Nigeria's Once and Future Leader Takes Charge

5 MINS READApr 4, 2015 | 13:00 GMT
Muhammadu Buhari waves upon arriving to the presidential primary of the APC party in Lagos in December 2014.

When Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari takes office at the end of May, the four-time presidential candidate and former coup leader will do so with a strong electoral mandate and with the backing of a parliament likely to be controlled by his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). Nonetheless, Buhari, who soundly defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in the March 28-29 election by more than 2.5 million votes, will need every bit of this political capital to take on myriad intractable challenges that have long bedeviled the pivotal West African nation.

The new president's top priority will be security, particularly tackling the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria by sustaining the high tempo of operations that Jonathan launched in the past couple of months. These operations will be popular across the country, but especially with the APC's core constituency in the north. Attempts to tackle Nigeria's ongoing economic and energy issues, particularly related to fuel subsidies and controversial oil sector reform legislation, will be more politically contentious.

Finally, though tensions typically rise in the Niger Delta when the presidency is held by a northerner, Buhari has tools at his disposal to prevent a revival of a southern insurgency. Overall, the president-elect will start out operating from a considerably stronger position than his predecessor.

Despite achieving a near monopoly on power, Jonathan had come to be seen as in over his head by the time of his resounding defeat at the polls. Given the APC's expected majority within parliament, as well as Buhari's landslide victory in the presidential election, the party will be able to shape an agenda with only minor opposition from Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP). In fact, state-level elections on April 11 are likely to largely mirror the presidential poll, further strengthening the APC. Moreover, the APC is likely to benefit from many defections by PDP officials looking to safeguard their careers by aligning with the ruling party, improving the chances that the APC will succeed. It is not clear how strong Jonathan's party will be going forward.

Buhari, who led a military coup in late 1983 and ruled the country for nearly two years, will benefit from his deep military background in the fight against Boko Haram. Whereas Jonathan was often hesitant to empower the military to pursue Boko Haram out of fear that a stronger military could pose a threat to his own position in power, Buhari will have no such concerns. Jonathan's indecisiveness and inconsistent approach to battling Boko Haram contributed to the group's success over the past six years, but the military received an overdue quantity of equipment as Jonathan sought to turn the tide in the conflict ahead of the elections, with some success. Under the new administration, the military will be more likely to continue to receive the support needed to sustain the more vigorous operations against Boko Haram launched earlier this year. As a Muslim northerner, Buhari will also be better suited to develop the political, social and economic relationships, particularly among the northern elite, needed for a successful counterinsurgency campaign in the north.

Economics and Energy

On most issues, as a multi-constituent party with little ideological bent, the APC will not be fundamentally different from the PDP. After passing a 2015 budget, redressing economic underperformance will be Buhari's second priority. He will work to clean up poorly performing ministries and institutions by retracting some of the wide-ranging powers that Jonathan granted certain underperforming ministers. He may also seek to consolidate the APC's power by launching a strong anti-corruption campaign.

Nonetheless, Buhari will still face resistance on policy formulation and execution on some issues. Addressing longstanding problems with fuel subsidies and the Petroleum Industry Bill will prove particularly tricky. So long as oil prices remain low, Nigeria cannot afford to eschew austerity measures (though the decline in oil prices has also narrowed the difference between subsidized and market rates for fuel, reducing the bill footed by the state). But like Jonathan, Buhari cannot abandon fuel subsidies entirely without alienating Nigerian consumers and severing one of the few benefits average Nigerians see themselves as receiving from Abuja.

The Petroleum Industry Bill is needed to revive declining international interest in the Nigerian oil sector and to overhaul the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. But here too, Buhari will proceed cautiously, likely conducting an extensive review of the reform measures proposed under the Jonathan administration to ensure that the legislation does not unfairly benefit any single region, particularly the Niger Delta. Thus, the reform will not be passed as law anytime soon.

Pacifying the Niger Delta

Addressing the latent potential for unrest in the Niger Delta will be another priority, given the country's historical divides and the fact that Buhari received only scant support in the South-South and South-East zones. But despite threats by Niger Delta militants that a Buhari win would revive militancy in the region, the threats are less concerning to the new administration than the economic and northern security issues.

Maintaining the flows of patronage that have helped pacify the delta region will not be easy. Low oil prices limit the amount of cash available for such efforts, and the APC will have significant patronage obligations to its backers in the north. To mitigate the threats of violence, Buhari will start by attempting to integrate the southern political elite into the new government. For example, Buhari will likely appoint Rotimi Amaechi, the outgoing governor of the South-South zone's Rivers state who performed superbly as Buhari's national campaign manager, to a senior Cabinet position tasked with managing Niger Delta affairs.

Amaechi would likely continue a Niger Delta amnesty program where money is doled out to programs providing training and job skills to unemployed youth in order to prevent defections to militant gangs. Some of the gang leaders (most likely former rebel commanders from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) may also receive security contracts to keep watch over the creeks and waterways in the delta. Amaechi knows how the Niger Delta works, given his long experience in southern politics. Money is ultimately what keeps the region stable, and Amaechi would be given cash to keep gang leaders in check. 

In perhaps a more significant conciliatory gesture, Jonathan himself may be given a largely ceremonial position to help manage the Niger Delta region. Given Jonathan's gracious acceptance of his electoral defeat and his desire to maintain a role in Nigerian politics, Jonathan is likely to comply. Moreover, the former president would be able to keep the massive fortune he accumulated while in power. If Jonathan stepped out of line, he would likely face indictment on any number of charges, including corruption, for activities that took place on his watch as president.

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