Muhammadu Bahari: The Leader Nigeria Needs—And Needs to Watch

A former military dictator with a putrid human rights record is the future of Africa’s most powerful democracy. This is the enigma that is Nigeria’s new president, Muahmmadu Bahari. In this time of crisis, however, he is just the man the West African country needs. Corruption is rampant, the economy is struggling, and perhaps most importantly, the Nigerian-born Boko Haram poses the greatest threat to regional stability that West Africa has seen in years. The now former president, Goodluck Jonathan, failed to remedy these issues and, in some ways, exacerbated them during his five years in office. As a man with characteristics opposite those of President Jonathan, many Nigerians see Bahari as the answer to Nigeria’s recent woes. He has extensive military experience and a proven commitment to anti-corruption and reformative public policy. There is, however, a curious irony about Bahari’s role as a democratic leader; his most appealing attributes and accomplishments were shaped by a pattern of authoritarian policy and brutal enforcement methods. Bahari presents hope for Nigeria, and could prove to be a transformative leader, but the tension between his controversial past and purported democratic future should not be ignored.

The Democratic Evolution of a President-Elect

Born a Sunni in the Muslim north, Bahari’s Spartan aesthetic and reputation for harshness stands in stark contrast to his wealthy, fedora-wearing predecessor. He received military training in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1960s and served in the Nigerian military throughout the successive decades. In 1983, Bahari successfully commanded an operation to dispel Chadian troops from Nigeria. This led to his military coup and the beginning of his controversial tenure as military ruler. He was in power for almost a year — from 1984 to 1985 — during which he used severe tactics to demand discipline from government employees in a program aptly called the “War Against Indiscipline” and drastically hindered freedoms of speech and press, arresting and jailing almost 500 opposition politicians along with numerous journalists. Public executions of criminals were common, and immigration was not only discouraged, but several thousand immigrants were removed from the country during his rule. Since losing power in 1985, Bahari has respected the democratic process, losing and conceding four presidential elections, and he has called for both the elimination of government corruption and the elimination of Boko Haram — two things Nigeria desperately needs.

Bahari does not shy away from the transgressions of his past, and he does not apologize for his previous time in office, preferring instead to focus on Nigeria’s future. A self-pronounced “converted, newborn democrat.” Habari once claimed that during his time in office, he had “operated as a military head of state,” further adding that he wants to “operate as a partisan politician in a multiparty setup.” Bahari is the founder of the Congress for Progressive Change party and is opposed to irrational violence, whether by way of Boko Haram or by way of election disputes. In January 2015, he and Goodluck Jonathan signed the Abuja Accord, a commitment to nonviolence throughout the election process. While there were some outbursts of violent protest during the weekend of the election, Bahari was the voice of reason via Twitter, urging Nigerians “to exercise patience and vigilance as we wait for the results to be announced.” Goodluck Jonathan’s election concession was monumental for Nigeria, a democracy that has struggled mightily in the past over peaceful transfers of power.

Six Months or Fewer

Upon ascending to Nigeria’s highest office, Bahari will find himself contending with threats to the country’s future from both inside and outside the government. Despite the shortcomings of President Jonathan’s efforts in ridding the country of Boko Haram, recent military operations conducted by the Nigerian military and its regional allies have been markedly successful. Bahari’s administration must not get complacent when dealing with the terrorist group or with the economic and social conditions that contributed to the group’s creation. As a northerner, Bahari may be better equipped to understand and potentially reconstruct the communities that have been ravaged by violence and terrorism, lest new radical groups form from the lingering and continued discontent and neglect of Nigeria’s perpetually poorer region. This violence has resulted in the displacement of over one million northern Nigerians and over 12,000 deaths. Other than the horrific conditions for northern Nigerians, this state of instability, coupled with a history of poverty and underdevelopment has had dire consequences for the Nigerian economy. As a country that sees itself as not only the preeminent leader of West Africa but also the burgeoning hegemon on the African continent, social and economic stability and human development are of the utmost importance. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and most populous state, but if it cannot find a way to squash Boko Haram and rebuild the northern half of the country, its power and credibility will be severely diminished.

Bahari alone will not be able to ensure Nigeria emerges as the undisputed African hegemon, but there are some crucial steps he and his administration must take in order to ensure that this future is at least a possibility. Unfortunately for Bahari, there isn’t much time to do so. According to Shehu Sani, a Nigerian senator-elect, Bahari will have no more than six months to prove that his approach is the right one for the country. The first step towards this future is the issue Bahari ran on in the election: corruption. President Jonathan’s years in office were tarnished by multiple corruption scandals and subsequent cover-ups. Bahari is known for brutality and malfeasance, but one thing he is not known for is unscrupulousness. Defeating Boko Haram and spurring the economy will be easier if he can bring legitimacy to Nigerian political institutions and remedy inequality between northern and southern Nigeria. Without these political and economic reforms, the current conditions will breed more discontent in the North, and the Nigerian government will struggle to deal with both minor and major crises and miss its opportunity to lead.

The Problem of Power

Bahari is generally beloved in the northern Nigerian states and hated by Boko Haram, who allegedly attempted to assassinate him in 2014. The last 15 years suggest that Bahari is true to his word on his commitment to democracy, but the Nigerian president-elect has not been in power since 1985, and power is a fickle thing. Controversial is a mild way to describe Bahari’s time in power, and it is paramount for government officials, political activists, and Nigerian civilians to demand transparency and accountability from their new government. This will prove most crucial if Bahari begins to succeed with reforms. Bahari’s success is not only a matter of if or when but also how. Bahari’s no-nonsense style and northern connections will prove useful only if they are balanced by political prudence and a strong commitment to basic freedoms. Nigeria has a new, and by all accounts, reformed leader. Whether this will lead to a recommitment to formidable democracy is unknown, but if Bahari stays true to his word, there is great potential.

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