Nigeria Under Buhari

Opinion

Nigeria Under Buhari

Emily Mellgard

29 May 2015

Muhammadu Buhari's ascension to the Nigerian presidency is a victory for Nigerians, but the challenges ahead are daunting. Nigerian religious leaders could be strong allies, says Emily Mellgard.

Friday 29 May 2015 is Major General (ret.) Muhammadu Buhari's inauguration to Nigeria's presidency. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this ceremony, less for the fact that Buhari (a formal military head of state) is a northerner, and a Muslim, but for the success he embodies for the agency of the Nigerian people as the first opposition candidate to win an election in the country. Buhari's ascension to the presidency is a demonstration that ordinary Nigerians can have an impact at the highest reaches of Nigerian politics.

Religion was a spectre throughout the election that many feared could destroy the process.

Formerly such lofty heights have been the reserve of a small group of competing and cooperating elites who have ruled the country unchallenged since the civil war in the 1960s. Buhari, once a member of that group, now represents the rejection of that status quo. As hard won as Buhari's new position has been, his job will be even more difficult. The list of tasks before the new president and his government – to which ordinary Nigerians have been contributing to through social media hashtags such as #BuhariFixThis and #DearBuhari – is nearly insurmountable. In his inauguration speech, President Buhari stated that eliminating the Boko Haram insurgency in the North was his first priority. Additionally his administration will be prioritising issues of "pervasive corruption," fuel and power shortages, and unemployment. Nigerians, having swept Buhari to the pinnacle of the nation, expect him to address and solve these issues. Democracy has won in Nigeria and legitimacy has been restored – at least partially – to the democratic system of governance. Buhari now needs to show that he is worthy, and up to the challenge of embodying that victory. A crucial partner in that process, which will likely span his entire four-year term, will be Nigeria's religious leaders, and the relationship the new president develops with them and utilises during his tenure.

Religion was a spectre throughout the election campaign that many feared could destroy the process if brought into the debate as a polarising factor to mobilise support for one candidate or another. Nigeria is split roughly in half between Christians (who live predominantly in the south) and Muslims (who live predominantly in the north), and religion saturates virtually every aspect of society. Religious leaders wield great influence over their flocks, and have previously been used by politicians to mobilise support along religious lines, deepening existing sectarian fissures within Nigerian society.

The political candidates, however, largely resisted exploiting religion as a polarising electoral weapon. Early in his campaign Buhari went so far as to field the possibility that he would choose a Muslim running mate (the Nigerian president and vice president are traditionally of different religions), claiming that religion should not play a role in the process, and the best candidate would be selected irrespective of faith. However, he later decided on Yemi Osinbajo, an evangelical Christian pastor, law professor, and respected former state attorney general and justice commissioner from the southern state of Lagos as his vice presidential candidate.

Buhari and Osinbajo, who are reported to have a close and amicable relationship, cooperated closely throughout the campaign process to garner support across religious and geographic lines, striving to be seen as a 'Nigerian presidential ticket.' Osinbajo, along with Ahmed Tinubu, the former governor of Lagos state seen by many as Osinbajo's sponsor to his new position, have been credited with bringing in many of the sweeping electoral victories in the southwest that secured Buhari a national rather than only a northern mandate.

These successes were bolstered by outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan's unprecedented concession of defeat and congratulations of victory to Buhari. It was a move that many said was the most statesmanlike of his presidency. Perhaps as important was a statement from evangelical pastor  Ayo Oritsejafor, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, the largest and most influential Christian organisation in the country. Pastor Ayo is seen as a strong supporter of Jonathan, and has in the past been accused of partisan comments calling into question Buhari's ability to act as a national rather than a Muslim leader. His public statement to the new president was one of congratulations and hope. These statements of national unity and democracy undoubtedly went a long way toward reassuring communities, especially in the south and southeast who voted for Jonathan.

Buhari's election undermines the rhetoric of groups like Boko Haram.

The credibility of the electoral process, and the reassurances both Buhari and Osinbajo have made on their commitment to good, responsive governance and equal development nation wide have helped restore some of the legitimacy of government institutions lost under previous administrations. Anti-government and radical groups, such as Boko Haram were able to draw support and grassroots acquiescence for their movements in part because of widespread despair for effective governance. Buhari's election has shown that that reality can change, that the people can elect candidates of their choosing, and remove them from office should they prove ineffective and unresponsive to the people. This undermines the rhetoric of groups such as Boko Haram and may, in the coming months and years of Buhari's administration, shift popular opinion and trust back toward the government and away from isolationist and separatist ideologies.

In addition to tackling Boko Haram's Islamist insurgency and the underlying economic and societal deficiencies that underpin it, Buhari's task list is daunting – to say the least – and has been much discussed in the international media in the run up to his inauguration. Tackling these issues is a superhuman task and will demand a whole government and whole nation effort. Inspiring both change, and patience for the time that change will need to be made fairly and sustainably, will therefore require Buhari to rely on influencers throughout Nigeria. Religious leaders, Muslim and Christian, are uniquely placed, and hold unrivalled influence throughout all sections of Nigerian society, to act as allies to and the conscience of Buhari's administration.

 

Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.