Connect with us


Buhari: The Deng Xiaoping Nigeria Needed in 2015

All elections help to deepen democracy, but some do so more than others. The 2015 general election would go down as one of the most consequential for Nigerian democracy, and not just because it is widely recognised as one of our freest and fairest. In historical significance, it compares only to the elections of 1959, 1979 and 1999. Fortuitously stretched 20 years apart, the national intent in each of these elections was more than just to elect new governments; it was to jettison an authoritarian political order for a more democratic one.

The December 1959 election was more than just an election. It was a statement of national self-determination that 60 years of British colonial authoritarianism, imposed from without, were over, and that in its place, a new sovereign and independent country had been born. Likewise, the 1979 and 1999 elections were a rejection of the authoritarian military regimes, now imposed from within, and that had strangled Nigerian politics and government for a total of 29 years between them. In this sense, all three elections were about strengthening constitutional governance in Nigeria rather than merely electing new leaders. So too was the 2015 election. If the 1959, 1979 and 1999 elections signalled a defeat of imperial or military rule, the 2015 election likewise was a defeat of one-party rule in Nigeria. Authoritarianism, after all, can thrive in many different forms, including in a one-party pollical system.

Moreover, the perception, rightly or wrongly, that an opposition political party could never take power from an incumbent party peacefully through the ballot in Nigeria partly spelled the collapse of the First and Second Republics in 1966 and 1983. The 2015 election changed this narrative: henceforth in Nigeria, an opposition political party can wrestle power democratically from a ruling one, and that even an incumbent president could lose an election without regime collapse. This is the core significance of the 2015 election in Nigeria’s political history: that our democratic order has matured enough to prevent a return to military rule during an election transition from an incumbent party or president.  

But to reach that milestone in Nigerian democratic development required not just Buhari’s clear victory, but also Jonathan’s humility in accepting defeat. Historians will debate, perhaps forever, as to which of the two was most consequential for Nigeria in 2015. For the present analysis, however, it is sufficient to say that without former President’s Jonathan’s acceptance of defeat, the story of the 2015 election and its significance for Nigerian democracy would have been wholly different today. And when, at some point, the current ruling party is given a taste of its own medicine, then the significance of the 2015 election would have been most complete. A new democracy is fully consolidated only when power has changed hands peacefully between different parties at least twice at the national level.   

How Obasanjo, governors changed trajectory of National Assembly membership — Masari

How Tinubu’s Appointments raised dust over federal character, others

Still, the 2015 election has a historical significance in another sense. It is one of only two presidential elections, out of a total of ten such elections stretched over 44 years, in which the winning candidate enjoyed broad-based support from a clear majority of Nigeria’s constituent parts as regionally defined. The truncated presidential election of 1993, which the late Chief M.K.O Abiola was reportedly in pole position to win, was the only other instance of this broad-based national support for a winning candidate.

Nigeria has always had “compromise presidents” or what Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah calls “accidental leaders”. That is, presidents who attain office not because of their own national popularity but because of the “compromise politics” between competing regional political figures in the country. Nigeria’s strongly popular politicians tend to be so in only one region, which is then cancelled out by the indifference of voters to them from other regions in national elections, paving the way for candidates with less depth of regional support but wider spread of national support. This is why none of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bellow—by far the three most popular politicians of the day—could win enough seats for their parties to form the government alone in 1959. Each was simultaneously very strong in one part of the country but weak in the other parts, hence the coalition government that brought Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to power as Prime Minister. 

This basic regional logic in Nigerian elections has persisted, even though our political system has changed from parliamentary to presidential, and our major political parties have grown more national in outlook. It played out again in 1979 when the winning candidate, the late President Shehu Shagari was much less popular than each of Awolowo, Azikiwe and Aminu Kano. Again, in the 2007 and 2011 elections, Buhari had a regional stronghold that either of late President Yar’adua or former President Jonathan lacked, but still could not win. The elections of 1999 and 2023 followed more or less the same logic as both Presidents Obasanjo and Tinubu won without commanding any regional stronghold of their own.   

In 1993, however, Abiola’s regional depth of support was matched by its national spread, for the very first time in Nigerian elections. Buhari bettered that record in 2015. With a strong following in all but a few northern states, and simultaneously no following in the southern states, Buhari had tried three times to win the presidency but was defeated each time by a compromise candidate. His rematch with Jonathan in 2015 was qualitatively different. By 2013, the opposition parties that merged to form the All Progressives Congress (APC) successfully marketed him to southern voters, which markedly improved his electoral performance among the same voters compared to his previous attempts.  

The marketing of Buhari as a family man, as a detribalized Nigerian at home in a bowler hat as in a kaftan, and as an incorruptible and frugal leader with only the nation’s masses at heart, was perhaps the single most successful example of political marketing in Nigeria’s election campaign history, before then or since. In just about a year, Buhari, who most southern voters would not touch even with the longest pole, became the darling presidential candidate not only of his northern strongholds but also of many voters in the southern states, certainly much better than during is three previous campaigns.

And by the time the last vote cast had been counted, the results of all these were a stunning victory with no parallel since presidential elections began in Nigeria in 1979. Buhari won 54% of the votes, against then incumbent President Jonathan’s 45%. But the national spread of Buhari’s support in the 2015 was even more remarkable. He won outright in 21 states, and came up a very close second in a further seven states. Overall, Buhari polled 40% or more of the votes in 28 states, and trailed by a wide margin only in nine of the 36 states and the FCT; and notably in an election that was generally adjudged Nigeria’s freest and fairest. It is in this national spread of support for one candidate in a free and fair election that the 2015 presidential election was unique, similar only to the annulled election of 1993.

If in 2015, as we have argued so far, Buhari received the sort of national support that neither he nor any other popular candidate in a Nigerian presidential election received—bar Abiola in 1993—what did he do with it once in office proper? Surely, a veteran contestant in three successive presidential elections should leave legacies behind that would endure the test of time? The 2015 election was meant to represent a seismic shift in Nigerian politics and governance, of the sort that lifts not only the political and monied class but the entire society onto a different—and better—plane of how things are done in this country. Buhari was to be the Nigerian equivalent of China’s Deng Xiaoping, Britain’s Clement Atlee or America’s Franklin Roosevelt. And in 2015, millions of Nigerians and other people around the world believed he had the capacity, the experience, and the integrity to achieve as much a radical change for Nigeria as these other leaders did for their counties at similar political moments. 

The whole point of the 2015 election was that, in Buhari, Nigeria would have a leader that would change, root and branch, the way we run the government in Nigeria, and set the country on an enduring path of progress. That means a Buhari presidency would be unlike none other before it. Yet, by any objective measures of presidential performance, Buhari’s eight years in office were dismal compared to not just the mounting expectations of 2015, but to his own previous stature as a Nigerian leader. Buhari probably did more in terms of a lasting legacy as Chairman of the defunct Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) in four years than he did as president in eight. And the final verdict is impossible to spin: judged against previous Nigerian leaders, Buhari did just about okay. Against the promise of the 2015 election, however, Buhari’s eight years were an opportune moment wasted, to put it politely.

What went wrong? Why didn’t Buhari’s performance as a two-term president come anywhere close to the promise of 2015? These and many other questions yet unasked about his government and leadership are for the historians of tomorrow. And history might yet smile on him if leaders in the present and near future perform similarly below par or worse. But for the present, one thing above all is clear: President Buhari either misunderstood or at some point in office lost sight of the significance of his own victory for the nation as a whole.

And alas, when he left office in May last year, Buhari left behind a record that was not much different from previous Nigerian leaders in any area of governance, and perhaps only worse.  If ever there was a truism to the saying that in Nigeria the more things changed, the more they remained the same, the 2015 election is regrettably one.