Buyer Beware: What Does President-Elect Muhammadu Buhari’s Anticorruption Record Actually Mean for Nigeria?

In my last post, I tied the rampant corruption in the Nigerian armed forces to the military’s historically central role in the country’s politics. But on March 28 and 29, Nigerians went to the polls and voted against the status quo and corruption in the military. In doing so, they ousted President Goodluck Jonathan in favor of President-Elect Muhammadu Buhari, the candidate from the All Progressives Congress (APC) party. A number of factors – the threat of Boko Haram, plummeting oil prices, out-of-control corruption and, important in light of my last post, a fissure between current and retired army officers – aligned to bring about Nigeria’s first ruling party transition since the country’s adoption of multiparty democracy in 1999. It is a truly momentous time in the country’s history and many — from President Jonathan, to the Independent National Electoral Commission, to courageous voters in conflict areas — deserve recognition.

Although many see the recent election result as a blow Nigeria’s old guard, President-Elect Buhari is from an even older guard. A former major general in the Nigerian military, he acted as head of state from 1983 to 1985 after seizing power in a coup against the democratically elected leader, Shehu Shagari; Buhari himself was ousted by coup shortly thereafter. His track record during his brief prior presidency leaves one feeling decidedly ambivalent. He waged an infamous “War Against Indiscipline,” which aimed to instill order and integrity through public whippings, summary arrests and convictions, wildly disproportionate prison sentences, and humiliating penalties for minor infractions. He is also remembered for issuing draconian decrees curtailing press freedoms.

Yet Buhari has eschewed his authoritarian past, explaining “now I want to operate as a partisan politician in a multiparty setup. It’s a fundamental difference.” There is some evidence that this is more than just talk. He stood for election in the last three cycles and, despite accusations of incitement to violence, he accepted the unfavorable results each time. Additionally, President Buhari’s progressive party, the APC, will likely influence his agenda, as will Vice President-Elect, Yemi Osinbajo, the former Attorney General of Lagos State who is a staunch advocate for justice sector reform. It will also help that Nigeria has a mostly free press, robust civic engagement, and the attention of the world. A more positive aspect of Buhari’s record from his last stint as head of state is his regime’s reputation for honesty, dedication to the fight against corruption, and action against offending officials. In fact, the 1983 coup came about under conditions quite similar to those animating Buhari’s surge today – flagrant financial mismanagement by Shagari and depressed oil prices. Buhari’s short-lived regime imprisoned roughly 500 elite politicians and businessmen on corruption charges. Partly because of this legacy, there are now high expectations — perhaps unrealistically high — that President-Elect Buhari will be able to act effectively against corruption in Nigeria. After all, his campaign platform emphasized anticorruption (along with pledges to fight Boko Haram more effectively), and this theme had widespread appeal among voters. Given President-Elect Buhari’s record from his previous stint as Nigeria’s president in the early 1980s, many believe that he has the “political will” to fight corruption that President Jonathan sorely lacked.

Yet even if Buhari’s intentions are pure, and his will strong, there are a number of reasons not to get too excited too soon about what Buhari will be able to accomplish on this front. Indeed, the progress that Nigeria has made toward genuine multiparty democracy, exemplified by Buhari’s election, may — perhaps ironically or perversely — make it more difficult for him to pursue an anticorruption agenda now than it was the last time around.

President-Elect Buhari faces a much different set of corruption challenges and political conditions than he did in 1983, making it less clear whether he will be able to translate his commitment to fighting corruption into tangible results. After all, political will is a necessary but not sufficient condition for anticorruption reform. Buhari has experience fighting graft in an environment of absolute power. As the democratically elected president, he will have access to tools like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) but he will also have to work with a strong opposition party, suppress entrenched beneficiaries, and abide by due process norms.

In this regard it is telling — and perhaps troubling — that in many of the countries that have made serious strides against corruption within the last generation — in places like Botswana, Singapore, China, Rwanda, the UAE, and Bahrain — leaders ruled in effective single-party democracies, or semi-authoritarian to authoritarian regimes. By contrast, someone like Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, who leads through a power-sharing agreement with his opponent, has faced a steeper uphill battle in his push to stamp out corruption. While these are just anecdotes, and there are numerous counterexamples, more systematic studies (see here and here) show that, absent “deep democratization” through the development of strong institutions, the transition to multiparty democracy might actually exacerbate the problem of corruption.

My point is not that Nigeria should reverse its trajectory of democratization. Quite the contrary. Now that Buhari has won, he will have the opportunity to make a move in the right direction by building the rule of law and institutions of accountability — the sort of “deep democratization” that, in the long term, may be the key to rooting out systemic corruption. In light of his inexperience doing either, however, citizens should demand the details of his anticorruption agenda, but be realistic about what to expect.

4 thoughts on “Buyer Beware: What Does President-Elect Muhammadu Buhari’s Anticorruption Record Actually Mean for Nigeria?

  1. Many things(good and bad) in Africa a currently growing in a more complicated manner but instution arrangement is growing extraordinary slow,, not only domestic institution but even the international institution like the AU and others regional institutions are more important in writings but when it comes to practical reality are more like mere places of talk.

    The point I wish to stress here is that, we have two phenomena in Africa, we have corruption which is rising rapidly and accompanied with sophisticated technics while instution arrangement to curb it, rages very very far behind. Domestic institutions such as legal institutions do not yield predictable results. The question is, can we move the institutional agenda to catch up with this new challenges? Some will say yes, as institutions follows demand and not the other way round, but am much interested with those who will disagree because the later will provide a simple and predictable method more than the former.

  2. I know very little about Buhari’s last reign and was hoping you could clarify one thing: When Buhari arrested the 500 elites last time around, was the general perception that they were almost all guilty of corruption? Or was it mostly a way to shore up his power base and remove the opposition? Alternatively were there far more than 500 corrupt actors on a large scale and he arrested those who opposed him politically?

    There is a vein of political science that finds that introducing democracy in countries below a certain average income level tends to create more instability. I wonder if you are bringing up a somewhat analogous point with corruption. While Democracy might be the most stabilizing (and reduce corruption the most) in the long term, it could potentially hinder strong action against corruption in the short term in countries without a strong will to fight it.

  3. This is a great post, Liz. I haven’t spent much time thinking about the interaction between ‘democracy deepening’ and anticorruption, and I don’t know much about Nigeria, but I’m wondering if this a situation in which competing political interests stall anticorruption progress through a process that is (or at least could be) good for democracy, or one in which pro-democracy and anticorruption interests are fighting to take take over institutions controlled by authoritarian/beneficiary systems? Do you think Buhari/the Presidency’s anticorruption programs will be stalled in institutions controlled by the opposition because the opposition is protecting it’s political footing in government institutions, and that the success of anticorruption programs could be a casualty of this robust multiparty system? Or would the situation be better characterized as one in which the opposition, perhaps because it’s power base depends upon strong beneficiary relationships, is opposed to the anticorruption programs in and of themselves? This question is of course a bit rhetorical, as I’m guessing it’s a mix of these and other factors. I raise the issue because I assume each situation would need different anticorruption strategies (for example, in the first scenario the opposition may be encouraged to develop it;s own anticorruption agenda, one which they can take credit for in the next elections. In the second scenario perhaps donors and the public should focus on removing independent supports for the institutions)

  4. As always, thank you for these interesting views.
    Nigerians have invested a lot of faith in these elections and look forward to reaping effective change. As with many multiparty presidential governments facing serious challenges, President-elect Buhari will have to develop solutions with his team and the opposition.
    I am however a little unclear on the “deep democratization” point. I suppose that having people run democracies mean that everyone continues on a trajectory of “better”.

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