2015 Election: Nigeria faces a choice, and Obama and America are stumped

Nigerian presidential elections are not usually a pressing concern of the United States. Though Nigeria is a major oil producer and the most populous country in Africa, the U.S. is usually fixated on more imminent disasters elsewhere in the world – like the Middle East, for example, and ISIS.  But its elections on Saturday, March 28th are different, since Nigeria’s local Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram has declared allegiance to the Islamic State. After Iraq, after Syria, after Yemen, the U.S. seems intent on supporting a president who will stop the country from slipping into chaos, but it has no idea whom to root for.

It would not be smart to wager Nigeria’s future, its girls, and the fight against Boko Haram’s ISIS franchise on a general we hope is not as Islamist as he says or as autocratic as he’s been.

By all accounts, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign against Boko Haram has not been an unqualified success. His troops have often been outgunned, despite an almost $6 billion security budget. They have committed human rights abuses, including scores of well-documented extrajudicial killings, and prisoners who seem uncommonly likely to die in military custody.  And his government overall is beset by corruption, with nine out ten citizens believing their government is “extremely corrupt,” according to Transparency International.  Overall, the situation is what the 9/11 generation of Americans would call a “quagmire.”  We know them well.

It would not be smart to wager Nigeria’s future, its girls, and the fight against Boko Haram’s ISIS franchise on a general we hope is not as Islamist as he says or as autocratic as he’s been.

And that’s too bad, because like ISIS, Boko Haram is horrid. It murders students in their beds, conducts bombings against civilians, and cuts off the heads of truck drivers with chainsaws. The abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in April 2014 was the first outrage that brought significant Western attention to the deepening crisis in Nigeria, and prompted President Obama to send limited military assistance to the Jonathan government, as well as the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.  In any case the girls have not yet come back, and the assistance has not really seemed to work.

So if the Jonathan administration is hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, why should the U.S. root for it on Saturday?  Well, because in true counterterrorism damned-if-you-do fashion, the alternative – General Muhammedu Buhari – might be worse.

Buhari is seen as offering a firmer hand against Boko Haram, as well as tolerating less corruption domestically.  Unfortunately, he’s also called for Sharia law across Nigeria, which would probably achieve mixed results in the majority-Christian south. It’s unclear how sympathetic he is to the niceties of what we might call “basic electoral democracy,” since his last stretch in public office was after a successful military coup in 1983. This is his fourth legal run for president of Nigeria, and he is reportedly being advised by the consulting firm of Obama’s election guru David Axelrod.

Axelrod’s advice, of course, doesn’t mean the Obama administration wants Buhari to win.  But in addition to the anemic aid supplied to Nigeria, it has all the hallmarks of the too-clever-by-half diplomatic maneuvering that have emboldened Iran and Russia while alienating Israel and America’s traditional Gulf allies.

The administration’s stylized “reset” of relations with Russia gave Moscow carte blanche to run wild in Eastern Europe and reassert itself in the Middle East.  While the White House negotiates a bad nuclear deal with Iran, Iranian clients like Hezbollah and the Houthis have consolidated Iranian control over large parts of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, where Shiite militias accompany Iraqi forces into battle.  And the first step the administration took to restart the peace process was picking a fight with Israel over its settlements, a bit of diplomatic ju-jitsu that somehow managed to worsen relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians simultaneously.  It all sounded good on paper.  It just didn’t work in real life.

To be fair to Obama, there are no obvious choices in Nigeria.  The corrupt, inefficient quasi-democrat or the less-corrupt, Sharia-friendly autocrat?

Is Buhari more like Sisi in Egypt, who has crushed the Muslim Bortherhood, or is he like Erdogan in Turkey, who has pursued a more recreational campaign against ISIS?

Neither is particularly a friend to sustainable democracy, but it’s certainly not like Sharif in Pakistan or Maliki in Iraq are any more committed to de Tocqueville’s ideal.  Nor do American successes elsewhere in fight against Islamic radicalism offer many lessons.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. went in light and stayed for a decade and a half, with no clear result.  In Iraq, it went in heavy and stayed for eight years, with no clear result.  In Pakistan and Yemen, it focused only on counterterrorism, with no clear result.  And it stayed totally out of Syria, with an absolutely disastrous result.

The truth is that our girls will probably never be brought back. Only a handful have returned from that awful kidnapping last April, and it is doubtful that Chadian and Cameroonian military support can replace American support over the long run.

Nor is America’s political assistance any more effective – rightfully – in determining the outcome of Nigeria’s election.  But it would not be smart to wager Nigeria’s future, its girls, and the fight against Boko Haram’s ISIS franchise on a general we hope is not as Islamist as he says or as autocratic as he’s been.  Jonathan is America’s best hope; a fragile one, to be sure, and much in need of reform.  We should hope he wins nonetheless.