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Africa

Opinion: No choice for Nigeria

After elections were postponed, Nigerians will now vote for a new president this Saturday (28.03.2015). But many have lost interest – for good reason, says DW’s Jan-Philipp Scholz.

The scandal began on February 7 with the announcement that the presidential election would unfortunately have to be postponed by six weeks. The military had to defeat Boko Haram first so that elections could be conducted throughout the country in a proper manner. Nigerians rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Were the government and army speaking of the terrorists who had brought fear and death to the entire northeast of the country, murdering, plundering, kidnapping and forcing 1.5 million people to flee? These terrorists were now to be defeated militarily? In six weeks? Fantastic! But why could this not have happened six years earlier?

The successes claimed by the Nigerian army and their military allies are certainly impressive – despite the news that the terrorists had kidnapped large numbers of people from the northern town of Damasak. However, reports from eye witnesses and journalists from the region indicate that the military offensive has successfully driven Boko Haram out from many areas, so that the insurgents now have their backs against the wall. Reason to rejoice, one might think – if not for the question: “Why could this not have happened six years ago?”

Jan-Philipp Scholz using a cellphone

Jan-Philipp Scholz is one of the DW team covering the Nigerian elections

Slap in the face for terror victims

A few days ago President Goodluck Jonathan gave the answer in an interview. Since a bloody civil war in the 1960s, Nigeria has not waged war, he said. In addition, the country does not produce its own weapons but has to buy them abroad. That is why it all took a bit longer. An explanation that beggars belief.

Nigeria is Africa's biggest economy with an annual defense budget of around 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion). It is a country that in past years has participated in numerous peace missions from South Sudan to Liberia. But for six years this Nigeria could not manage to procure weapons and allies to fight a brutal terror group within its own borders? And the time at which everything miraculously falls into place and it finally becomes possible to take effective action against the terrorists just happens to be shortly before presidential elections?

The president's duplicity is unbelievable. It is also a slap in the face for the families of the thousands of victims of Boko Haram. But more important is evidently the fact that Nigeria's political elite notices every four years that there is a Nigerian people which has to give them at least the semblance of political legitimization. For years, the fate of millions of northern Nigerians who suffered under the terror, did not interest them in the slightest. Or at least it did not interest them enough to trigger serious consideration of how the conflict could be resolved. The military budget was recklessly plundered, while the terrorists were able to continue murdering and raping at will. A president who allows such a state of affairs has clearly lost any claim to leadership.

A rival with a dark past

But what is the alternative? The only serious rival is former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari. Many Nigerians, especially in the Muslim-dominated north, are impressed by his reputation of standing firm on corruption and leading a modest lifestyle. However, and that is the other side of the coin, as Nigeria's military ruler in the 1980s, he had numerous critics arrested and opposition figures persecuted. Times and circumstances have changed, say his defenders. In the meantime (more or less functioning) democratic institutions have become established in the country, restricting the president's power. Even if Buhari wished, he could not continue to act as before. Should that put our minds at rest? When he was able to act as he wished, he did so. When he held sole power, he used it without compunction. That circumstances are now different, is none of his doing. On the contrary, when Buhari was military dictator, he wanted to have nothing to do with a return to democracy.

There is a saying that every people gets the politicians it deserves. If we were to apply this to Nigeria, it would be an insult to the West African giant's 170 million inhabitants, most of whom work hard to support themselves and their families. No, Nigeria does not have the politicians it deserves. The choice the people now face is in reality no choice: between a liar and an ex-dictator. Hovering above is the invisible hand of the military and the powerful Ogas – rich, influential, mostly elderly men who are regarded as important "kingmakers." Should the election result not be to their liking, there are fears that they could use their power to install an interim government. One result is already clear before the polling stations open. Nigeria has missed the chance for a new beginning.

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