This feature is part of Blavity’s African Spotlight series which highlights heads of state, as well as other politicians and societal leaders, who are currently in power or influencing change on the continent. African leaders are making significant impact both in their own countries and internationally. Growing diasporas and increasing interconnectivity make developments on the continent more relevant to Black America and people everywhere than ever before.
The #EndSARS movement that has rocked Nigeria for weeks is continuing to place significant pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari to implement systemic reform in the country or step aside. Although Buhari has disbanded the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that had been condemned for widespread brutality and abuses, he has largely ignored the other demands of the protestors. For instance, Buhari has barely acknowledged the Lekki Massacre that drew international outrage, including harsh words against Buhari from former Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
.@JoeBiden on violence in Nigeria: “I urge President Buhari & the Nigerian military to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria...The US must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform & seeking an end to corruption in their democracy.” pic.twitter.com/JNnXtX2Vzg
— Delali Phrank Awutey (@delaliphrank) October 21, 2020
Buhari has served as President of Nigeria twice, with his previous term having ended 30 years prior to the start of his second. Nigeria’s history as a country can be split into two distinct eras, and so can President Buhari’s political career. For most of the four decades after the country gained its independence from Britain, the country was ruled by a long succession of military governments representing various factions and portions of the country. There were a couple of brief glimpses of democracy during these years, but inevitably some military junta would step in to take power.
General Buhari was one of these military rulers. He came to power in 1983 after overthrowing a democratically elected president, Shehu Shagari, who had become deeply unpopular due to an economic crisis, allegations of corruption, and perceptions of weakness.
January 1984. “The Nigerian armed forces could not stand idly by while this country was drifting towards a dangerous state of political and economic collapse through the continued ineptitude and insensitiveness of a political leadership who were apparently unwilling to change.” pic.twitter.com/1mC15CFeMr
— Nigeria In Videos (@nigeriainvideos) August 21, 2020
Buhari was himself overthrown in 1985 by another military coup. He was followed by Ibrahim Babangida, who went on to rule for years as one of the most powerful and one of the most corrupt in the country’s history; it was under Babangida that SARS was established.
Buhari’s rule was different than the corrupt administrations of the presidents who came before and after him. As reported by The New York Times in 1984, his government launched a “War Against Indiscipline,” publicly embarrassing government officials who did not work hard enough and implementing long prison sentences for minor crimes like cheating on university exams. This was part of a brutal campaign against crime and corruption. Drug dealers were shot by firing squads, and even “tampering” with electric or telephone cables could be punished with death.
General Buhari also locked up political opponents and conducted rigged trials; such actions were some of “The Crimes of Buhari” that Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka later wrote about in an essay with that name. For example, Buhari gained a reputation for repression that caused him to be remembered from his first term in office as “the man who jailed Fela Kuti,” having locked up the legendary founder of Afrobeat for 18 months after Kuti criticized the government.
Nigeria underwent a change in the late 1990s, pushing aside the military and establishing democratic rule. Since 1999, the country has had real, though flawed, democracy, with power changing hands at the top solely through elections and all involved parties respecting the results of the vote, even when they lose. After Nigeria had its democratic makeover, so did Buhari. He rebranded himself as a civilian and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2003 and 2007. He returned again in 2015, defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.
In his second coming, Buhari was nicknamed Mai Gaskiya or Mr. Honesty for his personal integrity and his campaign against corruption during the military years. In the north of the country in particular, this name and reputation endured and helped Buhari win election as a civilian with a mission to clean up politics in the country.
To come back into power, Buhari again presented himself as the opposite of the president he was replacing. He was a northern Muslim running against a southern Christian in a country that is about evenly split between the two religions. More importantly, Jonathan was seen as weak against corruption and armed groups such as Boko Haram, which had just kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls in an attack that inspired the international #BringBackOurGirls movement. Buhari’s reputation as a military man who had brutally cracked down against crime became a strength for the former general. He won promising to tackle Boko Haram and corruption “head on.”
Since taking power as a civilian, however, Buhari has generally failed to fulfill his campaign promises. The country suffered economically due to the price of oil, the country's main export, dropping and plunging the nation into recession. Buhari declared Boko Haram defeated several times, only for the terror organization to regroup and renew attacks against civilians and the Nigerian military.
Additional armed groups emerged in the country as clashes between cattle herders and farmers spiraled into banditry between armed gangs. Over time, however, Buhari’s current administration has been increasingly criticized for only targeting politicians who don’t belong to his own All Progressive Congress (APC) party and for failing to actually lower the overall level of corruption in the country. Buhari's sluggish progress has earned him a new nickname – Baba, or Father, Go Slow.
The endurance of SARS under Buhari has become a symbol of his disappointing rule. As famed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times, the #EndSARS movement first emerged in 2016, and Buhari has announced the disbanding of the squad several times since then, only to renege and allow the police squad to operate without restraint.
Buhari has further disappointed Nigerians by failing to acknowledge the reality of the current situation.
Source: Getty Images
Although President Buhari recently stated that 69 people had been killed in the unrest surrounding the #EndSARS movement, he has failed to address the role of government forces and hired gangs in causing many of those deaths. One week after the Lekki shooting left at least 12 people dead according to Amnesty International, President Buhari has yet to directly acknowledge the massacre, even as he addressed the nation and asked protestors to stand down.
Some Nigerians think that Buhari has succumbed to corruption. Others think he is too physically weak to manage the country. The 77-year-old ruler has taken weeks-long leaves of absence for medical treatment for an undisclosed illness. Another recent Nigerian president, Umaru Musa Yar-Adua, was similarly absent for much of his presidency and secretive about his illness up until he died in office in 2010.
The Nigerian Constitution stipulates that Buhari’s term, which ends in 2023, is his last, but public outrage is growing into demands for him to resign early. Whether due to corruption, illness or simply indifference, many Nigerians believe that Buhari has failed to deliver on the promises of change he made as a candidate. Now, Nigerians are increasingly demanding a change from Buhari to someone who will carry out the anti-corruption promises that the he is failing to fulfill.