Can Nigeria’s New President Defeat Boko Haram?

CEP Research Analyst


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In his fourth bid for the presidency and second time running against Goodluck Johnathan, Muhammadu Buhari finally triumphed at the polls on March 28.  As he prepares to take office on May 29 in what will be Nigeria’s first peaceful transition of power, Buhari is at the center of anticipation felt by both Nigerians and the international community. The burning question is whether Buhari can translate that anticipation and hope into a plan that can defeat both persistent corruption and Nigeria’s lethal Islamist insurgency, Boko Haram.

Seventy-two year-old Buhari is a military man with a mixed history. As head of a military regime, he led the country for 20 months between 1983 and 1985 and amassed a brutal human-rights record.  Buhari’s administration detained thousands of opponents, including journalists, intellectuals and student protesters. He expanded the country’s prison system and had people executed for crimes that did not carry the death sentence. His rule, known as the “War Against Indiscipline,” had as its stated goal the eradication of the widespread fraud and corruption plaguing Nigeria.

Western media have suggested that Buhari’s win over Goodluck Jonathan was due in part to his military background and reputation for incorruptibility. Boko Haram’s wanton insurgency in Nigeria’s north and the long-time failure of President Jonathan’s administration to counter its growing strength may indeed have led violence-weary Nigerians to choose a leader with a hardline reputation. Polling data from spring 2014 found that 79 percent of Nigerians had a “very unfavorable” view of Boko Haram, while 72 percent were worried about Islamic extremism in Nigeria. Public concerns about the terror group may now be stronger, after Boko Haram murdered 2,000 civilians in and around the town of Baga in January, then followed the massacre by pledging allegiance to ISIS in March.

As the Economist magazine pointed out, Buhari, a Muslim and a northerner, may be well equipped to reform Nigeria’s “miserable” and corruption-laden army, which will be essential for a protracted battle to retake sections of the country now effectively controlled by Boko Haram. (Some gains against Boko Haram in early 2015 resulted from a military surge campaign launched by Jonathan months before the presidential election. The campaign was widely seen as politically motivated.)

On April 14, 2015, the New York Times carried an op-ed written by Buhari in which the President-elect sketched a loose plan of action for defeating Boko Haram. The steps included targeting Boko Haram’s recruitment strategies, building closer ties with neighboring countries, and launching educational reforms in the north. Later in the piece, Buhari noted, “My administration would welcome the resumption of a military training agreement with the United States, which was halted during the previous administration.”

For the incoming president of Africa’s largest economy, this is simply not good enough. Not only must Buhari “welcome” fresh ties with America, he must actively seek them.

In order to defeat Boko Haram, Buhari must act swiftly to rebuild Nigeria’s military strength.  Anti-corruption measures, weapons modernization and production, and intensive counterinsurgency training are needed immediately. He must launch heavy strikes against the group in the country’s north, and make good on his assertion that “the answer to defeating Boko Haram begins and ends with Nigeria.”

While he may have won the presidency due to his reputation as a military hardliner, Buhari must also move to eradicate human rights abuses in Nigeria’s prison system and fulfill his promise to deepen existing partnerships with neighboring Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, which have all suffered from Boko Haram's cross-border raids. And in order to prevent sectarianism, Buhari must employ a diverse administration of both Muslims and Christians dedicated to plurality. Once he has taken these important steps, Buhari must actively seek fresh ties with America and other international partners.  

Days after Buhari was elected, I found myself in a taxi in Baltimore with a Nigerian driver. I asked what he thought of the recent elections in his country. With a wide grin untouched by cynicism, he said, “I’m happy Buhari won. I hope he can bring back security to my beautiful Nigeria.”

Many of us, Nigerians or not, share in that hope.