I don’t know about you but I was quite impressed. He did what he needed to do. He was gracious, set out the vision of his administration, reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and human rights, admitted that there were huge challenges ahead but stated that they were not insurmountable. He called on the spirit of the past, referring to the founding fathers of the nation and civilisations from the Kanem-Borno to the Oyo Empires that existed in the land that now makes up Nigeria.
Well done to his speech writers and well done to him. I do wish he had spoken about women’s rights though. Given the momentous signature of Jonathan of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Bill four days ago and the record low levels of women’s representation in the National Assembly (now a woeful 5.11%), it was an opportunity missed to show that he would govern for the best interests of women as well as men.
My top 5 highlights of the speech
1) Taking a holistic approach to peace and security
Where do I start? Moving the Command Centre to Maiduguri. Overhauling the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations. Placing the security forces within the overall security architecture. Making sure to focus on all security issues in Nigeria, not just those in the North East. If he had added just a few more things (like transparency of funding for security, addressing the phenomenon of vigilante groups, prioritizing security needs and realities of women as well as men and building trust between security forces and communities), I feel like he might have been listening in to conversations that I have been having recently!
I assume his thanks to the forces of Cameron, Niger and Chad for their assistance is symptomatic of an increased willingness of this administration to cooperate than was present in the last? Given the increasingly regional dimension to the conflict and violence and the need for a joined up approach, I hope this is the case.
The move of the Command Centre to Maiduguri is a welcome one. It is as much important for perceptions that the government takes what is happening seriously and cares for the people of the North East as it is for any improvements in intelligence gathering or increased fighting capacity. I wonder though what this means for the rest of the country? Will this be accompanied by Command Centres being set up in other conflict affected parts of the country (such as the Niger Delta) too?
It was also important that he mentioned the girls from Chibok who were abducted, said that victory would not be achieved without their being rescued, and committed to trying to do so alive. I hope this extends to all the women and girls who have been abducted over the past two years – and is linked with proper health and psychosocial care and assistance to reintegrate into their communities.
The announcement that he intends to commission a sociological study to examine the origins, sponsors and international connections of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad (JAS, commonly known as Boko Haram) to ensure something similar does not recur is welcome. He showed a more nuanced view of the origins of the sect than I was expecting, linking it to the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf by the police and the sense of injustice this caused and talking of negligence, bungling and complacency. Those in Maiduguri that I talk to do speak of forces within government (both state and federal) who may directly or indirectly be supporting JAS. If true, I hope they feel right now that judgment will come one day.
However, he did only talk about the use of force in terms of dealing with the insurgency. Although better training and equipment for the armed forces, cooperation with neighbours and increased effectiveness of armed forces is necessary, I do hope that this ‘kinetic approach’ is not seen as all that is needed to ‘destroy Boko Haram.’ It needs to be married together with address the root causes of the conflict, including lack of trust in state institutions and perceptions of inequality and unfairness engendered by underdevelopment and human rights violations.
Focus and prioritisation of the situation in the North East should go hand in hand with addressing conflict that is either more latent or just does not make the headlines. Let us not take our eyes away from areas affected by violent conflict, such as the Middle Belt and Delta, and wait for things to flare up again before doing anything about conflict dynamics there. After starting from talking about the North East, Buhari said that this was not the only security issue in the country, talking about cattle rustling, the situation in the Delta and clashes between farmers and pastoralists. He committed to investing heavily in projects and programmes currently in place in the Delta, particularly in light of the amnesty due to end in December and called on people to cooperate with rehabilitation programmes. He did not have time to go into detail about what this means, but I’m looking forward to more details. And I’m just so happy that he didn’t buy into the (dangerous) narrative of ‘marauding Fulani herdsmen’ which seems to have infected national and international media and discourse, not only making things worse but criminalising ethnicity.
2) Showing commitment to democracy and human rights
In the election campaign, much was made of his past as a military dictator. Given this history, it was good to see him talk about democracy. He started by emphasising that today was an occasion to celebrate freedom and cherish democracy, giving credit to Nigerians, who had shown their commitment to entrenching the culture of democracy. He then went on to talk about the three arms of government, stating he was not seeking to encroach on legislative and judicial functions. He committed to reforming the public service and judicial system to ensure integrity and stability. In addition to looking at the breadth of government, he also looked at its depth, talking of the limits to the powers of each of the three tiers of government but that the federal government should not close its eyes to what is happening in the states and local government. Corruption at the local level was particularly picked up here as needing to be checked. He committed to doing this to ensure responsible and accountable governance, within the bounds of the constitution. With the fears of Buhari overstepping the boundaries of his authority as President that were present, it is good that he stated this so clearly in his inaugural address.
I think my favourite part of the whole speech was when he spoke of human rights violations committed by security forces. These are well documented in Nigeria but, as with most other countries, the government has not always been open to their possibility, let alone taking decisive action to prevent and punish. I am looking forward to the overhaul of the Rules of Engagement that he mentioned to avoid violations of human rights in operations. I also hope that this understanding of human rights violations includes sexual violence committed by security agents. This is something I hear about again and again when talking with civil society activists and women living in communities, but this is under-documented. Whenever this has been mentioned to security or government, the response has always been either to deny it happens or words to the effect of ‘What can you expect? They’re so far away from their wives.’ I’m looking forward to a Buhari administration instituting a zero tolerance policy towards all human rights violations, including sexual violence, starting a training programme to inculcate this at all levels and investigating allegations and punishing perpetrators (after a fair trial).
3) Planning for power and employment
He name-checked a lot of issues, from education and health to climate change, and from communicable diseases to cyber-crime and infrastructure, but the focus of his speech was, not surprisingly, on youth employment and the power sector. It is a shame he did not expand further on the others. Education and healthcare in particular are key sectors needing fundamental reform. I guess you only have a certain amount of time and you can’t talk about everything.
As someone who has (as have we all) suffered from lack of light, particularly in the last few days, I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the several studies he says are underway to bring light to the country safely, quickly and reliably. He, quite rightly, calls it a national shame.
His plans for increasing employment, particularly of young people, were described more fully than during much of his campaign. He talked about revival of agriculture and mining sectors, giving credits to small and medium size businesses, examining the best way to revive labour industries and accelerating the development of railways, roads and other infrastructure. I hope he does so in a way that is sensitive to both gender realities and conflict dynamics. After all, of the 6 million young women and men who enter the labour market in Nigeria every year, only 1/3 of the 10% of them who find jobs are women. Young women also experience sexual harassment and violence when at work, perhaps no more so than the girls who hawk products on the roadside. Research in Anambra showed that 93.1% of girl hawkers experienced some force of abuse, with 69.9% of them experiencing sexual abuse. Presently, youth employment and empowerment programmes in Nigeria not only do not work for young women, but they are seen as actually increasing conflict in communities. This is as selection procedures are not fair, so many people believe that spots go to those linked to politicians. It is because they have been designed with no market needs assessment in place so, there are no jobs in place once youth go through the programmes. And it is because not enough information is given about them, so young people do not know how or when to apply. Buhari’s administration needs to learn from the mistakes of its predecessor here.
4) Reaching out to different groups
He started his speech by thanking the outgoing President, Goodluck Jonathan, for setting a precedent that he said, made us ‘proud to be Nigerians wherever we are’ and for his support to the transition. Of course, this comes in the context of the APC complaining of lack of cooperation by the PDP and Jonathan to the Transition Committee two weeks ago – but it was important that Buhari rose above this.
The new President also made sure that, when he referred to the founding fathers (of course none of them were women) and great civilisations, he talked about those from all corners of the country. This is important, especially given the ways divisions between the North and South were drawn upon and exacerbated during the election campaign itself. Although elections were not as violent as we previously feared, tensions persist and have heightened, particularly in the South South and South East. My friends and colleagues in Port Harcourt talk about a state of ‘uneasy calm’ that has persisted weeks after the elections took place.
Buhari needs to be and be seen (perception as important as reality here) as a President for the entire nation. He needs to govern in a way that actively reaches out to and involves those in areas that did not vote for him. He needs to avoid the perception that these states are being punished.
Buhari also spoke about trade unions, the private sector, the media and civil society, as well as the importance of the legislature and judiciary performing their functions, including that to check government power. I am pleased he talked about both unions and the private sector – hopefully this means the approach taken towards stimulating the economy will be one that respects workers’ rights as well as supports employers.
He appealed to the media, including social media, to exercise its power with responsibility. This is particularly pertinent in the aftermath of the high levels of hate and dangerous speech that we saw in both traditional and social media before and during the elections. I do hope that this is not a coded message however, given initial worrying signs such as his decision (since reversed by his party) to bar AIT from covering his activities. Let us hope this was an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.
5) Quoting Shakespeare
This was a bit unexpected. He ended his speech by quoting Brutus in Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Here, Brutus urges his friends for quick and decisive action and to seize the opportunities that are being now available. Better Shakespearean scholars that I can analyse what this means in the context of Buhari’s speech and his presidency, but it does add to the general impression of needing to act and being at the cusp of something that could be great. As Buhari himself says, ‘the newly elected government is basking in a reservoir of good will and high expectations,’ seeing this as a ‘window of opportunity to fulfil these expectations.’
The expectations surrounding Buhari are (unrealistically) high. The day after Jonathan’s concession, when I arrived at work, I was met by a colleague from Maiduguri. The first thing she said to me, before even greeting me, was ‘Now we can go home.’ I spoke with young men who felt they had no alternative but to drive informal taxis who insisted that, once Buhari took office, that they would all have the meaningful careers of their dreams.
It is wonderful to have people so invested in a government and so certain that they will stand up and deliver on promises made in their elections. The lack of cynicism is both heartwarming and breathtaking. It is a welcome departure from the resignation and frustration that has been there until now. But, I worry that expectations are just too high. It is good to know that Buhari is aware of the weight of these expectations, of the burden of history upon his shoulders, and is determined to act quickly to keep the momentum of goodwill flowing.
As he himself said, ‘We have an opportunity. Let us take it.’