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Will Buhari's presidency offer change or a charade?

Nigeria's new leader faces daunting challenges, but he should harness the current goodwill to usher in genuine reforms

May 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

Nigeria’s President-elect Muhammad Buhari is being inaugurated today as the country’s third democratically elected president since its return to constitutional democracy in 1999. Since his election in March, a lot has been said about the historic transition of power from an incumbent president to an opposition candidate. Many have savored Nigeria’s moment of democratic ethos, but his administration faces enormous challenges, including corruption, power outages, unemployment, poverty and Boko Haram.

The stakes are so high that Nigerian observer Murray Bruce recently said, “Buhari may wish he did not win the 2015 elections when the reality of our economic situation sets in.” Buhari is the second person to get a second chance to govern Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. How he approaches the country’s myriad challenges will determine whether the transfer of power is truly a change or charade. His two major tests will be to rein in the country’s corrupt political and business class and to end the hemorrhaging of Nigeria’s resources, especially oil revenues.

During his brief tenure as the head of state in the 1980s, Buhari built a reputation for incorruptibility. If this record is any guide, Nigerians should look forward to a disciplined presidency. But the young and energetic Buhari of 1984 is not the same as today’s, in his 70s. His diminished zest and the current democratic restraints may mean that he won’t be able to enforce order and discipline as he did 30 years ago. This is one of the many known unknowns in Nigeria currently and possibly for the next few years.

Buhari ran for president an unprecedented four times. Unlike his predecessor, who found himself in the exalted office with little preparation, Buhari’s success may hinge on his deep knowledge of the country. And regardless of his experience, as Nigeria transitions to a new administration, so should Buhari. As a military leader, he issued orders at his whim, commands that will now be subject to review and resistance from the legislature and judiciary. (Olusegun Obasanjo, his onetime colleague in the military and a former president, had a difficult time making a shift from soldierly impulses to civilian accommodation and tolerance.) In addition, Buhari must learn to accept criticism from citizens, the media and his opponents.

He has already demonstrated the need for lessons in democratic governance. Last month his transition team allegedly barred the popular Africa Independent Television from covering his activities, thereby reminding Nigerians of the infamous Decree 4, which he promulgated in 1984 to intimidate the media. The law barred the media from criticizing public officers.

His influence with the new legislature also raises concerns. His All Progressives Congress (APC) controls both chambers of the National Assembly, ensuring that there will be little or no opposition to his policies. It will give him a political space similar to the command and control method in the military, denying Nigeria the benefits inherent in having a check on executive power. 

Nigeria faces a daunting task under Buhari, but he must harness the goodwill and resilience of Nigerians and the international community to usher in real change.

Genuine political opposition is a necessary attribute of democracy. It animates the political scene and shakes off lethargy, complacency and groupthink. Through vigorous debates, lawmakers often express the views and policy preferences of their diverse constituents, resulting in better decisions. During its 14-year hold on power, the defeated Peoples Democratic Party did not have any opposition. This led to political cannibalism, in which influential politicians engaged in politics of vendetta, mudslinging and inordinate ambition, ensuring its downfall. After winning majorities in both houses of the legislature, the APC faces a similar political structure. If the actors, starting with Buhari, misinterpret the electoral mandate to suit their parochial views, the party could quickly lose the people’s trust.

Nigerians voted for change, and expectations are understandably high for the born-again democrat. The transfer of power offers Buhari an opportunity to end the plutocrats’ predatory behavior. The War Against Indiscipline, an ethical reorientation and anti-corruption program that Buhari championed in the 1980s, should start in house. He can begin with the chairman of the APC, Bola Tinubu, who faces allegations of a dark past, including an unresolved money-laundering and drug-trafficking case in the United States.

Buhari won the election in part because of Tinubu’s influence in Nigeria’s monolithic southwestern region. Consequently, he is indebted to the deft politician, but how Buhari deals with him is likely to bring to the fore the struggle between the military and Nigeria’s political class. In the early 1980s, Buhari threw the likes of Tinubu in prison with little or no judicial review — impossible under a democratic government.

Foreign policy will provide another test. For starters, Buhari needs to restore the Nigerian-U.S. relationship, which has been harmed by security concerns emanating from Boko Haram’s activities. He must regain the confidence of the White House, and connecting with the U.S. delegation to his inauguration, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, will be an important starting point. He should impress on the delegation why President Barack Obama should add Nigeria to his itinerary during a planned visit to Kenya later this summer. Such a high-profile visit would send a clear message to other African countries, which may be looking to emulate Nigeria’s recent electoral success.

Nigeria faces a daunting task under Buhari, but the country is no stranger to doomsday predictions. He must harness the goodwill and resilience of Nigerians and the international community to usher in real change. The overwhelming embrace and reception of his administration is reminiscent of the 1983 coup, in which his military junta sacked President Shehu Shagari’s corrupt administration. Thirty years on, under Buhari 2.0, Nigerian citizens used the ballot to remove yet another corrupt regime. This is Buhari’s moment. He can either use it or abuse it. The choice is very clear, and Nigerians and the rest of the world are watching. 

Uchenna Ekwo is the president of the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives, a New York–based media and policy think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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