Upon entering office in May 2015, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari faced the daunting tasks of living up to exceedingly high international expectations and meeting the needs of a nation that was clearly yearning for change. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to recall an African head of state that came to office with more pressure, but also the amount of goodwill that President Buhari immediately assumed after his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, conceded power. Buhari’s main selling points were his stated commitments to ethical leadership, fairness and a consolidation of democracy. One year into his tenure, however, and it seems as if Buhari has turned his back on these goals.
Nigeria is both an economic and political powerhouse on the African continent, and much of what happens inside its borders heavily influences – for better or for worse – both perceptions and the real trajectory of an entire region. On the whole, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Nigeria is a member, has made tremendous strides in recent years on a wide range of issues, spanning political and economic rights to civil liberties. One could argue, in fact, that ECOWAS – with a few notable exceptions – has recently outpaced the remainder of the African continent on many of these fronts, all of which are vitally essential to building sustainable democracy.
Another significant building block of democracy is confronting the scourge of corruption, which has severely stunted socio-economic progress in Nigeria since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. A widespread concern in Nigeria that actually helped to push Buhari’s predecessor out of office was the billions of dollars of oil revenue that disappeared under his administration, in addition to credible allegations of graft and runaway illicit outflows. Unsurprisingly, Buhari was elected on an anti-corruption ticket and has since cracked down on graft in various sectors of the government. Indeed, the country’s Interior Minister recently reported that over $10 billion in looted cash and assets had been confiscated in the past year alone. More recent reports indicate that only a fraction of that figure has been recovered, with estimates perhaps closer to $600 million.
Of principal concern here is that the Buhari government’s anti-corruption campaign has been almost entirely one-sided, seeming to focus overwhelmingly on his predecessor’s allies, namely members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). An overview of the actions thus far taken by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the law enforcement agency tasked with investigating financial crime in Nigeria, bears this out. Since January of this year, the EFCC has either arraigned or arrested 124 individuals, including prominent government officials who have been implicated in a range of financial crimes. Of these documented cases, only 4% involve individuals affiliated with Buhari’s All Progressive’s Congress (APC). What’s more, this discrepancy seems to only be getting worse. Taking stock of the past two months, only one of 34 known EFCC cases has involved a member of the APC: AbdurRahman Abba Jimeta, the chief of staff to one of Nigeria’s state governors
It is foolish to suggest that corruption and related financial malfeasance are relegated to a single political party or group of individuals in Nigeria. That the country routinely ranks in the top 10 in the world in terms of cumulative illicit financial outflows signals a more pervasive problem. What is more, the one-sided affair currently being conducted by the Buhari government may ultimately plant the seeds for both social and political conflict.
Of further concern is that the apparently biased anti-corruption drive has coincided with other events in Nigeria that should raise our collective eyebrows. For example, summary detentions and extrajudicial killings have gone unchecked or otherwise rewarded. When Buhari reinstated a senior military general implicated in the wanton murder of hundreds of detainees, Amnesty International called it a “mockery of commitments to end war crimes.” Biased targeting of certain political parties, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to malfeasance in his own, are all worrisome trends that could lead to the consolidation not of democracy, but of entrenched power around a single man. We have witnessed this scenario unfold time and time again, including in Nigeria. One is indeed compelled to recall Buhari’s not-so-distant past when he ruled the country as an unabashed military dictator, a period during which he isolated himself and his allies from both accountability and prosecution for the myriad crimes committed under his watch. Perhaps sensing this negative course, a coalition of Nigerian human rights groups has already appealed for international help, with others sure to follow suit.
A crucial consideration for world leaders, international donors and even business executives interested in Africa’s future is to identify which political leaders are serious about building modern states premised on the rule of law, good governance and respect for human rights. President Buhari was given tremendous leeway and was lauded across the world upon entering office. Many observers – and even those in the human rights community – were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, desperately wanting to believe his claim of being a “born again democrat.”
All told, it would be highly unfortunate if Buhari were to squander that political capital and to willingly allow Nigeria to backslide on the many key indicators of a functioning and sustainable democracy. The warning signs are there, demanding vigilance and a sense of candor among those concerned not only with Nigeria, but also with the democratic trajectory of the surrounding region. As undemocratic regimes become more entrenched, so does the level of corruption in all of its ugly and contagious forms.
I imagine that many in Nigeria, and even outside observers, remain willing to provide Buhari the benefit of the doubt. But true leadership begets scrutiny, and the international community has a role to play in preventing the brazen consolidation of power and the sidelining of democracy. The silence that has met eerily similar developments across Africa, from Angola and Zimbabwe in the south, to Gambia in the west and Uganda in the east, has produced devastating consequences. We should therefore learn from these mistakes and not be satisfied as cautious bystanders to unfolding events in Nigeria.