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Politics & Government

Nigerian President-Elect Calls Himself A 'Converted Democract'


The new president of Nigeria is a former dictator who imprisoned journalists and dissidents without trial and ordered soldiers to whip people who didn't form neat lines at bus stops and banks. Back in the 1980s, Muhammadu Buhari took power in a military coup, and he ruled a harsh law-and-order regime in Nigeria for 20 months. Now he calls himself a converted democrat ready to operate under democratic norms. But is that possible? Nigerian historian and writer Max Siollun joins me now to talk about Buhari's record. Welcome to the program.

MAX SIOLLUN: Thank you very much for having me on.

BLOCK: And I have seen Buhari's previous role 30 years ago described as a draconian military regime. Talk a bit about his human rights record back then in the 1980s. What did he do?

SIOLLUN: Buhari first came to power on the last day of 1983 in an atmosphere of euphoric jubilation because he displaced a very unpopular civilian government that was regarded as corrupt and indisciplined. But that popularity and euphoria very quickly dissipated when opposition against the regime started. He jailed many of the politicians of the former regime for very, very long prison terms, sometimes exceeding 50 years. And given that some of these guys were already in their 50s and 60s, it was, quite frankly, as good as a death sentence.

When some trade unions protested against his regime and went on strike, he arrested the leaders of the unions and put them in prison - arrested some journalists as well under - for violating a decree passed by his regime which made it a criminal offense to publish material that was embarrassing to the incumbent government.

BLOCK: I've also seen mention of a campaign that Buhari led back in the '80s called a war against indiscipline which involved public humiliation - things like that.

SIOLLUN: The war against indiscipline, or WAI, as it was called then, was an attempt by Buhari to introduce civic virtues into Nigerian society and public life. He introduced things like compulsory making people sing the national anthem, promoting queueing at bus stops and in public buildings - all ostensibly noble aims, however, violators were often forced to complete frog jumps.

BLOCK: What are frog jumps?

SIOLLUN: It's basically crouching down with your hands behind your head, then leaping up in the air, going down to a crouch and then leaping up again. At the time there were WAI brigade enforcers who had the discretion to implement whatever punishment they saw fit. And those guys, being soldiers, of course used punishments that they use on military cadets and on - that they use on errant soldiers in the barracks.

BLOCK: Do you think that human rights concerns in Nigeria might be trumped right now by people's desire to see a strong government that will smash the Islamist insurgents Boko Haram?

SIOLLUN: What I'll say is that the human rights concerns are less of an issue with a democratically-elected civilian government than with a military dictatorship as Nigeria had 30 years ago. Thirty years ago, Buhari got away with some of the things he did, and the military got away with it because they suspended on coming to power several parts of the Nigerian Constitution, mainly those parts that dealt with human rights and the people's freedom of assembly. That situation does not exist today.

A government in Nigeria today has to behave in a far more benevolent manner. There are far more civic institutions at play. The citizenry has evolved as well and are a lot more sophisticated, a lot more cognizant and aware of their rights and would not tolerate some of the excesses that the military got away with during the decades of military rule.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Max Siollun. He's author of the book, "Soldiers Of Fortune: Nigerian Politics From Buhari To Babangida." Thanks so much for talking with us.

SIOLLUN: Thank you very much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.