When All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate Muhammadu Buhari defeated the incumbent Johnathan Goodluck from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2015 Nigerian election, many saw the country as finally heading toward democracy. Goodluck had been in office since the end of military rule in Nigeria in 1999, making the 2015 election the first in the nation’s history in which power was peacefully transferred between heads of state. But do Buhari’s actions in office reflect the democratic hope initially associated with his presidency?
Kicking off his first month in office with a 70% approval rating, Buhari’s message of a strong, democratic Nigeria was attractive to many in the country. Yet since taking office, the former military leader has exhibited worrying signs of authoritarian activity, including the removal of obstacles to his presidency and limiting free speech in the country. As Buhari makes himself out to be yet another disappointing leader, the Nigerian people have changed their tune. With dissatisfaction in the government becoming more and more apparent, Nigerians’ patience with undemocratic leaders may be starting to run thin.
But first, let’s further assess the controversial actions Buhari has engaged in since becoming president. One example commonly cited is the suspension of Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen. In February 2019, Buhari removed Onnoghen under the accusation that the judge was not properly reporting his assets. However, this suspension was issued just weeks before the national election, which is troubling considering the fact that the Chief Justice plays a role in overseeing electoral disputes. Furthermore, according to Section 292 of the Nigerian constitution, removal of a Chief Justice must be supported by a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which Buhari bypassed.
Attacking obstacles to power via non-political crimes is a common feature of authoritarian behavior. In his article on “stealth authoritarianism,” law professor Ozan O. Varol notes that regimes will often use criminal laws such as fraud or money laundering to target political opponents. Doing so “reduces the costs associated with overt repression” while also “allow[ing] the regime to portray the prosecution to domestic and global audiences as an application of the rule of law.”  Buhari has done just this, additionally defending his decision by stating that the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) ordered him to issue the suspension. This stunt nevertheless gained widespread criticism, with Buhari’s opponent in the 2019 election, Atiku Abubakar, labeling the move “a brazen dictatorial act.” The fact that Buhari failed to adhere to constitutional protocol also does not help his case. Despite this, Buhari was still able to appoint a new judge, Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, to the position. The president went on to win the election against Abubakar and is currently serving a second term.
Buhari has additionally been accused of dictatorial tendencies regarding his decision to ban Twitter in Nigeria in June 2021. Although government officials claim that the ban was in response to the app “being used for subversive purposes and criminal behavior,” others point out that the ban was instated two days after Twitter deleted a controversial tweet from the president hinting at the use of violence against secessionists. The ban was condemned by those in the country and overseas, with human rights group Amnesty International referring to the actions of the government as “clear violations of the right to freedom of expression, access to information, and freedom of the press.”
Restricting avenues of free speech is another hallmark of authoritarian action. Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zibalt cite this to be the case in their book How Democracies Die, in which a “readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media” makes up one of four key indicators of authoritarian behavior.  With Twitter being a space where young Nigerians expressed their grievances about the government and held public officials accountable, the ban constituted a huge blow to freedom of speech in the country. However, the Nigerian government has since decided to lift the ban, albeit under a set of rules provided by the government that Twitter is obliged to follow.
In spite of these accounts of authoritarian behavior, one may still argue that Buhari has made efforts to improve Nigeria’s democracy. His anti-corruption campaign, for example, included the reform of initiatives such as the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) in an attempt to better control and monitor spending by politicians. Corruption convictions have additionally risen under Buhari’s presidency, with Buhari even going after high-ranking officials such as governors in his “zero tolerance” policy toward corruption.
Even considering this, however, the president still appears to be somewhat lax in his crackdown on corruption. In late 2018, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, the Kano state governor whom Buhari has described as a “responsible man,” was secretly filmed filling his pockets with millions of Nigerian naira. Buhari neglected to carry out any investigation into the matter, with Ganduje being ordered by the Kano state high judge to pay only 800,000 naira just this past year. In addition, Secretary to the Government of the Federation Babachir David Lawal was prosecuted for corruption charges a whole two years after his removal from the position, following pressure from the Nigerian people. Lawal is now a campaigner for Buhari in Adamawa state, the president’s hometown. With these examples being just a few of multiple instances of corruption occurring under Buhari’s presidency, his “zero tolerance” policy does not seem to strike all politicians heavily.
Yet Buhari’s authoritarian leaning does not mean that Nigeria is doomed to an endless cycle of untrustworthy leaders. In February 2020, when presidential approval ratings in the country were last made available online, Buhari’s rating stood at a measly 27%. Furthermore, the population has been more than vocal about its frustrations toward the government, with the 2020 #EndSARS protests in the country being the latest major episode of unrest in the country. These protests are especially significant considering the demands of protestors for a “change in how Nigeria is governed.” As the Nigerian people realize their potential to unite and change the course of their government, it may only be a matter of time until democracy truly comes to Nigeria. With the presidential elections only a year away, we can only hope that the “giant of Africa” soon becomes a giant of democracy on the continent. Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1673-1742  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018)