Muhammadu Buhari: Nigeria's Ticket to a Strong Democracy?

The challenger to Goodluck Jonathan could do wonders for Nigeria.

Though he's not the candidate with the name "Goodluck," Muhammadu Buhari, the challenger in Nigeria's now-delayed presidential election, must be feeling lucky.

As the race shapes up to be the closest election since the return of “civilian” government in 1999, it also promises to be the most important test of Nigeria's nascent and imperfect democracy. Unlike the previous four elections, there's a real chance that the dominant People's Democratic Party (PDP) could fall from power. If it does, Nigeria's incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan will be judged by history on the basis of how he left office as much as what he did in power.

Jonathan today is as embattled as African heads of state typically get. Struggling in his fight to halt Boko Haram's rise in northeastern Nigeria as a growing international threat, and reeling from a collapse in global oil prices that's left his government staggering to slash a national budget already inadequate to address the dual challenges of Nigerian security and development, the country's nominally independent national election commission postponed its general election for six weeks—from February 14 to March 28—ostensibly to register more voters in areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency and to give the Nigerian military a chance for one last offensive against the group.

The six-week delay initially felt like a suspicious opportunity for Jonathan to rally his chiefly southern, chiefly Christian supporters to win reelection. But it is already turning out quite differently. Jonathan is increasingly sidelined by economic and security problems, and last week brought a long-time-coming defection from his former patron, former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who tore up his PDP membership card last week, the latest chapter in an increasingly vocal turn away from Jonathan and toward Buhari.

Far from rallying Jonathan, the current six-week extension period is something like a triumph for Buhari, who's so comfortable about the state of the race that he spent over a week in London on a charm offensive in the United Kingdom, which has retained close postcolonial ties with Nigeria. Buhari quietly met with former prime minister Tony Blair, and he spoke at Chatham House, a leading London think tank, on February 26. Opponents, most notably Ekiti governor Ayodelse Fayose, claim that Buhari's trip is related to ill health, and Buhari himself said upon his return to Nigeria that he used the trip in part as a rest from the campaign trail, but there's no indication that the seventy-two-year-old candidate was seeking medical treatment abroad.

Notwithstanding his overseas trip, Buhari is no unfamiliar face to Western policy makers. Buhari is waging a compelling and credible campaign on two joint rationales—first, that he can reduce the extent of Nigeria's massive corruption and second, that he is better suited for thwarting Boko Haram than Jonathan.

But Buhari would arrive at the presidency with considerable baggage.

Three decades ago, Buhari led a coup against the civilian government of former president Shehu Shagari. Though the military coup was widely popular and Shagari despised for perpetrating corruption on a previously unseen scale, Buhari has a decidedly mixed record during his own tenure as Nigeria's military head of state between December 1983 and August 1985. Among the most egregious excesses involved the enactment of “Decree 4,” a repressive measure that curtailed press freedom by punishing the publication of anything that brought Nigeria's government into “ridicule or disrepute” with a two-year prison sentence. Several prominent journalists at the time were tried before military tribunals and imprisoned.

Nevertheless, Buhari led the most committed campaign in Nigerian history to eliminate graft and corruption, and his ambitious “war against indiscipline” sought to instill a sense of professionalism within the civil service and civic pride among the Nigerian population. It was Buhari's intolerance for corruption that probably brought his government to an overhasty conclusion. Terrified elites, in both Nigeria's north and south, breathed a sigh of relief when another military leader, Ibrahim Babangida, came to power in yet another coup. Babangida, who remained a powerful Nigerian political boss in the north after his own fall from power, has even endorsed Buhari in 2015, thirty years after deposing him.

Western fears run high that Buhari's victory would restore to office a figure who first rose to power by deposing Nigeria's first elected leader and who, while in office, evinced little regard for human rights. But a Buhari victory could, under the right circumstances, actually strengthen Nigerian democracy. It demonstrates quite a bit of confidence on Buhari's part that he is spending so much time wooing Western officials before any votes have even been cast. It also underlines just how cozy relations between the Jonathan government and Western governments are, especially during U.S. president Barack Obama's administration.

But the knee-jerk distaste for Buhari might be too pessimistic.