Will President Buhari Win the War Against Indiscipline the Second Time Around?

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When he began his first stint as Nigeria’s Head of State after a coup in 1983, General Mohammadu Buhari promised not to allow the “the nonsenses of litigation” interfere with his fight against corruption. He then proceeded to oversee an anti-corruption drive characterized by public executions, secret military tribunals, and imprisonment for journalists who dared to disagree with his policies. He jailed hundreds of high-profile politicians, businessmen, and civil servants, and instilled enough fear to dissuade many others from corrupt practices. Today, Buhari’s supporters hail those efforts as ‘sanitizing’ the system. Evidence, they say, that Nigeria would have been different today had he remained President.

That narrative significantly undermines the role Buhari’s extreme practices played in bringing about his own downfall some 20 months after he took power. As General Ibrahim Babangida, who led the coup to overthrow Buhari, said in a take-over speech, the 1985 coup was to end the “insensitivity of the political leadership.” (Of course, Babangida and his crew were also driven by personal ambition thwarted by Buhari’s clampdown.) The Buharist narrative misses a fundamental point: draconian measures that depend on personality rather than transparent rules that are equally applicable to all are often simply temporary. After Buhari’s ouster (which was greeted with widespread relief), Nigerians went right back to doing what they did before his ascent to power – shrugging off his reign like one would a despised ex-boss.

Today, Nigeria is arguably not much different from when Buhari took power in 1983. As then, the nation is haunted by endemic corruption, dwindling oil revenues, an economic crisis, and a militant Islamic movement. Buhari’s supporters insist he will (again) ‘sanitize the system’ by bringing corrupt former officials to justice. They point to an on-going trial against the current Senate President (a member of Buhari’s own party) as evidence that there will be no “sacred cows” during Buhari’s regime. They justify his decision to retain a key cabinet post – Petroleum – for himself as necessary to re-install order in the oil & gas sector. And, they insist, this time he will rule with respect for democratic due process and the rule of law.

Perhaps they are right. Already, the fear of harsh consequences for inefficient and wasteful government practices appears to be stirring increased productivity in previously moribund agencies. Three of four national oil refineries resumed production in July, operating at up to 29% of installed capacity – despite no new investment from Buhari’s administration. And, the recent arrest of a widely condemned former oil minister, Diezani Allison-Madueke, has raised hopes that there will be some serious accounting for brazenly fraudulent practices in the oil & gas sector under her tutelage. Importantly, unlike the on-going trial of the Senate President (whose relationship with leaders of his own party is strained), Allison-Madueke’s arrest is not generally regarded as politically motivated.

But, there are disturbing signs that President Buhari is fundamentally the same man that took power in a coup over 30 years ago: a man unaccustomed to democratic negotiation. In a 2004 interview, he defended his persecution of the press, critics, and dissidents in 1984/5 as necessary to maintain focus on the nation’s problems. Just over a month ago, he urged lawyers not to defend corrupt Nigerians, suggesting he misses the entire premise of democracy: guaranteed due process. And, by delaying cabinet nominations for over four months despite growing criticism, he has shown he is as impervious to negative public opinion as he was in 1984. It is still unclear why the nominations were delayed for so long, as they contain the same names observers expected six months ago.

Most do not doubt that President Buhari is sincere in wanting to “fix” Nigeria, and that he has a vision of what a reformed Nigeria should look like. That is a vast improvement over former President Goodluck Jonathan who appeared to have neither deep convictions nor intellectual depth.

The problem is that Buhari seems to value the ultimate end – i.e. his vision of a “fixed” Nigeria – over the means employed to get there. But democracies are built on the premise that no one person should get to single-handedly determine critical national policy. So, while Presidents play a significant, sometimes disproportionately large role, other institutions must be able check potential excesses. Otherwise, nothing will prevent a future leader from easily undoing reforms. If Buhari’s focus, as it was in the 1980s, is on treating the symptoms of weak institutions (such as unaccountability & corruption) rather than the causes (weak disclosure regimes, lack of transparency & consistency, etc), any policy success will be fleeting.

Luckily, Buhari has (at least) three years to prove he has learned from both his previous mistakes and Nigeria’s history of failed anti-corruption campaigns. To do that, he must oversee a host of enduring reforms that will significantly move Nigeria towards actually potentially “ending” corruption, such as:

  • Exhibit goodwill and political commitment by: (1) disassociating himself from chieftains in his own party with credible accusations of corruption against them; and (2) substantively following through on a key campaign promise to publicly disclose his assets (not simply via an aide’s summary posted on Facebook).
  • Strengthen the nation’s primary anti-graft agencies, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC). Specifically, he must make the EFCC independent of the presidency and appoint competent & motivated leadership for both institutions, with clear political backing and increased funding for the ICPC;
  • Push through campaign finance reforms that would require disclosure of party and individual financing;
  • Order federal agencies to publish or freely make available upon request all expenditures and awarded contracts;
  • Push for enactment of a bill empowering the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) to publish all asset declaration forms collected and investigated;
  • Encourage a race to the top by establishing a regularly updated public rating system that ranks government agencies based on existing “corruption risks” (e.g. in procurement) and on-going efforts to address them;
  • Require ministries, including any headed by Buhari himself, to submit public progress reports on anti-corruption efforts;
  • Work with the federal judiciary to institute new process rules that will curb judicial corruption, such as a delineated, clear, timeline (with built-in deadlines) for corruption trials, to avoid outrageous delay tactics effectively employed by previous high-profile defendants; and
  • In conjunction with Nigeria’s international partners, explore ways to use technology (such as e-payments, electronic surveillance, and computer forensics) to change behavior and mindsets.

Buhari should have learned that enduring change requires a greater focus on process than on outcomes. For a chance at winning his second ‘war against indiscipline’, he must be prepared to be significantly more transparent than he was the first time around.

Amaka Anku runs Dilikam Advisors, an Africa-focused research and strategic advisory firm based in Washington DC.  She was a non-resident fellow at the Lagos-based Center for Public Policy Alternatives from 2014-2016. Follow Amaka on Twitter at @AmakaAnku.

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