This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.
The accession of retired general Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, whose career extends back to Nigeria’s civil war, to a newly empowered Ministry of Defense evidences the gravity of the war in northeastern Nigeria, the president’s inability to deal with it, and the tendency of a political system sustained by patronage and corruption to look backward in crisis, rather than forward.
Will it work?
Henry Kissinger once commented that, “unique leadership is a human thing, and it is not going to be produced by a mass social community.” A solid political base requires more than a few keystrokes on Facebook. Aliyu Mohammed Gusau is well known for his deep connections, but his opponent, Boko Haram, is extensively networked, too. The army may kill a hundred insurgents, only to find more popping up elsewhere. Larger defense budgets, tighter command and control, and foreign-trained battalions susceptible to rapid skill degradation are not likely to change that, at least not quickly. It remains to be seen whose networks are stronger.
Yet Gusau’s most formidable opponent is the fact that Nigeria is not the same country it was during his prime. Institutions have deteriorated, leadership is weak, national identity is declining, religion and ethnic identity are rising, and ordinary Nigerians are increasingly alienated from their government, even while their hunger for democracy remains keen. Seen by some as an eminence grise of elite politics, Gusau’s ability to provide what the country most needs—governance—cannot be assumed, even while his experience and skill should not be underestimated.
Nonetheless expectations are for a “new path,” i.e., a policy reset, and not just in the northeast. One idea is to focus on states and localities, even though, as Daniel Treisman wrote in The Architecture of Government, this approach “feeds off romantic images of life in small, usually rural communities,” while “central governments are seen as artificial and contrived.” Another is to engage with Nigerian organizations known to work—the Bar Association, medical associations, teacher’s organizations, and religious institutions. This, too, seems somewhat at odds with Gusau’s credentials, but is critical to forging a new approach to the country’s ills.
It has been argued that Nigeria is turning inward, as indicated by horrific communal violence, a civil war in the northeast, and high levels of corruption. Reversing that trend depends on moving beyond the status quo. Can the process start with one of its former architects?