By Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood:
“Elections belong to people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters” – Abraham Lincoln
When elections loom we often make the mistake of believing that voting for a different party or a new president will bring about real change. Soon we realise that those voted in are just a continuation of the old system, but with a different face, or the reappearance of a system that has long ceased to be relevant. This is the choice between change – real change – and just an alternative government.
The Nigerian elections, originally scheduled for Saturday but recently postponed by six weeks due to security concerns, raise this issue. Do the Nigerian people want change, or just an alternative government?
For many, the time is right for someone other than the incumbent president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, to lead the country. These people argue that the current president has failed to deliver his electoral promises, as well as failing to protect Nigerians from the Islamist sect, Boko Haram. The 276 girls they kidnapped in April 2014 are still missing and last month they allegedly killed an estimated 2000 people in Baga, Bornu State.[i] As a result, many Nigerians believe that Retired General Buhari is the change Nigeria needs.[ii]
Buhari’s time in office as military leader in 1984 was short-lived because he was soon ousted by a coup. While opinion is divided as to whether he was an effective leader or not, it is no secret that his time as military president was marked by deplorable human rights abuses. His regime is accused of engaging in extrajudicial detention, killings, enforced disappearance, and house arrests, amongst other violations.[iii] He contested the 2011 democratic elections and lost. A loss he did not accept quietly.
The victor was Goodluck Jonathan, who has been ridiculed in the Western media as an ineffective leader more concerned with protecting his own than dealing with the security crisis in his country. But is this fair?
Upon taking his oath of office in May 2011, Jonathan promised Nigerians a policy package tagged the ‘Transformation Agenda’. A five-year development plan aimed at ensuring strong, inclusive and non-inflationary growth, generating employment and alleviating poverty, among other things.[iv]
Undoubtedly, Goodluck Jonathan’s ‘transformation agenda’ has its shortcomings. For example, despite recording occasional ‘victories’ against Boko Haram, the security situation in Nigeria remains deplorable. In addition, despite pledging to having a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption, his government has thus far failed to show commitment to prosecuting corrupt officials. In terms of the economy, although it is improving, with Nigeria having emerged as the biggest economy in Africa, poverty remains rife in the country, with an estimated 70% of the Nigerian population living below the poverty line.[v]
Similarly, health care delivery in Nigeria is still lacking, especially in the rural areas where the majority of the population live.[vi] There are many reasons to be frustrated by the lack of progress made by the incumbent president in fulfilling his ‘transformation agenda’; particularly with respect to the state of tertiary institutions, where strike remains rife among lecturers.
Yet it is important to recognise that the president’s ‘transformative agenda’ has had its positives too, especially judging by Nigeria’s current economic trends, with enormous investment in the agricultural sector.[vii] Nigeria is trying to diversify its sources of revenue and move away from its over-reliance on oil, as it had done in the past.[viii] One achievement of his administration, for which his detractors do not give him enough credit, is the revamp of creaking infrastructure like the airports, roads, and railways. While progress is slow, these infrastructure issues are receiving much-needed attention after decades of neglect or, in the case of the railways, complete desertion. There is also evidence of an improvement in the electricity supply, which has been a long-standing problem.[ix]
While the falling petrol prices across the globe might not be in the interest of the economy, since Jonathan was elected president the issue of petrol scarcity has become a thing of the past, especially during the festive periods. What is more, the price of fuel has fallen for ordinary Nigerians in more recent times, which his detractors are not happy to admit.[x]
The main alternative to President Jonathan is Rtd General Mohamed Buhari. Those who are against the idea of him leading Nigeria argue that, at almost 73, he is too old and frail, and that he would represent a step backwards, not a step forwards. In 2001, Buhari pushed for the implementation of Sharia law across Nigeria, despite the fact that the country is multi-religious. [xi] If elected, would he not commit to his vision of implementing Sharia law across Nigeria?
In 2013, his response to the incumbent president’s counter terrorism strategy was that the clampdown on Boko Haram was an injustice to the Northern region.[xii] The President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) even accused him of funding the Islamist group.[xiii] Yet as part of his election campaign he promised to get rid of Boko Haram within weeks.[xiv] His apparently contradictory stance leaves the Nigerian people wondering what he would actually do if he were to win the presidency.
Critics also argue that Buhari is a violent man and lacks the credentials to lead a democratic regime. Following his defeat in the 2011 elections, he is quoted to have said:
“God willing, by 2015, something will happen. They will either conduct a free and fair election or they will go a very disgraceful way. If what happened in 2011 [alleged rigging] should again happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon will all be soaked in blood.”[xv]
Similarly, expressing his views on why Buhari must not be elected, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka argues that “all evidence suggests that this is one individual who remains convinced that this is one ex-ruler that the nation cannot call to order.”[xvi]
Given all this, it is not surprising that there is divided opinion as to who is eligible to deliver change. Keeping in mind the terrible security situation, the most pressing need is to ensure that the country does not plunge into further violence, no matter who is elected as president. According to the International Crisis Group, “If this violent trend continues, and particularly if the vote is close, marred or followed by widespread violence, it would deepen Nigeria’s already grave security and governance crises” (2014).
Rtd General Buhari’s candidacy presents Nigerians with an alternative; however, his record as a former military president means that he does not represent the real change that Nigerians need. But re-electing the incumbent president would mean voting for continuity and improvement, especially as he continues to work towards ensuring that Nigeria takes centre stage in the global economy.
When Nigerians go to the poll, they must be reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s words: the forthcoming elections belong to them, they must decide wisely. Doing anything to the contrary would amount to turning their back on the fire. And if they vote for Rtd General Buhari believing that he will bring about real change, then they must be prepared to spend the next few years sitting on their blistered behinds.
Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood is a PhD candidate with the African Leadership Centre, within the International Development Institute at King’s College London. Her research seeks to explore the interactions between illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as its possibility in the Gulf of Guinea. She was a Masters of Arts Associate of the African Leadership Centre and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Nairobi from October 2013 to February 2014. She has an MA in Conflict, Security and Development from King’s and a BA in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies from London Metropolitan University.
[i] AFP, 2015
[ii] Nossiter, 2015
[iii] Tureta, 2015; Web-Staff, 2014
[iv] Gyong, 2012
[v] Okorie, 2014; Onwuka, 2012
[vi] Oluwabamide, 2014
[vii] Okorie, 2014
[viii] Ojo, 2014
[ix] Onwuka, 2012
[x] Adetayo, Opara, & Asu, 2015
[xi] Oyewole, 2014
[xii] Akowe, 2013
[xiii] Oyeyipo & Akinsuyi, 2013
[xiv] Baiyewu, 2014
[xv] Alechenu, Fabiyi, Odesola, & Adetayo, 2012
[xvi] Web-Staff, 2014
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