Would Sri Lankan Happening Find Echo in Nigeria

It came as something of a surprise a couple of weeks ago when the Sri Lankan electorate wisely refused to re-endorse Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. It was an even bigger surprise when the incumbent meekly conceded defeat — although it was subsequently reported that he had done so only after an unsuccessful attempt to retain power with military backing.
The quasi-dictatorial Rajapaksa’s comeuppance was facilitated by a broad-based revolt within the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and the nation’s future under the new dispensation is hard to predict, but the electoral outcome nonetheless demonstrated the power of the ballot box.
The popular vote is similarly likely to upend the status quo in Greece next Sunday, with the electorate apparently inclined to empower the left-wing Syriza, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the European Union.
The Nigerian president is expected to be re-elected. No such earthquake is predicted, however, when Nigeria goes to the polls on Feb 14. Notwithstanding its global reputation for monumental incompetence, the government of President Goodluck Jonathan is generally expected to be re-elected.
This is only partly explained by the likelihood that polling is unlikely to take place across vast swathes of northern Nigeria that are either controlled or threatened by Boko Haram. The latter’s successes on its chosen battlefield are, after all, largely a consequence of the central authority’s reluctance or inability to put up much of a resistance.
There’s more to it than that, though. Jonathan and members of his cabinet were quick to convey condolences to Paris over the Charlie Hebdo massacre while simultaneously ignoring reports of an atrocity on a considerably larger scale in Baga, in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno.
Jonathan has form in this respect. It took him more than three weeks last year to utter a word in public about the kidnapping by Boko Haram of close to 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, in the same state, despite an international uproar. Shortly afterwards, the first lady, Patience, claimed that the abductions were a hoax publicised by rivals to undermine her husband. Nearly a year later, some of Jonathan’s allies continue to spout the same sort of nonsense.
In the case of Baga, where initial reports spoke of 2,000 dead — and satellite imagery released by Amnesty International illustrated the scale of the devastation — a government spokesman eventually claimed that the death toll was “only” 150. But eyewitness reports of bodies scattered on the streets suggest a calamity of vaster proportions.
Furthermore, there have been reports of children as young as 10 being used as suicide bombers. Last Sunday, in a raid on a bordering region of Cameroon, Boko Haram is believed to have kidnapped “around 80 people, many of them children”. The insurgency has been spilling over into Cameroon, Chad and Niger for some time, and negotiations were scheduled this week towards a potential agreement on a regional military response.
Last year, in the wake of the mass abduction in Chibok, there were offers of western assistance. It never added up to much, though, and it is far from obvious whether it has paid any dividends in terms of security. Given Nigeria’s resources, though, and the size of its military, it should have been able to tackle the insurgency on its own.
One of the apparent reasons behind its failure to do so is corruption of legendary proportions, which pervades the military as well, as a result of which soldiers often find themselves poorly equipped in comparison with the militants. Boko Haram’s frequent bouts of ruthless violence, meanwhile, tend to be more widely reported abroad than within Nigeria, and reports suggest a substantial proportion of the population has been lulled into accepting that as long as “the problem” remains restricted to the largely Muslim north, the majority of Nigerians have little to fear.
That false sense of security helps to explain why many voters may be inclined next month to re-elect Jonathan.
There are clearly at least some parallels between Nigeria on the one hand and Iraq and Pakistan on the other. Establishing some sort of caliphate appears to figure prominently on Boko Haram’s agenda. The state confronting it, meanwhile, is beset by corruption and dysfunction. And Nigeria shares with Pakistan a long and disreputable history of democratic experiments being disrupted by military rule.
There’s a reminder of this aspect of Nigeria’s travails in the fact that Jonathan’s chief adversary on Feb 14 will be Muhammadu Buhari, who served as military ruler in the mid-1980s. However, Buhari’s relatively brief stint as strongman was distinguished by an anti-corruption drive. He has vacillated on the question of Boko Haram but has lately adopted a less compromising stance.
There’s no telling what sort of a president he would make, but chances are he would be a better bet than the incumbent. Whether the Nigerian electorate will be willing to follow in the footsteps of its Sri Lankan counterpart towards investing in change remains to be seen.

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