In a move that is likely to surprise a lot of people in the West, Nigeria has elected for the presidency a man who truncated a democratic government three decades ago.
Former General Muhammadu Buhari won on Tuesday a keenly contested election, by a very slim margin, to become the first man in my country’s fifty-five years as a postcolonial state to unseat an incumbent government via the ballot box. This is a change.
Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, after thirty-three years of primarily military rule. For four years, between 1979 and 1983, democracy surfaced briefly, until Buhari led a military coup to end it. He proceeded to run one of the most brutal regimes that Nigeria has ever seen. His Decrees 2 and 4 were aimed directly at press freedom and the right to free assembly, and a lot of people were imprisoned and killed under those laws.
But Buhari says he is a “changed” man. Since 1999, the People’s Democratic Party has governed the country. Buhari has competed against PDP opponents in three previous elections, and lost each time. His first two losses, in 2003 and 2007, were marred with controversy because of irregularities, vote rigging, ballot box snatching and voter intimidation. Following the fiasco of the 2007 elections, reforms forced greater transparency. And the 2015 vote has to many Nigerians been a welcome indicator that we do know how to organize elections. Buhari says his role in that development—as the three-time losing candidate who continued to marshal votes rather than guns—is proof of his commitment to democracy.
Still, why did Nigerians opt for a former dictator, with such a brutal past?
One reason is security. Just before he became dictator, in 1983, Buhari put down the Maisatsine insurgency. Maisatsine was the forbear of today’s Boko Haram movement and many Nigerians long for that kind of decisive action now.
But another reason is impatience with the “transformation” that was the mantra of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. In the last half a decade, Nigerians really have witnessed a transformation of the country. But the truth is that for the vast majority of my people, this transformation has not been for the better. Our lives have gotten a lot worse.
Yes, there was growth. In 2014, Nigeria became Africa’s largest economy. But that growth, which made our economy larger than South Africa’s, was in reality a statistical change that did nothing to improve the quality of life of the Nigerian.
There is an example that I use to illustrate the difference. My son turned 1 year old last month, and I like to tell people that he’s been growing since he was born. My wife and I have tried to provide for him as best as we can, so he can grow. However, if in the past year we had fed him on just bread and water, he would still have grown—but he would not have developed.