Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said his new government will “do what it takes” to defeat the extremist violence of Boko Haram, and he bluntly called on the U.S. to ease its restrictions on providing the weapons that his military needs to prevail in the fight. In an address at the U.S. Institute of Peace today, he also reaffirmed “zero tolerance” for corruption and pledged to restore trust in the country’s governance.

carson and buhari

“We are confident that we will defeat terrorism in our country and region, because we have the will to win this fight,” Buhari said in a speech before an overflow audience. The strategy will “prioritize the mobilization of maximum capacity to fight terrorism, while ensuring the safety and protection of local communities on the front line of the fight.”

Nigeria will improve cooperation and coordination with neighbors and the international community “to add depth and muscle to our overall strategy,” he said, as he prepared to leave Washington after a three-day visit that included a meeting with President Barack Obama on July 20. The USIP event was co-hosted by the Atlantic Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).

But Buhari, who won a watershed election on March 28, roundly criticized the U.S.’s application of the Leahy Law, which bars American assistance to foreign security force units where there is credible evidence of gross human rights violations.

“Regrettably, the blanket application of the Leahy Law by the United States on the grounds of unproven allegations of human rights violations leveled against our forces has denied us access to appropriate strategic weapons to prosecute the war against the insurgents,” Buhari said.

“Unwittingly --  and I dare say unintentionally – the application of the Leahy Law … has aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorists in the prosecution of its extremist ideology and hate, the indiscriminate killings and maiming of civilians, the raping of women and girls and other heinous crimes,” he said. “I know the American people cannot support any group engaged in these crimes.”

Buhari said the executive branch and the U.S. Congress should urgently ease application of the law for Nigeria, lest Boko Haram gain strength. The six-year conflict with Boko Haram is estimated to have killed 13,000 people.

Jobs and Accountability

Curbing the attraction of militancy for the country’s youth also will require jobs -- and economic opportunity more generally, Buhari said. And he called for government “at all levels” to be “responsive, inclusive, transparent and accountable.” Among his first acts in office was to meet with a civil society organization, #BringBackOurGirls, formed to press for the return of hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram.

He said that, while Nigeria’s federal system does not give him control over the state-level governors and local council leaders, he will appeal to them to adhere to the constitution in carrying out their fiscal responsibilities and he will scrutinize their books.

The U.S. helped hold Nigerian leaders on all sides accountable in the run-up to this year’s elections, Buhari said. He recounted a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry in which he met with former President Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari and the head of the election commission.

Kerry “read the riot act to us,” Buhari said. Kerry told them that “`the United States will not accept an unconstitutional conduct of the elections,’ he recalled. “And the pressure was sustained by the United States up to the last [day].”

The resulting election, declared by international monitors as free and fair, will help stabilize Nigeria and improve its security and the economy, Buhari said.

Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs and three-time ambassador on the continent, notes that, with a population of some 180 million, Nigeria stands as the world’s sixth-largest democracy, as well as Africa’s most populous state, the seventh largest in the world, and the world’s fifth-largest Muslim country.

“Nigeria faces multiple challenges – security problems in the northeast with Boko Haram, financial and budget challenges caused by declining oil prices, pervasive corruption in the oil sector and serious power shortages,” Carson, a senior advisor at USIP, told the audience in introducing Buhari. “President Buhari will have to draw on all of his leadership and management skills.”

Fighting Corruption

Princeton Lyman, a former ambassador to Nigeria who is now a senior advisor at USIP, told reporters last week that Buhari already is taking steps on security and corruption, including by replacing top military commanders.

Buhari called the fight against corruption a matter of the country’s survival. But he also pledged that his measures to combat graft would be “fair, just and scrupulously follow due process and the rule of law, as enshrined in our constitution.”

“We must win and sustain the trust of the people we govern,” Buhari said.

Part of that involves ensuring “the prudent management of Nigeria’s resources,” he said. Nigeria is Africa’s leading economy with a GDP substantially greater than that of either of its two closest rivals — South Africa and Egypt, Carson noted in a January article for African Arguments. And in addition to being Africa’s biggest oil producer, it is the sixth-largest oil exporter in the world. In West Africa, Nigeria dominates the banking, insurance, telecommunications, transportation and small-scale manufacturing sectors. 

USIP President Nancy Lindborg commended Buhari’s stated commitment, during his three-day visit in Washington, “to establish a stronger and more inclusive government to tackle corruption [and] address the insurgency of Boko Haram.”

“In doing so, Nigeria can seize this moment to reclaim its role as a leader on the continent,” Lindborg told the audience. USIP provides education, grants, training and resources for work toward peace in Nigeria, with the specific goals of informing U.S. policy and improving governance with approaches that will connect authorities more constructively with citizens, especially at the state level. The institute also supports efforts by local organizations such as the Interfaith Mediation Center toward an inclusive and sustainable peace for the country.

Watershed Election … for Africa Too

Buhari’s election represents a watershed for Nigeria and multi-party democracy in Africa, Lindborg and Carson said.  

“This is the first time an opposition candidate has won the presidency of Nigeria through the ballot, not through bullets, so it’s a remarkable achievement,” Lindborg said. “It’s a milestone, actually, for the entire continent, as a number of other countries wrestle with this issue of term limits.”

Carson, who co-led an election-monitoring mission to Nigeria for the National Democratic Institute in March, noted that a range of international observers described the election as free and fair.

“But more than anything else, the election was a personal triumph for President Buhari,” Carson said. The leader had lost three previous national elections that were marred by violence and controversy, especially in 2007, when observers documented “widespread vote-rigging and fraud,” Carson said. “President Buhari never gave up on democracy and he never gave up on the electoral process. He never abandoned the social and ethical convictions that have guided him throughout his life and that motivated him to run for his country’s highest office.”

Buhari praised the roles of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), civil society activists and others who contributed to the successful conduct of the election and the subsequent transition.

He noted the widespread skepticism in the West in the run-up to this year’s election, as analysts predicted violence and disputes over balloting.

“All those who predicted the worst possible post-election scenarios for Nigeria missed the mark by very wide margins, because the premises upon which the narratives were based were simply wrong,” Buhari said. “The peaceful conduct and outcome of the 2015 elections attest to the fact that elections in Africa can be conducted in a free, fair and credible manner, just like in any other part of the world.”

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