Buhari Absence and the Fear of a Yar’Adua Repeat: Nigeria on the Brink

In November 2009 Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua left his country to receive treatment at a Saudi Arabian clinic for pericarditis. He would not return until May 2010 and within three days was dead. In the interim period, Nigeria had fallen into a political crisis that threatened to unravel into violence.

Yar’Adua’s ability to appease his testy regional governors through oil-fuelled patronage politics had preserved an uneasy peace and averted a potential Nigerian civil war. His long illness and exile left a void that his inexperienced and virtually unknown Deputy President, Goodluck Jonathan, struggled to fill.

Umaru Yar'Adua and Goodluck Jonathan
Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan

Various governors and regional warlords began to form cabals and jostle for position in the line of succession, their eternal hope being control of the petro-state, Nigeria’s economy of course being heavily dependent on the export of oil. 

Jonathan eventually assumed the presidency, in the process ending an unwritten agreement to rotate the highest office in the land between natives of the South and North of the country, a major issue for an ethnically and religiously-divided nation.

Nigeria is broadly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north
Nigeria is broadly divided between a Christian south and a Muslim north

The only way Jonathan could be assured of retaining power was ‘to put the looting machine into overdrive and distribute the proceeds widely to compensate for his lack of authority’. (Burgis, p.78)

Jonathan’s presidency would be characterised by a level of corruption unprecedented even in Nigeria’s nefarious history. He bought off regional agitators by granting them oil concessions, stifling the equal distribution of wealth to entrench a self-serving elite reliant on his continued patronage. This in turn led to a disenchanted and economically disenfranchised populace, many of whom began to turn to other groups who promised to represent their interests, most significantly the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the IS-affiliated Boko Haram
Abubakar Shekau is the leader of the IS-affiliated Boko Haram

Knowing that control over the granting of oil exploration and exploitation rights was more important than popular support in a so-called ‘resource state’, President Jonathan neglected the needs of his countrymen. Infrastructure remained primitive, educational standards stagnated and the healthcare system was left destitute.

It is perhaps for this latter reason that many of Nigeria’s top – and by extension wealthiest – politicians seek any medical treatment they require abroad. It was the case for President Yar’Adua and is now also so for incumbent President Muhmmadu Buhari.

Despite railing against the ‘medical tourism’ of the Nigerian elite, President Buhari has spent the last couple of weeks undergoing unspecified ‘tests’ at a UK clinic, amidst speculation that his health is rapidly deteriorating.

Buhari's absence has drawn civilians to the streets of the capital Abuja to protest against poverty and corruption
Buhari’s absence has drawn civilians to the streets of the capital Abuja to protest against poverty and corruption

With the Nigerian economy suffering as a result of the drop in global oil prices, and the Boko Haram insurgency continuing apace despite some setbacks, this latest uncertainty has conjured up memories of 2010 when the country appeared on the brink of disaster.

Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, another relative unknown, has the difficult task of managing the inherent instability of his ethnically and regionally-divided country at a time when global economic conditions are unfavourable to him.

Multinational corporations must shoulder some of the responsibility for the vicious cycle within which the Nigerian people are trapped; namely the resource curse, or ‘Dutch Disease’. Shell has been pumping oil in the Niger Delta since the days of British colonial rule. Ever since, successive governments – whether civilian or military led – have courted the investment of these energy giants and split the proceeds between a narrow clique at the very summit of society.

In 1983, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote:

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. (Burgis, p.207).

Nigeria has suffered equally from colonial rule, corrupt post-independence leaders, exploitation by multinational corporations and the scourge of ethnic and religious division. If President Buhari fails to return then the final opportunity for true leadership will have arrived for Africa’s largest economy.

Who has the ability, or inclination, to exercise it, very much remains to be seen.


Burgis, T. The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth (2015)

Western Sahara Dreams of Freedom: from the Halls of the AU to the Cape that Made History

The re-admittance of Morocco into the African Union (AU) has raised hopes that Western Sahara will soon be rewarded with its long-claimed independence.

Freed from Spanish colonial rule in 1975, this barren desert province was soon subsumed by the Moroccans. The authorities in Rabat and El-Aaiún (the largest settlement in Western Sahara) subsequently fought to undermine the legitimacy of the breakaway Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), established in Algerian exile by the Polisario Front.

Sahrawi soldiers parade in Algeria
Sahrawi soldiers parade in Algeria

The Polisario Front waged guerrilla warfare against the Moroccan Army throughout the 1980s, with thousands of Sahrawi people fleeing to ‘temporary’ camps in Algeria to escape further colonial rule.

Gradually worn down by the superior firepower of its unwanted overlords, the Polisario Front lost any momentum it had gained from the SADR’s admission into the Organisation of African Unity – the AU forerunner – in 1984, the development that caused Morocco’s break with its African colleagues. Whilst many Sahrawis remained in a pitiful exile, others returned to their homeland, their resistance crushed, assimilation beckoning.

Violence has remained sporadic and low key since a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991 and few outsiders know of this bitter territorial dispute.

Morocco controls everything west of the red boundary line - most Western Saharan territory of note
Morocco controls everything west of the red boundary line – most Western Saharan territory of note

Perhaps equally significant, and even less well-known, is the role West Saharan geography has played in history. In addition to being a staging post for the Saharan trade of the Middle Ages, it boasts a particularly devilish headland that once stood as a formidable barrier to European exploration.

Cape Bojador (in Spanish) or Abu Khatar (‘father of danger’ in Arabic), a bulging headland host to ferocious tidal currents, for several decades halted the navigational exploits of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal and his willing sailors.

Restricted to tacking along the coastline in their precarious barinels, the Portuguese accomplished an extraordinary feat in mapping in detail the outline of North Africa. However, there was one landmark they could not overcome.

In 1433 Gil Eannes attempted to breach the gates of Cape Bojador. Commissioned by Prince Henry – that semi-legendary member of the royal house of Aviz – Eannes undertook his foolhardy mission in search of a great Christian king believed to live deep within the African interior. This king, Prester John they called him, would ally his forces with Henry to smash the burgeoning power of the North African Moors, who threatened Iberian dominance of the Mediterranean.

Prince Henry
Prince Henry

Eannes failed in his venture, returning to spread further rumours of the perils of Cape Bojador; the tides that constantly changed direction, the ferocious winds that whipped up the dust from the Saharan coast to blind the mariners, and the great sea monsters that nipped with ravenous intent at his ship’s bow.

Prince Henry – ‘a man little less than divine’ according to court chronicler Zurara – was not to be deterred, however. Ensconced in his Vila do Infante at Sagres, surrounded by the world’s greatest cartographers and shipwrights, he planned Portugal’s domination of the high seas.

It was at the Vila do Infante that the idea of the caravel – the single greatest invention in maritime history – was born. The design of her lateen sails allowed her to navigate against the wind, a precious development in Portugal’s assault on the West African coast.

With a precursor to this fine vessel Eannes set sail once more in 1434. With the protection of his Christian God and the unfaltering belief of his most Christian Prince, Eannes rounded Cape Bojador. Untouched by the sea monsters, he cruised through the tidal maelstrom to set Portugal on its path to empire. His only observations of terra firma beyond the Cape were the signs of camel tracks in the sand, yet Eannes had secured his place in history.

In half-a-century Diogo Cao had reached the Congo River; in a few more years Bartolomeu Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope; by 1498 Vasco Da Gama had touched down in India and Portugal’s acquisition of a maritime empire began in earnest.

It is an oft-told tale but one in which reference to Western Sahara and Cape Bojador is rare. Perhaps it is deemed insignificant or unimportant in the grand scheme of things? Perhaps Western Sahara is too? After all, despite international recognition, precious little pressure has been put on Morocco to relinquish its hold on this historic land.

The innocuous-looking Cape Bojador - a barrier to medieval exploration
The innocuous-looking Cape Bojador – a barrier to medieval exploration

Despite the cautious optimism surrounding this latest development, several AU countries (including Algeria and South Africa) had wanted Morocco’s readmission to be subject to their acceptance of Western Sahara’s independence. Their wishes went unheeded.

Progress, perhaps, but Morocco’s burgeoning economic ties with the rest of the African continent may better explain its eagerness to join the AU. Why relinquish your colonies when the military and moral pressure is so weak?

Standing at the headland that few outside the academic creed remember, one hopeful of the future but acknowledging of the past might muse:

At this point stands the barrier between two worlds

A guard between the old and the new

The formidable cape that represents the resilience of the West Saharan

Conquered but untamed, subordinated but unassimilated

In pursuit of greater things we must first recognise the wealth of our land

Of the history and spirit embodied by our geography

With Abu Khatar watching over us we can feel secure.

Netherlands Overlooks Past as Wilders Tops Polls

Few nations have such an uneasy relationship with their World War Two past than the Netherlands. As with the Germans and the Japanese, the majority of the Dutch people tend to look upon this period of history with regret, if not shame.

The Dutch had their Nazi equivalent, the unoriginally named Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (NSB) (National Socialist Movement), a fringe party that secured a best of 300,000 votes in the 1935 election. Their leader was Anton Mussert, a vile if pragmatic fascist who realised that his only means of wielding any kind of power was to first encourage and then to assist a German invasion.

Anton Mussert addressing NSB volunteers in 1941. The Nazi overlords watch on
Anton Mussert addressing NSB volunteers in 1941. The Nazi overlords watch on

Mussert got his wish in May 1940 when the Wehrmacht invaded the neutral Netherlands, with the Luftwaffe almost obliterating Rotterdam in a simultaneous bombing blitz.

The devastation of the Rotterdam Blitz did not stop many Dutch collaborating with the Nazis
The devastation of the Rotterdam Blitz did not stop many Dutch collaborating with the Nazis

Hitler, who did not reciprocate Mussert’s adoration of him, humoured the NSB leader by giving him responsibility for quelling Dutch resistance to the invasion. Whilst he was eventually named ‘Leader of the Dutch People’ by Hitler in 1942 – the Dutch ‘Leider’ coincidentally translating into the German for ‘Unfortunately’ – Mussert never governed, with the Fuhrer preferring instead the Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as his Reichskommissar in the Netherlands.

Where Mussert was more useful was in his rounding up and deportation of thousands of Dutch Jews. He had help, however, and it is here where the Dutch historical guilt lies.

With Queen Wilhelmina leading a government-in-exile in London, many Dutch people unable or unwilling to flee their homeland had a difficult choice. Take up a potentially futile resistance against Nazi occupation, or collaborate with their new German overlords? History suggests that the vast majority took the latter course, creating one of the most collaborationist regimes of the war.

Whilst acts of bravery and heroism occurred – particularly the harbouring of Jews by Dutch families – the Nazis had little difficulty in compelling complicity from their new subjects. Dutch Jews were deported and murdered in their thousands, a repressive Gestapo state was established, and some Dutch men even fought for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.

Dutch Jews await deportation in Amsterdam
Dutch Jews await deportation in Amsterdam

Fanatics like Mussert – who was executed at The Hague for high treason in 1946 – can be easily dismissed. The actions (or lack thereof) of the average man and woman on the street, on the other hand, are hard to overlook. Given the minority support for the NSB prior to WWII, it suggests that few Dutch people shared their extremist and racist views. Yet thousands still collaborated with the Nazis.

This being so, it is somewhat surprising that the far right Freedom Party (PVV), led by the populist and controversial Islamophobe Geert Wilders, is threatening to top polls in the Dutch election on the 15th March.

Using slogans such as ‘Make the Netherlands Great Again’ and ‘The Netherlands is Ours’, Wilders has ridden a populist wave in Europe and the West that is demanding an overthrow of the established liberal order.

Geert Wilders has defied critics by soaring to the top of opinion polls on an anti-immigration agenda
Geert Wilders has defied critics by soaring to the top of opinion polls on an anti-immigration agenda

Even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has initiated a last-ditch plea to court a restless public increasingly sceptical of open borders an EU interference. ‘Act normal, or go away’ Rutte declared in an open letter published in a national newspaper. His cries smack of desperation, having lost significant ground to the PVV in recent months.

That Wilders is a man possessing beliefs and rhetoric not incomparable with the fascist leaders of WWII is obviously worrying. The Dutch people seem to have forgotten their not too distant past, focusing instead on current grievances that populists such as Wilders promise can be fixed with a healthy dose of nationalism and xenophobia.

Protesters march against the Islamic State in The Hague. Wilders has played on fears of a Muslim incursion into the Netherlands
Protesters march against the Islamic State in The Hague. Wilders has played on fears of a Muslim incursion into the Netherlands

There are undoubted concerns across Europe over uncontrolled immigration, the bureaucratisation imposed by Brussels and the weakness of some of the newer EU member states. The victory for Brexit in the UK and the rise of the National Front in France are testament to this.

Still, some perspective must be gained. Demanding change should not go hand-in-hand with racist and hostile politics, scaremongering or turning a blind eye to existing inequalities.

The Dutch more than most should recognise this given their experiences in WWII. Memories can fade and collective responsibility may be rejected or conveniently forgotten, but the dark stains of the past persist within the national identity.

It is fortunate that Wilders and the PVV are unlikely to be able to form the coalition government that they will surely require. Similar hopes must be held for the rest of the Europe, where a populist, nationalist resurgence is looming large.

To think that history cannot be repeated is a dangerous and delusional sentiment. Europe has been warned.