Nigeria's Election and the "Green Lantern" Theory
Could a more dynamic president solve the many challenges facing the Nigerian people?
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For the New Year, Nigeria’s most influential former head of state—Olusegun Obasanjo, who was president from 1999 to 2007—released one of his signature open letters. The occasion was the approach of Nigeria’s next elections: presidential and legislative on February 25, gubernatorial and state legislative on March 11. Obasanjo made news for endorsing a third-party candidate in this year’s presidential race, the Labour Party’s Peter Obi, who has galvanized support among many youth in Nigeria and among many Nigerians in the diaspora. In the letter, Obasanjo also reflected on leadership, national unity, and the role of young voters in determining the future. He wrote, “We need selfless, courageous, honest, patriotic, in short, outstanding leadership with character and fear of God beyond what we have had in recent past.”
In Nigerian political culture, there is an obsession with the idea of leadership, and specifically the presidency, as a solution for the country’s problems. This is an obsession that has also affected politics in the United States and many other countries. One variant of this obsession is what commentators such as Matt Yglesias and the political scientist Brendan Nyhan have referred to as the “Green Lantern theory” of politics; the idea that the US presidency, for example, is virtually all-powerful if the officeholder has the will to use the office to its full potential. In countless conversations with Nigerians, I’ve heard variants of “Green Lanternism.”
Accusations that someone subscribes to “Green Lanternism” are, of course, political in and of themselves. In 2009, when Nyhan applied the term (originally used by Yglesias in 2006 to refer to the U.S. military) to the presidency of Barack Obama, the political stakes were enormous. Was Obama a realistic operator achieving limited but meaningful legislative victories amid profound constraints, or was he squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change by playing it too safe and/or hewing to his own, ultimately centrist, instincts? The charge of “Green Lanternism” became in part a cudgel with which supposedly clear-eyed centrists could beat up on supposedly starry-eyed left-liberals and leftists; it's no fun to be a called a “Green Lanternist.”
Yet the charge of “Green Lanternism” does have some bite to it, in the United States and Nigeria. Perhaps two modifications to the idea are needed. First, in both countries the presidency could be wielded more powerfully than it has been, but it is very unlikely that a “change candidate” will live up to the hype, whether due to their own shortcomings or due to institutional and political constraints. Second, in most elections relatively status quo candidates are likely to win. In other words, for Nigeria this year, Peter Obi is unlikely to win (the Labour Party lacks the infrastructure and elite backing typically needed to forge victory), and if he wins he’s unlikely to transform Nigeria. Indeed, none of the three leading candidates, even if they bring extraordinary energy and vision to the task of governing Nigeria, appear able to provide the “leadership” that Obasanjo and many other Nigerians crave. The presidency seems too small, despite all its power, to tackle Nigeria’s severe and growing problems.
Background to the Elections
In 1999, Nigeria returned to civilian rule after thirty-three years of military dictatorships and two abortive republics (1979-1983 and 1993). Obasanjo, a retired military head of state, won a relatively free election and proceeded to govern for two terms (Nigeria’s presidential system resembles the United States’ in term length and term limits). Obasanjo presided over rapid economic growth (5 percent in 2000, and even greater leaps in the seven years that followed) and secured $18 billion in debt relief from the Paris Club (a group of the world’s most powerful creditors) in 2006. Yet there were serious problems alongside these achievements. For one thing, there were messy efforts to privatize major state-owned firms such as NITEL, the state telephone company. Accusations of corruption surrounded the privatization process, reaching to the highest levels. Then, Obasanjo tarnished his legacy by seeking an extraconstitutional third term, a bid the Senate defeated in 2006 by rejecting a proposed constitutional amendment. The corruption allegations and the third term bid were, moreover, closely related, as leading Nigerian lawyers have charged.
Pivoting away from his failed third term bid, Obasanjo selected his successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, who won the widely condemned election of 2007. One abiding criticism of Obasanjo’s choice of Yar’Adua is that even by 2007, it was likely already known to both men that Yar’Adua suffered from a serious kidney problem. Yar’Adua was medically unfit for office by 2009 at the latest, and his extended medical sojourn in Saudi Arabia in 2009-2010 provoked a constitutional crisis, with Yar’Adua’s circle attempting to control the presidency and with Vice President Goodluck Jonathan eventually obtaining Senate backing as Acting President. The crisis was resolved only with Yar’Adua’s death in May 2010, which elevated Jonathan to the role of what some called “accidental president”—an extraordinary political ascent that had involved several instances of blind luck, including Jonathan’s promotion from Deputy Governor to Governor of his home state when the original governor was impeached on corruption charges, a move that then positioned him for selection as Yar’Adua’s running mate in 2007.
The end of Yar’Adua’s tenure and the whole of Jonathan’s saw the real beginnings of Nigeria’s profound struggle with insecurity. The Boko Haram movement transitioned, in 2009-2010, from extremist preaching sect to full-blown insurgency. The impact of this insurgency was felt profoundly from 2011 on, with suicide bombings in Nigeria’s capital Abuja that summer and with the increasingly obvious incapacity of the Nigerian security forces in the face of the jihadists. Indeed, the security forces’ approach—brutal, inconsistent, corrupt—prefigured the now nearly nationwide struggles the military and police are having in confronting not just jihadists but also bandits, criminals, separatists, and other opportunists.
Amid the rising insurgency, Jonathan won an election that proved to be the most divisive since 1999. His victory was followed by serious riots and anti-Christian pogroms in northern Nigeria. The number of people killed (whether by Boko Haram, by the security forces, by rioters, or others) remained relatively small. But the secondary effects of the unrest (displacement, economic devastation, and an atmosphere of panic) were immense. During Jonathan’s first full term (2011-2015), all of these problems worsened, even as Nigeria achieved still-impressive levels of topline economic growth.
The 2015 Elections, Muhammadu Buhari, and the Nigerian Presidency
The election of 2015 became a pivotal moment in the country’s history—and, ultimately, a test of “Green Lanternism” in the Nigerian context. In former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, many Nigerians saw a man of integrity, someone whose personal austerity would serve the nation well in beating back Boko Haram and curbing corruption. Meanwhile, Nigerian politics was shifting, as the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)—the party of Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, and Jonathan—fractured. From 2013 on, restless and frustrated governors decamped to the emerging opposition coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC). By the time Buhari ran on the APC ticket in 2015, he was no longer a northern sectional candidate as he had been in 2003, 2007, and especially 2011; he was now the candidate of the north plus the southwest, which proved to be a winning formula, both in 2015 and again for his re-election in 2019.
I was transfixed by the events of 2015. The stakes were enormously high for the integrity of the elections, and when authorities postponed elections by six weeks in response to Boko Haram’s violence (or opportunistically, to buy the incumbent more time, depending on how you read it), it seemed like a grim sign for Nigeria’s democracy. The personalities also appeared so dramatic: Jonathan (was he bumbling, or venal?), Buhari (would he reverse the insurgency and flush out corruption, or prove so autocratic it would undermine civic freedoms?), the Independent National Election Commission’s Chairman Attahiru Jega (would he salvage Nigeria’s declining reputation as a democracy?). There was drama down to the last minute, with a reported plot by Jonathan’s supporters to disrupt the announcement of results. Buhari’s eventual victory seemed both historic and hopeful; 2015 was the first time power had changed hands from one party to another since 1999. The former general seemed rigid but capable.
Buhari’s performance these past eight years has been lackluster at best. Obasanjo is charitable when he writes, in his open letter, “Our leaders have done their best, but their best had turned out to be not the best for Nigeria and Nigerians at home and abroad. For most Nigerians, it was hell on earth.” Buhari not only struggled to defeat Boko Haram and its offshoots, he (and the military) also engaged in systematic denialism, proclaiming victory in the face of continued violence.
The authorities inflamed other crises through a devastating combination of inaction and overreaction. They let some crises fester, such as banditry in the northwest and jihadists’ rural predations in the northeast. At the same time they pursued dubious legal cases against figures that in my view were not critical threats, such as the Shiʿi firebrand Ibrahim al-Zakzaky and the southeastern separatist Nnamdi Kanu. The economy, meanwhile, was sputtering, due in part to global factors well beyond Nigeria’s control, but also due to the accumulating problems of a system based on a rickety combination of a declining and corrupt oil-based budgetary model combined with gross inequalities—a wealthy country with a poor population. Finally, Buhari often appeared physically incapable of doing the job of president, taking extended medical breaks in London and exhibiting considerable slowness in taking decisions.
The solution lies in having a more energetic and imaginative president, right? I am not so sure. The problems, again, seem structural. We can start by looking at the candidates, and here I would once more draw some loose parallels with the United States. Like the US, Nigeria has evolved a considerable degree of gerontocracy as key politicians await their turn at the presidency. Two of the three top candidates—former Lagos Governor and APC mastermind Bola Tinubu, and leading opposition candidate and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the PDP—are well over 70. To say that both men have been aiming for the presidency since 1999 is no exaggeration. And unlike the US, Nigeria (the political system, if not necessarily the voters) is highly forgiving of multiple bids for the presidency. Buhari tried four times before succeeding. Atiku, as he is often called, is now on his fifth attempt. These men are not merely aged—at least one of them, Tinubu, may have active health challenges (as with Yar’Adua and Buhari, the health issues are one problem and the opacity around them is yet another problem). If Tinubu wins, which is the most likely outcome given the advantages that come with being from the ruling party, this could mean that three out of Nigeria’s five presidents since 1999 will have been seriously ill while in office. That’s not just bad luck, that’s structural.
Obasanjo writes, “My dear young men and women, you must come together and bring about a truly meaningful change in your lives. If you fail, you have no one else to blame.” But the youth of this young country find their avenues into power blocked in many ways, excepting the various proteges and mentees of the powerful. Obasanjo also writes, with only some exaggeration, “all the major contestants claim to be my mentees.” Indeed, much of Nigerian politics is still decisively shaped by events that occurred well before most Nigerians were born, not just in the generic sense of history influencing the present but in the concrete sense of how the networks of power were forged and continue to operate. The system was not always so closed to youth; as Obasanjo points out, he himself was military head of state at the age of thirty-nine. Maybe this is the root of the problem, in fact. The generation born in the 1930s and 1940s, whose leading lights began to dominate politics in the 1970s and 1980s, has cast a long shadow over Nigeria’s politics. And Obi, at 61, is not that much younger than the others.
Another feature of the current slate of candidates is that they are all insiders—even Obi, the self-branded outsider. Obi is running as the Labour Party’s candidate, but he only joined Labour for the purposes of this election. Before that he was part of the PDP, and his career involves the same story of party-switching that characterizes so many Nigerian politicians. Obi was Atiku’s running mate in 2019. And I wouldn’t want to push an analogy between Obi and Obama too far, but Obi’s anti-systemic rhetoric, in its mix of ambition and vagueness, reminds me of Obama’s. A typical line from Obi: “The young ones want to see a country with a future. My job is to take the country and give it to them.”
The Labour Party’s campaign manifesto is somewhat more detailed, but is not particularly radical or original. Essentially, Obi promises to be a competent implementer of moderate reforms, but presents that package as transformational. Even the outsider candidate, then, does not appear to offer solutions whose ambition matches the depth of the country’s problems. Nor would an ambitious reformer necessarily be able to overcome all of the country’s entrenched interests. The military, for example, has been nearly immune to accountability—or even much introspection, from what I can tell—across four presidencies. The worst abuses have occurred under Jonathan and and Buhari.
Beyond Green Lanternism
What lies beyond Green Lanternism? If the president, whoever he or she may be, is unlikely to solve the country’s problems, what then? Much of my own political consciousness, in my own country, has resolved around the story of the American presidency. In ways that seem naïve in retrospect, I looked to both Obama and Bernie Sanders as salvific figures. One of them disappointed me grossly, and I wonder whether the other could have ever become president—even if Sanders’ 2020 campaign had somehow been perfectly executed, it is clear in retrospect that the Democratic Party itself was fatally hostile to the prospect of his nomination. Again, the United States is not Nigeria and vice versa, but the same basic dynamic appears to operate with both presidencies; the office is reserved for insiders, and it is much easier to use the office for destruction and personal enrichment than it is to wield it for even mild reforms. Winning the presidency in either the US or Nigeria is extraordinarily difficult; using the office for transformation appears nearly impossible.
One thing that lies beyond Green Lanternism is fatalism and pessimism about politics. That dynamic is growing in Nigeria—look at how turnout in presidential elections crashed, in just twenty years, from nearly 70% in 1999 to under 35% in 2019. Even more worrying is a turn (or sometimes return) to vigilantism, often abetted by politicians. This is yet another sign of the collapse of faith in conventional, electoral politics and institutions as the mechanisms for solving problems. For years, Nigerians and non-Nigerians have debated whether the country will disintegrate, a question that’s often been framed in a binary way, as though a prosperous and united Nigeria versus a war of all against all are the only options. At present, Nigeria appears to be charting a course into a grim future where the formal, legal entity of Nigeria as a nation-state will remain intact, and where a normal-ish life can carry on for some, but where significant swathes of the country will experience long-term instability, and where criminality will reach, in increasingly brazen ways, into the lives of the middle class and even the wealthy. Nigeria’s next president cannot reverse these trends though personal qualities of leadership alone.
Is there something more hopeful beyond Green Lanternism? I think there could be. The appeal to focus on making a difference locally can be a cliché, or even a sneaky way of trying to distract voters and citizens away from the vital importance of national politics, yet there is also much to be said for taking a broader view of where change can originate. I won’t pretend I know how to solve Nigeria’s problems, or that that’s even my job, but it seems to me that a top-down, presidency-oriented view has become an obstacle to political creativity in Nigeria and in some ways in the United States as well. In both countries we should pressure presidents to do more and better; it remains deeply frustrating to think about all the things that Joe Biden could do, simply with unilateral executive authority, that he does not do. But the messiah-president is unlikely to arrive in either country, and that means that offices such as governorships and legislative seats can be understood as ends in and of themselves, rather than as stepping-stones, and that citizen power is important more for its groundswell through social movements than through its intermittent exercise in selecting a head of state. What Nigerian citizens do after February 25, 2023 will ultimately be more important than the votes cast on that day.
Indeed, it’s striking how little of Obasanjo’s letter actually deals with his endorsement of Obi. Most of the letter is a romantic appeal, even a plea, for Nigerians to set aside ethnoreligious differences, and even to set aside national history and their own narratives of it, and instead “develop national ethos and national characteristics that can take us collectively to the promised.” There are no shortage of critics, myself among them, who would point out that Obasanjo himself has a deeply flawed record, including in cultivating a divisive kind of “Pentecostal Republic” in which not even all Nigerian Christians would recognize themselves. Even if Obasanjo is a flawed messenger, though, the balance of his letter seems more or less right to me. The presidency, for all the ferocious competition around it, is ultimately a small part of what will determine Nigeria’s future.
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