On May 29, Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in for his second term as President of Nigeria. The assumption of democratic theory is that in an election, the electorate considers different options and settles for the one that will best advance their interests.
If one of the options is an incumbent, then the electorate judges to what degree their interests were served during his or her expired term, and whether any one of the other candidates could do better in that regard. The process of weighing the pros and cons of available opinions is supposed to be done objectively and logically, and to be driven by self-interest.
And yet in some parts of the world, this process is often subjective, illogical and, bewilderingly for political scientists, driven by factors that work against self-interest. In Kenya, for instance, before an election cycle, people discuss objectively and logically the attributes of persons who should be elected to public office. But come election time, and the single most important consideration is ethnicity.
This ethnic formula has proven time and again to not only be flawed, but to work against the electorate’s self-interest. A lawyer on a TV panel once made a truly scary statement. Even if, he said, the cost of bread had shot up to 500 shillings ($5) in Uhuru’s first administration, the people who had woken up at 3am to vote for him in central Kenya would do so in the next election.
In Egypt, during the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, people agreed that they wanted equality for women, individual rights, a better economy and democracy. In the election that followed the overthrow of the dictatorship, they elected the Islamist Muhammed Morsi, whose philosophy was not to advance the values of the revolution but to govern the country according to another set of restrictive and oppressive laws.
In both Kenya and Egypt, the process of weighing the options on offer was determined by factors not contemplated by democratic theory.
It is only within this context – of a disconnect between theory and reality – especially in Africa, that we can understand the re-election of Buhari for another term.
Buhari had promised to defeat the Islamist Boko Haram terrorist group that had made regions in the northeast of the country wastelands of death and destruction. In the same vein, he vowed that he would rescue all the Chibok girls kidnapped by the terrorists to serve as sex slaves.
On the first score, he failed miserably. One of the largest armies in Africa was not able to significantly limit Boko Haram’s operations, much less defeat them. As for the rescue of the girls, many remain in sexual captivity. To date, Boko Haram is still able to kill and kidnap at will in Nigeria, and also in Cameroon.
Buhari had vowed to tackle corruption and grow the economy. While it can be argued that corruption is not what it used to be in the days of Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida, it continues to be the greatest threat to Nigeria’s economic wellbeing. Federal and state officials continue to divert millions of dollars into private pockets. Countless other millions go into funding the ostentatious lifestyles of federal and state fat cats.
Nigeria, just like before, is wracked by inefficiency and poor strategic planning. The country has failed to diversify its economy and is still largely dependent on oil exports. Nigeria boasts that it is the largest economy in Africa, but its financial and governing institutions, and its telecommunications and road infrastructure lag behind those of South Africa.
In per capita terms, Nigeria pales into insignificance when compared with the former apartheid state. Nigeria has all the characteristics of a poor Third World country – high unemployment, high levels of underemployment, gender inequality, extreme levels of poverty, and so on.
In addition, traditional customs continue to inflict violence on women. In regions of Nigeria, ethnic killings are frequent occurrences. Just this week, clashes between the Fulani and Dogon tribes have left dozens of people dead. As a result of these and other factors, Nigerians today form a large percentage of the migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe to escape chaos and poverty.
Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe, a fierce critique of the Nigerian kleptocracy, writes in an essay: “We are caught in a fundamental crisis that rocks the foundations of the ill-formed organism that is called Nigeria.” He is right. The Nigerian nation-state is bedevilled by crippling self-inflicted flaws and fault lines. One day, we will have to confront the scary question: Is Nigeria a viable entity?
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based commentator.