Last week, Victor, a carpenter, came to my Lagos home to fix a broken chair. I asked him whom he preferred as Nigeria’s next president: the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, or his challenger, Muhammadu Buhari. “I don’t have a voter’s card, but if I did, I would vote for somebody I don’t like,” he said. “I don’t like Buhari. But Jonathan is not performing.” Victor sounded like many people I know: utterly unenthusiastic about the two major candidates in our upcoming election. Were Nigerians to vote on likeability alone, Jonathan would win. He is mild-mannered and genially unsophisticated, with a conventional sense of humor. Buhari has a severe, ascetic air about him, a rigid uprightness; it is easy to imagine him in 1984, leading a military government whose soldiers routinely beat up civil servants. Neither candidate is articulate. Jonathan is given to rambling; his unscripted speeches leave listeners vaguely confused. Buhari is thick-tongued, his words difficult to decipher. In public appearances, he seems uncomfortable not only with the melodrama of campaigning but also with the very idea of it. To be a democratic candidate is to implore and persuade, and his demeanor suggests a man who is not at ease with amiable consensus. Still, he is no stranger to campaigns. This is his third run as a presidential candidate; the last time, in 2011, he lost to Jonathan.
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.