Nigerians Elect Former Dictator to Save Democracy

Nigerians have elected a new president, the first time an opposition candidate defeated an incumbent since the restoration of democracy in 1999. Muhammad Buhari, a 72-year-old former dictator and perennial presidential candidate, will take over on May 29.

Nigeria enjoys the continent’s largest GDP but trails several African nations in per capita GDP. Although possessing extensive energy resources, the nation suffers from regular power outages.

Nigerians are entrepreneurial but nearly a quarter of them are unemployed. An intrusive, exploitative state blocks economic development and steals wealth. According to the latest Economic Freedom of the World Nigeria has one of the world’s least open economies, coming in at 125 of the 152 countries rated. This discourages foreign investment in what should be the continent’s best market.

Corruption raises the cost of business and rewards economic manipulation. Last year an expatriate worker told me:  “Nigeria is not a country. It is an opportunity.”

Nigerian politics is anything but clean. Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party ruled for 16 years, using patronage and other tools of incumbency to maintain power.

Nigeria better protects political rights and civil liberties than many African states. However, the State Department pointed to a number of human rights challenges, including “vigilante killings; prolonged pretrial detention; denial of fair public trail; executive influence on the judiciary; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement.”

Insecurity is pervasive. When I visited last year my group sported a well-armed escort. The oil-rich Niger Delta is especially dangerous; executives admit to paying bribes to discourage attacks.

Worse, sectarianism divides the nation. At times violence flares.

In recent years the murderous Boko Haram extended its reach across Nigeria. The group received a blaze of publicity last year after kidnapping hundreds of school girls. Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 Nigerians and displaced 1.5 million people in Nigeria and neighboring countries.

The Nigerian military is underfunded and ill-trained, distrusted by civilian politicians. Worse, government abuses generate support for Boko Haram.

Understandably, Nigerians desperately wanted change. But in what direction?

As dictator, Buhari lasted only 20 months before being unseated by another general. The Economist observed: “He detained thousands of opponents, silenced the press, banned political meetings and had people executed for crimes that were not capital offenses when they were committed.”

Buhari says he now recognizes democracy to be the better option. He has a reputation for probity and being a Muslim may better position him to combat Boko Haram.

However, energizing the economy may prove more difficult. Candidate Buhari promised much. While there are some free market advocates in Buhari’s coalition, more around him are not and he is thought to be an “unreconstructed statist,” according to the Financial Times. This is a prescription for economic failure.

His previous record is cause for pessimism. Noted the Economist: “He expelled 700,000 immigrants under the illusion that this would create jobs for Nigerians. His economic policies, which included the fixing of prices and bans on ‘unnecessary’ imports, were both crass and ineffective.” Nigeria cannot afford a repeat performance.

Still, in at least one important respect the election was good news. Despite some technical problems, the election went surprisingly well. Jenai Cox of Freedom House called the vote “one of the smoothest and least violent in Nigeria’s history.”

Equally important was President Jonathan’s unconditional acceptance of the results. He declared:  “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” And he did.

As I point out in Forbes online, “Nigeria’s success suggests that the country has developed a lusher civil society and stronger commitment to the rule of law than often thought. Moreover, this experience offers hope for other African nations struggling with democracy.”

Nigeria is a tragedy. Not so much because of the bad events which have occurred, which are many, but for its many lost opportunities and great unused potential. The future of Nigeria now rests in Muhammad Buhari’s hands.