This time, Buhari’s prospects are better. Jonathan is widely perceived as ineffectual, and the clearest example, which has eclipsed his entire presidency, is his response to Boko Haram. Such a barbaric Islamist insurgency would challenge any government. But while Boko Haram bombed and butchered, Jonathan seemed frozen in a confused, tone-deaf inaction. Conflicting stories emerged of an ill-equipped army, of a corrupt military leadership, of northern elites sponsoring Boko Haram, and even of the government itself sponsoring Boko Haram.
Jonathan floated to power, unprepared, on a serendipitous cloud. He was a deputy governor of Bayelsa state who became governor when his corrupt boss was forced to quit. Chosen as vice president because powerbrokers considered him the most harmless option from southern Nigeria, he became president when his northern boss died in office. Nigerians gave him their goodwill—he seemed refreshingly unassuming—but there were powerful forces who wanted him out, largely because he was a southerner, and it was supposed to be the north’s ‘turn’ to occupy the presidential office.
And so the provincial outsider suddenly thrust onto the throne, blinking in the chaotic glare of competing interests, surrounded by a small band of sycophants, startled by the hostility of his traducers, became paranoid. He was slow to act, distrustful and diffident. His mildness came across as cluelessness. His response to criticism calcified to a single theme: His enemies were out to get him. When the Chibok girls were kidnapped, he and his team seemed at first to believe that it was a fraud organized by his enemies to embarrass him. His politics of defensiveness made it difficult to sell his genuine successes, such as his focus on the long-neglected agricultural sector and infrastructure projects. His spokespeople alleged endless conspiracy theories, compared him to Jesus Christ, and generally kept him entombed in his own sense of victimhood.
The delusions of Buhari’s spokespeople are better packaged, and obviously free of incumbency’s crippling weight. They blame Jonathan for everything that is wrong with Nigeria, even the most multifarious, ancient knots. They dismiss references to Buhari’s past military leadership, and couch their willful refusal in the language of ‘change,’ as though Buhari, by representing change from Jonathan, has also taken on an ahistorical saintliness.
I remember the Buhari years as a blur of bleakness. I remember my mother bringing home sad rations of tinned milk, otherwise known as "essential commodities"—the consequences of Buhari’s economic policy. I remember air thick with fear, civil servants made to do frog jumps for being late to work, journalists imprisoned, Nigerians flogged for not standing in line, a political vision that cast citizens as recalcitrant beasts to be whipped into shape.