Ex-general’s bid for re-election threatened by Boko Haram militants that he promised to destroy
When armed militiamen killed dozens in an attack on an isolated village in northern Nigeria this month, it was seen as a sign of rising levels of violence across Africa’s most populous nation, not least because it was the third attack that week with a death toll that ran into double digits.
Weeks after President Muhammadu Buhari announced his intention to seek a second term in elections due in February, his administration is under pressure as violence flares up across the country.
In the past month alone, scores have been killed in twin suicide bombings that bore the grisly trademarks of Boko Haram, and clashes between farmers and nomadic cattle herders in the ethnically mixed Middle Belt states have reached a critical point.
The administration does not “understand that this is an existential crisis for them”, said Oluseun Onigbinde, founder of BudgIT, a civic start-up. “It makes it look like the whole security architecture you promised is falling apart, because [every day] you see 10 people killed here, 20 people killed there.”
Mr Buhari, a retired general, was elected in 2015 on a promise to destroy Boko Haram, the jihadi group whose brazen attacks have killed at least 20,000 in the past nine years despite multiple declarations of victory by the military.
He seeks re-election as the group, while significantly weakened, continues to wreak havoc, kidnapping more than 100 schoolgirls last month.
Mr Buhari, 75, recently flew to London on his doctor’s orders, apparently for the same undisclosed ailment for which he spent more than three months in the UK last year.
Nearly every corner of Nigeria now faces security crises, with the farmer-herder clashes heating up in the middle — sparked by the centuries-old southward migration of nomadic cattle herders who, like the president, are ethnically Fulani — and the separatist Biafran movement re-emerging in the south-east.
Meanwhile, the detention of an Iran-backed Shia leader has sparked unrest among his followers in the north, where kidnappings are also on the rise. Militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south has died down, but election season often spurs violence, observers say.
The security situation threatens what should be a relatively easy re-election for Mr Buhari and his All Progressives Congress party.
Africa’s largest economy has recovered, however limply, from a recession brought on in part by the oil crash. The opposition remains disorganised and without a clear standard bearer to lead Nigeria’s 180m people.
“He did well fighting against Boko Haram, but he spoiled the whole thing by allowing the Fulani herdsmen to take over Nigeria, killing people all over,” said Comrade Ignatius Uzomah, a retired civil servant. “We suspect that because he is Fulani, there is some game on the Nigerian people.”
Mr Buhari is expected to hold his homeland in the Muslim north in next year’s election. Much of the mostly Christian south is out of reach. But reports of “killer herdsmen” could hurt his performance in the Middle Belt, which had swung the election his way in 2015.
Hadiza Bala Usman, a young leader in the president’s party and head of Nigeria’s ports authority, said the government could have done more to anticipate the problem “boiling over”. The clashes are driven by disputes over land, but have been politicised into purely religious and ethnic terms. “The APC should have done more, both technically and politically in managing and highlighting this issue,” said Ms Bala Usman, who founded the Bring Back Our Girls campaign for a group of schoolgirls from Chibok village kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. “Now the political narrative is being framed to be ‘Christian farmers are being killed by Muslim herdsmen, and the Muslim president is doing nothing’.”
That framing is dangerous in a religiously polarised country, she said. But the electoral salience of the issue could be overstated. The states most affected might swing between parties, but have far fewer voters than in Mr Buhari’s northern base. “It doesn’t make a dent on his core electorate,” she said. “And they vote massively.”
During Mr Buhari’s visit to the White House last month, US president Donald Trump pledged support for the Nigerian leader’s fight against Boko Haram.
Mr Buhari was criticised for repeating a much-mocked claim that it is former mercenaries for Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi who are armed with guns, not Fulani herders. Still, one western diplomat said it is commonly thought that some of the killers have been armed or encouraged by political actors hoping to sow chaos and undermine Mr Buhari.
While Mr Buhari is widely seen as fairly incorruptible, he faces other challenges including senior aides accused of graft. He is also seen as a relic of the 1980s, when he briefly led a military government.
The country’s average age is 18, and last month, he sparked outrage when he suggested at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London that Nigerian youths were lazy.
His saving grace might be the disorganised opposition People’s Democratic party, which was pushed out of office in 2015 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment amid a series of billion-dollar scandals.
“We are confident we will defeat whoever they bring,” said Rotimi Amaechi, the minister of transportation and head of the president’s campaign. “Because [Mr Buhari] comes with good character and good achievements.”
By Neil Munshi. This article was first published in the Financial Times.