/ 12 March 2015

A Buhari win may turn Nigeria into a warzone

Expectations of the stern and resolute general are sky high.
Expectations of the stern and resolute general are sky high.

With only two weeks to go until the most closely contested presidential election in Nigeria’s history, the biggest issue on the agenda is security.

From Boko Haram to the instability of the oil-producing Niger Delta, the political fight between incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and the leading opposition candidate, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, revolves around who will ensure peace and stability.

Buhari is relying on his credentials as a retired general to convince the electorate that he is the man to take on the violent Boko Haram, which has killed more than 10 000 Nigerians and displaced 1.5-million others.

But what would Nigeria be like under a Buhari presidency? He has vowed to take the fight to Boko Haram. Expectations of the stern and resolute general are sky high. Senior security figures have repeatedly stated that there is no military solution to the insurgency, and that the government must address the socioeconomic causes of Boko Haram.

Buhari has dealt with insecurity in Nigeria before. In 1983, he led an army unit that drove out Chadian rebels who had made incursions across the northeastern Nigerian border. In an ironic reversal of fortunes, the Chadian army is now helping Nigeria to fight Boko Haram in the same corner of Nigeria.

In response, Buhari has described the government’s reliance on assistance from a much poorer country like Chad as a “big disgrace”.

Defence policy
The rhetoric of Buhari’s campaign suggests that the defence policy would change greatly if he was to win. His tough-talking promises resonate with the public. He has said he “will not tolerate insurgency, sabotage of the economy” and, referring to the instability in the Niger Delta, “the blowing up of installations, by stealing crude and so on … All these things will be things of the past.”

If Buhari comes to power, senior security officials such as the national security adviser, Lieutenant Colonel Sambo Dasuki, and the minister of defence, Lieutenant General Aliyu Mohammed, are likely to find themselves unemployed. Both were key figures in the military palace coup that overthrew Buhari in 1985.

There are questions over a military approach, too. So far, when the military has hit Boko Haram hard, the group has escalated its violence and taken indirect revenge on civilians. Even if Buhari does end the Boko Haram insurgency, the conspiracy theorists among his opponents will use that against him to buttress their argument that it was a political ploy to undermine Jonathan.

But Boko Haram is not the only security menace. In 2009, more than 25 000 militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta areas of southern Nigeria agreed to lay down their weapons, after years of disrupting Nigeria’s oil production, exports and installations to protest against economic exploitation. In exchange for peace, the government promised to grant them amnesty, and to give them cash stipends and training.

The elephant in the room is that the government’s amnesty deal with the militants expires later this year, and they have threatened to take up arms again if Jonathan is not re-elected. Many see Jonathan, who comes from Bayelsa State, the heartland of Nigeria’s oil-producing region, as one of their own.

Eighty percent of the government’s income comes from oil exports, so the Niger Delta insurgency carries much more severe economic consequences than the Boko Haram in the north.

Although Buhari has said very little about the Niger Delta during his election campaign, the militants have reason for discomfort if he becomes president. Ex-militant leaders have become very rich from government patronage and contracts and Buhari, a man with a reputation for austerity and a no-nonsense approach to hard work, is not the type of person to pay people money not to be violent.

In addition, Nigeria’s ethnic, geographic and religious differences can be explosive, and it’s unlikely that Buhari, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, will treat the southern Christian Niger Delta militants differently to Boko Haram. He simply won’t be able to hit one group of insurgents with an iron fist while negotiating with the other. But if he stops the Niger Delta militants’ payments, then the country could face the daunting prospect of insurgencies in both the north and south.

Those who have worked with Buhari describe him as “strong-willed” and “completely inflexible”, suggesting that his resolute and unyielding temperament means he will stick to his words and will try to force a result with insurgents on the battlefield rather than in the negotiating room.

It is a security nightmare, and an unenviable task to inherit, if Buhari becomes president. But the problems are so deep and complex that they are likely to outlast Jona­than, however long he hopes to cling to power, and Buhari, too, if he is successful. – Guardian News & Media 2015

Max Siollun is a Nigerian historian, writer and author