'Make Nigeria Great Again'

Muhammadu Buhari cast his vote in his ward in Daura February 23, 2019. Image: AP


At 35 per cent, the turn-out for Nigeria’s general election in February was the lowest for any presidential (and parliamentary) ballot since democracy succeeded military rule twenty years ago. During the three weeks I spent on the road in the run-up to the vote, it became obvious from the fitful campaigning and the paucity of crowds at rallies that numbers would be low. Matters weren’t helped by the sudden decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to postpone the vote just hours before the polls were due to open. There was nothing sinister in this: Mahmood Yakubu, the INEC chairman, explained that bad weather and flight cancellations had made it hard to get the ballot materials to remote areas. But people were quick to imagine a ruse. Many had travelled long distances to the towns and villages where they were registered to vote and couldn’t afford to stay on or repeat the journey all over again a week later. More decisive, in the end, was the lacklustre nature of the two main presidential candidates and their respective parties.

On one side was the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the 76-year-old former military dictator who had overthrown a democratically-elected government in the early 1980s and was himself ousted in a palace coup two years later. On the other was 72-year-old Atiku Abubakar, the only candidate – and there were dozens – who had any hope of unseating him. Like Buhari, Atiku is a Muslim, but less obviously devout. His personal fortune is reckoned to be $1.4 billion. The source of his wealth is the subject of speculation, but it’s certain that he began to amass it while working as a customs officer between 1969 and 1989 (he rose to become deputy director of the Nigeria Customs Service). Atiku claims simply that he was lucky and invested wisely, but few are convinced. The US government has accused him of money laundering (more on that shortly). Since retiring from government service he has spent lavishly on his political ambitions. In 1998 he clinched the governorship of Adamawa State, in the north-east of the country, but before he could be sworn in he was requisitioned by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to serve as Olusegun Obasanjo’s running mate for the presidential election. He served two terms under Obasanjo and had hopes of becoming president himself in 2007; the pair fell out when Atiku refused to support Obasanjo’s (unconstitutional) third-term bid. Atiku subsequently failed to win the nomination for the 2011 and 2015 elections – changing party each time – and finally succeeded last October, having returned to the PDP.

Buhari, who casts a long shadow over Nigerian politics, was always going to be the more interesting figure. After he was deposed in 1985 by a rival group of generals, he was kept under house arrest for three years. When the army relinquished power in 1999 and installed Obasanjo, Buhari sat tight. In 2003 and 2006 he was nominated as the All Nigeria People’s Party candidate for the presidential race the following year. His prospects looked poor: Nigerians remembered his brief premiership for its draconian anti-corruption drive. Buhari had imprisoned journalists, allowed for indefinite detention without charge and used retroactive decrees to execute criminals already serving time – all under the guise of a ‘war against indiscipline’. Soldiers flogged men and women for not using passenger bridges over the highways or failing to form orderly queues at bus stops. Nonetheless, he enjoyed a reputation for probity. He considered his regime a necessary ‘corrective’ and regarded his defeat at the polls in 2007 as a grave mistake on the part of the voters. In 2010 he ran again under the auspices of a different party and lost to a civilian president, Goodluck Jonathan. Two years into Jonathan’s ragged presidency, Nigerians were looking back with fewer misgivings to Buhari’s messianic call for an end to corruption. In 2015 he took the presidency from Jonathan by almost three million votes.

The difficulty with messianic wars on corruption is that they require large amounts of dirty money. For Buhari’s presidential race this year, funds were provided by Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Affectionately known as Jagaban (‘leader of warriors’), Tinubu has never made a secret of his wealth. He was already rich when he became governor of Lagos State, in the Yoruba-dominated south-west, in 1999; during his two terms in office he acquired a magnificent property portfolio. His real estate holdings in Nigeria, it’s said, are second only to those of the federal government in Abuja. Tinubu remains governor in all but name, installing and removing his successors at will to ensure that his various companies continue to receive lucrative state tenders. Of these the most egregious is Alpha Beta, incorporated during his first term and under contract to the state as its sole collector of tax revenues, worth an estimated 30 billion naira (£63 million) monthly, of which it takes ten per cent. The Lagos State House of Assembly recently tried to enshrine the arrangement in law, but this led to an outcry, followed by an apology. Last summer Dapo Apara, Alpha Beta’s repentant former managing director, wrote to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) alleging that the company had become ‘an avenue for official corruption’, and a ‘conduit pipe for massive money laundering’ and tax evasion. He suggested that it was ‘shielded by some powerful politicians’. Apara, who commended Buhari for ‘fighting corruption’, was told by an Alpha Beta insider to back off. ‘No one will believe you. We control everything – the press, the courts, EFCC. You will only be endangering your life.’ Shortly afterwards, Buhari confirmed that Tinubu was ‘fully in charge’ of his 2019 campaign.

The day before the election was due to take place, two bullion vans were seen entering the grounds of Tinubu’s Lagos residence, given to him (after renovations at tax-payers’ expense) as part of his pension when he left office 12 years ago. When questioned by journalists, he responded angrily. There were no election materials in the vans, so what was the offence? The money wasn’t from Buhari, he explained: Buhari ‘doesn’t have the type of money needed for Lagos votes [which is] coming from my pocket … It is my money. I decide where to keep it.’ The money was distributed the following day in ‘troublesome’ areas inclined to vote for Atiku.

Atiku was facing inquiries about his own wealth – and there was more to it than his early days working for the Nigeria Customs Service. During his eight-year stint as Obasanjo’s vice-president (1999-2007), he had been put in charge of the administration’s IMF-inspired privatisation programme, which was supposed to help deliver the ‘dividends of democracy’: a combination of outsourcing and public assets sales enabled Atiku to ‘grow’ his fortune, and he was soon moving it abroad. According to a US Senate report, between 2000 and 2008 Atiku and his fourth wife, who holds US citizenship, ‘used a network of accounts at US financial institutions to bring over $40 million in suspect funds into the United States, through multiple wire transfers supplied by offshore corporations located in Germany, Nigeria, Panama, the British Virgin Islands and Switzerland’. Some of that money came from his share of a $12.7 million bribe paid by Siemens in exchange for telecommunications projects between 2001 and 2002. According to newspaper reports, many of the delegates at the PDP primaries last year received up to $9000 from aspiring nominees and were ‘still expecting more’ as the convention wore on. Afterwards, Lauretta Onochie, Buhari’s media assistant, claimed that Atiku has outspent the other eleven hopefuls to the tune of 42 billion naira (£8 million) and concluded that if he became president the country was ‘finished’ (though she remained silent on Tinubu’s bullion vans).

The voters that Buhari needed to pay off originated overwhelmingly from south-eastern Nigeria. A large Igbo ethnic community, Christian by denomination, now lives in Lagos State. Together with other, neighbouring minorities from the oil-producing south – we call it the ‘south-south’ – they probably account for around 40 per cent of the state’s twenty million residents. Most of them are traders, who ply the large open-air markets. For the Buhari campaign the problem was not that the Igbo have any enthusiasm for Atiku, but that they detest Buhari, regarding him as an intransigent Islamist (he was passionate about the introduction of sharia law in the north in the early 2000s). Buhari, for his part, has always disdained the Igbo. As a brigade major in the Nigerian Army, he fought against them during the Biafran War and on the campaign trail in 2015 said that he did ‘not owe any apology to them’. Nor did he seek to build bridges after winning the presidency. In an interview at the US Institute of Peace on his first trip abroad after the election, he remarked: ‘I hope you have a copy of the election results. The constituents, for example, who gave me 97 per cent [of the vote] cannot in all honesty be treated on [a par] with constituencies that gave me five per cent.’ In 2016, he despatched the army to quell a peaceful Biafra Remembrance Day celebration in Igbo country; around 150 demonstrators were killed.

According to the US Council on Foreign Relations, there were 22 incidents of election-related violence in the five months leading up to this year’s vote. Most were concentrated in the south, but there was also trouble in Kaduna in the north, a ‘frontline state’ divided equally between Muslims and Christians with a long history of conflict between the two communities. In Lagos State, the spearhead of the violence was Tinubu’s personal agbero, or thug, Musiliu Akinsanya, aka MC Oloumo (among other aliases). Akinsanya is also an executive of the powerful National Union of Road Transport Workers which collects ‘fees’ from drivers and traders at motor parks in all 36 states and constitutes a ready army of foot soldiers, otherwise known as ‘touts’ at Tinubu’s disposal. Akinsanya has never hidden his loyalty to his godfather: ‘Anywhere his interest belong [sic] I, Musiliu Ayinde Akinsanya, MC Oloumo, belong. I and my people in Oshodi.’

Oshodi is one of the big markets in central Lagos with many Igbo traders. To their exasperation, Tinubu shut it down two days before polling, while he strolled around protected by ‘security agents’, i.e. police. This show of power – which had been preceded by threats of new ‘taxes’ on the traders if they proved ‘stubborn’ – prefigured what was to happen when voting began. A lengthy complaint by PDP agents from several of the polling stations described how ‘hoodlums and miscreants led by Musliu Akinsanya … took over the conduct of the election at the polling units … with arms and ammunition.’ They carried other ‘dangerous weapons such as machetes, charms and amulets’ but the police made no attempt to arrest them. Independent observers concurred, as did YouTube, where you can see the ‘hoodlums and miscreants’ casually trashing ballot boxes while voters flee. In other parts of the state many voters simply stayed at home. The result was that Lagos reported the lowest turnout of any state at just 17 per cent of almost seven million registered voters. This contrasted with my own polling unit in a residential, solidly middle-class Yoruba-speaking area of Surulere, where a single, unarmed policeman had very little to do while fifty or so citizens waited patiently under a canopy to cast their votes without an agbero in sight. The polling officer and his assistant were both young. At the end of the exercise, which took longer than it should have because there was only one inkpad, the polling officer held up each ballot paper in turn for all to see as he tallied the votes. There was a small fracas over the number of voided votes, which necessitated a recount. People were understandably suspicious.

In the event, Buhari won the state but only by a small margin. His running mate was a Yoruba, the predominant ethnic group in Lagos, but Buhari would have known that the Yoruba were the least likely of all Nigerians to vote according to ethnic sentiment. Two of the six states in the region voted for Atiku and it was a close call in the other four. But the south-east and south-south were a different matter. There nothing less than a full-scale military assault would have guaranteed Buhari victory, especially since Atiku had chosen an Igbo as his own running mate. Under the unofficial agreement which sees power rotating between the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south, this would mean that the Igbo could see one of their own becoming head of state in 2023, an aspiration they have been denied since the Biafran War.

Before the first vote was cast, Buhari flooded the south with soldiers under instructions to be ruthless ‘with anybody who thinks he has enough influence in his locality to lead a body of thugs or snatch [ballot] boxes or to disturb the voting system’. Such a person would do so ‘at the expense of his life’. Uppermost in Buhari’s mind was Governor Nyesom Wike of the oil-rich Rivers State, where more than thirty people lost their lives in this year’s voting. Buhari’s point man was the former governor, Rotimi Amaechi. As it happened, the courts had debarred the APC from fighting the election in the state as a result of Amaechi’s machinations. He simply hijacked one of the other parties: Nigerian politics are devoid of anything you might call an ideology, driven instead by facile slogans about ‘throttling corruption’ and ‘making Nigeria great again’. Buhari had previously run under two different (and now defunct) parties before joining the APC, which Atiku had left in December 2017 in order to rejoin the PDP.

According to Governor Wike’s account of the violence in Rivers State, ‘it was during the collation that operatives of the Nigerian Army interfered. They will invade a collation centre, arrest the electoral officer, returning officer and mercilessly beat up the PDP agents.’ Amaechi was seen ‘storming’ an INEC office with a hundred soldiers in order to snatch ballot boxes. The point of the mayhem was to deter any voters from leaving their homes. In the event, less than a fifth of the three million registered voters came out to exercise their democratic right. A PDP agent lamented that they ‘could have captured more than a million votes’ in the state. The pattern was repeated in the handful of northern states that favoured Atiku, for instance Zamfara in the north-west, where, according to the PDP, the military and mobile police overpowered party agents and altered the results in connivance with INEC officials to ensure a vote for the APC. Conversely, those states which favoured Buhari in the north-east recorded little or no violence and saw the highest voter turn-out. Especially notable was Borno State, the home of the Boko Haram insurgency, which enjoyed the highest turn-out of all. There is ample evidence that large numbers of voters were underage. All this proved decisive for Buhari’s victory: he eventually won by a margin of four million votes.


On 18 March Atiku went to court to challenge the result, but with little optimism. Besides, he could still forage for PDP victories a fortnight later, when all 36 states in the federation were set to run elections to their respective assemblies and 29 would be voting for state governors. In a modest way this was also an opportunity for me. In the run-up to the presidential vote, I’d tried and failed to join Atiku’s camp, arriving at his headquarters in Yola, the capital of his home state of Adamawa, and announcing that I’d like to cover his campaign. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the reception I got. Only a quarter of the country’s estimated population of two hundred million are in full-time employment. Unemployment has risen steeply in the last four years, from 8 per cent to 23 per cent. For young people aged between 15 and 35, who constitute more than half the electorate, the figures are even worse: over 50 per cent are out of work. The activity around elections provides a rare opportunity to make money: journalists, too – most of them paid a pittance – will latch on to a well-heeled candidate. An outsider like myself pitching up to report on the campaign from the inside wasn’t going to be greeted with enthusiasm. Atiku’s entourage saw me as a potential threat. What if I had something to offer that Atiku might genuinely need? I would be yet another pocket to line on payday – at the expense of their own.

Now, with the state elections, I decided to approach the PDP campaign team for the governorship of Lagos State, impressed by the hyperbole of Atiku’s spokesperson. ‘We can confirm,’ he announced on 28 February, ‘that a huge war chest has been mobilised by Atiku’s camp.’ Perhaps, but it wasn’t in evidence during the three days I spent on the campaign trail with Jimi Agbaje, the PDP’s gubernatorial candidate. I hadn’t been optimistic about my prospects but with Agbaje my luck was in. I was introduced as a member of the press by a mutual acquaintance who informed him that we had attended the same boarding school in Lagos. Like Atiku’s people, Agbaje’s did their best to sideline me when I turned up on the first day. Then his manager announced that I was the oga’s ‘friend’ (oga means chief or boss): the old school tie counts as much in Nigeria as anywhere else.

Agbaje, now attempting his third shot at the governorship, tends to surface only six months ahead of an election. As I followed his campaign I found it hard to see just where, or to what purpose, Atiku’s war chest was being deployed. He had the usual assortment of free hustings merchandise – cloth caps with visors, exercise books, pens and plastic hand fans – which we flung from the windows of our campaign vehicles as we toured the city. But they were always in short supply and outclassed, in any case, by the hampers from Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the APC candidate, which were stuffed with similar tat, and – crucially – packets of cornflakes, pasta, powdered milk and sugar. Unable to match this largesse, Agbaje’s team began to import thugs from outlying states, lodging them in hotels near the big markets, including Oshodi. But on the day of the vote they were nowhere to be seen. Agbaje (206,000 votes) was wiped off the map by Sanwo-Olu (740,000) and when it was all over nothing more was heard of him. I imagine he was already back at his lucrative pharmaceutical company, where he will concentrate his energies until the next opportunity to wring some money from the democratic process four years down the road. On the last day of the campaign, as I was about to leave, one of his entourage urged me to hang back for my share of the money that would soon be doled out.

Twenty years after the generals stepped aside, Nigeria has little to show for civilian rule. As for the military, they’re really no more than the armed wing of a venal political class. Shortly after the elections ended, a new Facebook page appeared: Our Mumu Don Do (‘don do’ in pidgin means ‘enough’ and ‘mumu’ means stupidity, so ‘enough of our stupidity’). Someone had posted a new national motto: ‘In a true Democracy, the people OWN the power/That is the essence of the Nigerian Social Contract.’ Politicians and businessmen like Atiku, who hold the political process hostage, are simply representative of high net worth individuals across the globe who make use of the same offshore tax havens. Nigerians are just cruder about it: after all, we are still part of the ‘developing’ world. This must be why, in 2016, David Cameron convened an anti-corruption conference that singled out Nigeria, even though his government had enabled large-scale, illegal transfers of money out of the country. Not only did Buhari agree to fly to London and be lectured on his country’s pitiful condition, he even made excuses for us. It’s hard to disagree with Cameron’s assessment of Nigeria as ‘fantastically corrupt’, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that countries in the global north are as bad as ours when it comes to the theft of their patrimony. But Buhari might have pointed out that we could hardly be fantastically corrupt all by ourselves. And besides, the vast majority of Nigerians – like people anywhere – are not corrupt precisely: we are implicated in corruption because we continue to tolerate the habits of our politicians. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess.