Nigeria election: Northern voters see new hope with Buhari win

Gen. Muhammadu Buhari's campaign says President Goodluck Jonathan has conceded defeat in the most competitive presidential race ever in Nigeria.

Ben Curtis/AP
Nigerian opposition candidate Gen. Muhammadu Buhari speaks to reporters as he gets into his vehicle after signing a joint renewal with President Goodluck Jonathan of their pledge to hold peaceful "free, fair, and credible" elections, at a hotel in the capital Abuja, Nigeria Thursday, March 26, 2015. Nigerians are due to go to the polls to vote in presidential elections on Saturday.

When Nigerians talk of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, their newly elected president, they use words like strict and iron-fisted. 

These traits are ingrained in society's image of him from his days as Nigeria's head of state in the early 1980s. After leading a successful military coup in 1983, he declared that among other things, he would wage "war against indiscipline."

By the time he was toppled by another military regime two years later, he had left his mark, instilling much fear into Nigerians. Those who dared to violate any of his administration’s regulations – from neat bus line queues to being on time to work – were punished severely. Now, at 72 years old, he is still remembered for his regime's no-nonsense policy.

 After three decades spent in the opposition, Mr. Buhari regained Nigeria's seat of power Tuesday after defeating incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. With all but one of Nigeria’s 36 states counted as of Tuesday night, Buhari held a lead of more than two million votes. That makes it the most closely contested election in Nigerian history. 

“By the time Buhari took over in 1983, Nigeria … was literarily in a state of lawlessness. Buhari and his next-in-command gave us the kind of leadership we needed to restore sanity to our society," says Olusola Ojo, an international relations professor at McPherson University in Ogun State.

Buhari's regime, then, was a phenomenon because he was able to get Nigerians, unused to obeying simple law and order, to do so, he says. “Unfortunately, his government was brief and we returned to the state of unbridled indiscipline, which is still where we are today.”

Indeed, it is this discipline that has helped Buhari persevere in his post-military career as a politician, where he lost his bid for the presidency three times before.

With his victory on Tuesday, Nigerians have decided that the state of country called for another Buhari-style administration to retain order. A combination of national fatigue with the federal government, the growing threat of Boko Haram in the north, and the parlous state of the economy decided the fate of President Jonathan

But to the oft-disenfranchised North, a win for Buhari would allow the region to redeem an unfulfilled agreement from the late 1990s – between political leaders nationwide – to rotate power between the Muslim North and Christian South. Buhari is a native son from Daura in Katsina State.

The northern elite, many of whom are backed Buhari’s attempt this time around, were out of patience. They clamored for a “president of northern extraction” based on injustice the region feels it has suffered from the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), says Ango Abdulahi, a spokesman of the Northern Elders Forum, a political interest group. 

"‎The party had a zoning arrangement which allowed Obasanjo to rule for eight years and the North was expected to follow suit with eight years, but unfortunately this did not happen. Is that not good enough as a reason for our agitation?" he says, referring to Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president from the south who held office from 1999 to 2007.

An arrangement gone awry

Many of Nigeria's current political woes stem from a power rotation agreement between northern and southern leaders that was settled in 1999. A nullified election six years earlier had brought a period of confusion that saw a ping-pong of four northern and southern heads of state. It was a time of imprisonment, coups, protest and mysterious deaths. 

And so, to assuage both regions, the south started the new power rotation that ran smoothly until President Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner, died half-way through the first of two consecutive terms in January 2010. President Jonathan was his vice president and caused major debate when he took over.

But it was Jonathan’s re-election run and win in 2011 – still during a period promised to the North – that sorely increased the displeasure of the northern elite. Key northern members of the ruling party defected to create the All Progressive Congress (APC), a coalition of three leading opposition parties, Buhari’s party today. 

“The North has reasons to feel betrayed,” says Junaid Mohammed, a top northern former legislator. "We can't carry on as if nothing is wrong with the political arrangement in the country."

With a winner-takes-all political culture, access to power means direct access to wealth in Nigeria, says John Campbell, a former United States ambassador to the West African country.

“You do everything you can to ensure you'll win," he says. "You do this, of course, because basically it is control of the state that provides access to wealth."

A northern president ruling for only two out of 16 years since 1999 has seen the region lose out on key positions in government, and overall wealth. Northern states are some of the poorest in the country.

Sani Anthony, a former publicity secretary of the Arewa Consultative Group, a northern social political group, says the next president needs to address problems confronted in the North which includes Boko Haram, endemic poverty, youth unemployment, and high levels of illiteracy. 

Few believed that a non-northern president would make these issues, especially the problem of Boko Haram, a priority. The insurgent group has terrorized the North for years, and only gained the full attention of the government in the last six weeks as a ploy for votes, as some believe, by the ruling party.

Many see Buhari’s past military experience as necessary to bring discipline to a dispirited and underfunded Nigerian Army. And having had his convoy attacked by Boko Haram last July, he has seen the threat of the group firsthand.

"Being a retired general … we expect him to come up with a lasting solution that will ensure the safety of life and property, restore the glorious past of the North as the nation's most peaceful region," said Umar Hannafi, a former Kano state commissioner.

A Buhari for Nigeria

Buhari's record is far from spotless and includes numerous allegations of human rights violations during his brief stint as Nigeria's leader in the 1980s. 

He has also had to clear himself of accusations of being an Islamic religious extremist because of his past support of strict Islamic law in northern Nigeria, an accusation he has consistently denied. Moving forward there are also questions of whether he would be a president for all of Nigeria, not just the North.

But the make-up of voters who picked him will force him to look outside the North as well. With the APC, he has moved beyond the northern region as his main support base, a significant change from previous elections. He had surprise wins in states like Ondo in the South and Benue and Kogi in the central region.

Also, Buhari’s choice in running mate, Yemi Osibajo, a law professor and pastor of Nigeria's largest Pentecostal movement, won him Christian votes.

“The North wants a president who can deliver on good governance by providing order, peace, direction and prosperity for the people of Nigeria and not for northerners alone,” Mr. Sani says.

Ariel Zirulnick contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.

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