Can Buhari Rescue Nigeria from Itself?

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Can Buhari Rescue Nigeria from Itself?

Nigeria's President-elect Muhammadu Buhari is a retired Major General in the Nigerian Army who was Head of State of Nigeria from December 31, 1983 to August 27, 1985, after taking power in a military coup d'état. (Photo: Chatham House/flickr/cc)

Africa’s most populous nation has just achieved something very important.  This week Nigeria’s voters handed a landslide victory to former president, Muhammadu Buhari. 

Equally impressive, the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, became the first Nigerian leader in 55 years to democratically  cede power to his rival. 

President-elect Buhari, a dour, ascetic, unsmiling former general, proclaimed his primary goal is to attack all-pervasive corruption and crush the Boko Haram uprising in the north.   Interestingly, Buhari, a Muslim, received substantial support in the Christian south in this normally religiously-divided nation of 177 million.

Nigeria is one of the world’s most corrupt nations.  The rating site Transparency International puts it 144 out of 177 most corrupt nations,  just ahead of DR Congo and Haiti.  But I disagree. I think Nigeria may be the most corrupt nation in Africa and likely on earth.

Since independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has received over $400 billion in aid from Europe and the US, six times the post-WWII Marshall Plan that helped rebuild western Europe.

Nearly all of it was stolen.

An estimated $380 billion of government funds was stolen since independence, according to a recent finance minister.  Most of this money ended up in Swiss Banks and London real estate.  A former military dictator, Sani Abacha, is estimated to have stolen $4 billion during the 1990’s before dying in bed of a heart attack after romping with two Indian prostitutes.

In Nigeria, corruption infuses every aspect of daily life in a nation where the average per capita income is under $2.  Everything runs on “dash,” as payoffs are known.   

Nigeria had become infamous around the globe as the source of torrents of fraudulent emails offering millions in riches to the unwary.  Amazingly,  Nigerian fraudsters seem to have raked in over $130 million this way, showing that greed, like sex, numbs common sense.

Attacking Nigeria’s toxic corruption will be a labor of Hercules.  Even more urgent, however, will be dealing with the run-amok Boko Haram.  This bunch of wildmen has been attacking civilians since 2002, but no one in the West paid the slightest attention until 200 girls were kidnapped last year.  

Boko, like ISIS, is not really Islamic. But the movement fit perfectly with the West’s current obsession and hysteria over the so-called Muslim threat.

Boko Haram is an inevitable reaction  to Nigeria’s outrageous corruption where 1% own everything and the previous government’s favored the Christian south over the poorer Muslim north.  

Many in the Muslim world support radical Islamist movements because they are seen, rightly or wrongly, as morally righteous, and incorruptible.  Where justice is always bought,  these Muslim reformers bring harsh but often honest justice.   

Western-backed regimes in the Muslim world are often steeped in corruption.  The West is seen as a primary source and purveyor of corruption in Muslim society – not that the Islamic world was not already plagued by widespread corruption.  But the US, with its planeloads of newly-printed $100 bills, put corruption onto steroids. 

Buhari left office unenriched during his first presidential term. As a result, like Egypt’s incorruptible Gamal Abdel Nasser, he won widespread popular support as the man who could not be bought.  Another was the late, great French leader Charles De Gaulle who insisted on reimbursing the state for personal phone calls made from his official residence.  Compare this to Africa’s other leaders or, say, the Clintons.

Nigeria’s feeble, 68,000-men  army has been unable to confront Boko Haram’s lightly-armed rabble because their arms and supplies have been stolen by officers or never arrived.  As a result, Nigeria has been hiring white South African mercenaries to fight Boko Haram – reminding me of the zany days of 1961-62 in the former Belgian Congo when “Mad” Mike Hoare and “Col” Bob Denard and a few hundred white mercenaries routed the entire Congolese Army and drug-crazed Simba rebels. 

A bigger threat to Nigeria comes from corruption and the fall in the price of oil enflaming ethnic and tribal tensions between the north and south, an unstable, unhappy amalgam thanks to British imperialism.   Happily, election of Buhari, a Muslim may lessen anger by the northerners that the south was getting the lion’s share of dash from the central government.

There is hope for Nigeria – but a lot of work before it can shed its unfortunate reputation and start helping its people.   Oil, known to some as “the Devil’s excrement,” has done nothing for 99%of Nigeria’s people, proving once again that abundant natural resources can be more of a curse than a bounty.

Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis is a columnist, author and a veteran of many conflicts in the Middle East. Margolis recently was featured in a special appearance on Britain’s Sky News TV as “the man who got it right” in his predictions about the dangerous risks and entanglements the US would face in Iraq. His latest book is American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World.

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