Short national memory.

Photographer: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Nigeria's New President May Be Its Old Dictator

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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When Nigerians vote this weekend for their next president, they face a choice between the devil they know and the devil their grandparents knew.

The current leader, Goodluck Jonathan, is unpopular. His army, until recently, failed to stop Boko Haram's campaign of mass murder and kidnapping. A former governor of Nigeria's central bank has documented how $20 billion in revenues for the state's oil company has gone missing. When it looked like he might lose the election last month, Jonathan postponed the elections under the pretense that Boko Haram threatened the voters. 

QuickTake Nigeria's Breaking Point

But as bad as Jonathan is, his opponent is worse. Meet General Muhammadu Buhari. In 1983, he began a 20-month term as Nigeria's dictator. Some highlights of his rule included a "campaign against indiscipline," in which police officers were ordered to whip and beat with batons people who didn't line up properly when waiting for the bus. Disloyal civil servants were sent to work camps. Buhari made it illegal to publish news stories that subjected government figures to ridicule or contempt. His purges of political critics included the jailing of the Nigerian pop star Fela Kuti.  

Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, the first African to win a Nobel prize for literature, called Buhari's time in office a "reign of terror." In his memoir, Soyinka noted that Buhari's victims were more likely to be progressive reformers than officials from the corrupt government of President Shehu Shagari he had toppled.

"Buhari's regime vaunted itself as the most thorough, ruthless and disciplined that Nigeria would ever experience, yet, one after the other, the most criminally liable of Shagari's officers -- both within party and government -- left the country, came in and out as they pleased, while Buhari's tribunal sentenced opposition figures to spells of between a hundred and three hundred years in prison for every dubious kind of crime," Soyinka wrote.  

Unlike many Nigerian politicians, Buhari doesn't wear a fancy watch and doesn't live in a lavish gated home, which has allowed him to present himself as the kind of reformer he used to imprison. Last month he told Chatham House that democracy must deliver more than a choice at the ballot box, and should extend to guaranteeing the rule of law, good governance and shared prosperity.  

"I laugh when people associate him with anti-corruption," J. Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, told me. "I think he benefits enormously from two things. Until very recently the military's campaign against Boko Haram was incompetent and the median age in Nigeria today is 19. Most Nigerians have no memory of him as a ruler." Pham said that when Buhari was the federal commissioner for petroleum and natural resources in 1978, $2.8 billion went missing from the state's oil revenues.

In addition to its vows to stem corruption, Buhari's party, the All Progressives Congress, has promised to wage the military campaign against Boko Haram more efficiently. (Although Jonathan's government seemed to recently make some headway against Boko Haram by allowing South African military contractors to join the fight, reports surfaced this week that the group has committed a new round of kidnappings in the Muslim-majority north of the country.)

Samuel Kaninda, the West Africa coordinator for Transparency International, declined to specifically criticize Buhari on the eve of the election. But he did say that neither Buhari or Jonathan "passed the integrity test," in his view. "We at this stage would trust the people of Nigeria to make their choice who would lead them," he said. "The Nigerian people are fully aware of the track record of Buhari."

But is that really the case? Joe Trippi, a U.S. political consultant who until December was advising the Jonathan campaign, told me he was stunned that Buhari's background has not been a major issue in the election.

"With the amount of focus and attention that the press has put on Goodluck Jonathan, it's been astonishing to me to see almost the complete lack of questioning of Buhari's past, particularly his actions as a military dictator," Trippi told me. "Most young people in the country were not alive when he was dictator and are not aware of some of the horrors he practiced. There has been almost no attention in the press on this issue at all."

It remains to be seen whether Buhari's past will surface in the final hours before the vote. If it doesn't, Nigerians may have to live with the devil most of them have forgotten. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net