ousted from power for, according to his adversaries, arrogating to himself “absolute knowledge of problems and solutions” and acting “in accordance with what was convenient to him, using the machinery of government as his tool,” he rarely saw the need to avail himself of the wealth of technical and economic expertise at his disposal. If anything, he always exuded the air of someone trapped in a 1970s command-and-control mindset, unable to adjust to the exigencies of the current moment, yet unable to do anything about it. Strangely enough, with his very ascent to the presidency, he may have achieved the only thing he really ever wanted: to recoup (sic) what he must have felt was an unfair ejection from power in his first coming as the head of a military junta. If this hypothesis is correct, Buhari’s second coming had more to do with personal redemption than public salvation.
Buhari also failed because he could not establish an emotional connection with the Nigerian public. While Jonathan always seemed too eager to please (he spent as much time on his knees as he did on his feet), Buhari’s aloofness was such as to expose him to accusations of insensitivity. His not infrequent admission that he could not wait to retire to his country home in Daura, Katsina State, may well have come from a place of genuine humility, but all it did was to consolidate widespread belief that he was a man out of his depth and all but content to run down the clock. At his best, Buhari, who, it must be remembered, never built his own political machine but vaulted to power on the back of Bola Tinubu’s, always seemed more of a sectional than national leader. On that score, he fully merits the ire directed at him by those who blame him for the deepening of ethnoreligious cleavage between Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim communities. Never before in the history of political leadership in the country has a man so evidently cosmopolitan appeared at the same time so provincial.
If there is one commanding insight for Nigerians to take away from the Buhari presidency, it is that it is possible for an individual believed by many to be personally incorruptible to preside over an administration that is nonetheless defined by corruption and rank incompetence. On the contrary, with the incoming Bola Tinubu government, Nigerians will soon find out whether a leader widely seen as corrupt can preside over a relatively malfeasance-free and reasonably competent administration.
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.
Why Buhari Failed – Council on Foreign Relations