When Muhammadu Buhari took over as Nigeria’s president less than a year ago he vowed to wipe out the corruption he said threatened the very existence of Africa’s largest economy.
But as he investigates former ministers and high-ranking officials, members of the opposition People’s Democratic Party accuse him of waging a vendetta against them. Buhari ousted the PDP in the March elections, ending the monopoly on power it has held since the end of military rule in 1999.
The PDP called for Buhari to be impeached last week for “various constitutional” breaches, including the arrest this month of its national spokesman, Olisa Metuh. He was detained as part of a probe into whether the previous government stole as much as $5.5-billion meant for fighting Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the north. Sambo Dasuki, the national security adviser under the administration of Goodluck Jonathan, was arrested.
“Yes, there is a witch-hunt, because there are witches all over the place,” said Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, head of the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives in Lagos, and a former council leader. “There are guilty parties out there.”
The arrests have heightened regional and ethnic tension in Nigeria, a country of 170million split between a mostly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. Buhari, a 73-year-old northerner and former general, got the bulk of his votes from his home region and the religiously mixed southwest through his All Progressives Congress coalition, formed in 2013 by a merger of smaller opposition parties and disgruntled PDP politicians.
Some southern and most southeastern states voted for the PDP’s candidate, then-president Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-producing Niger River Delta region.
“It’s not rocket science for anybody to assume it is a targeted approach,” Annkio Briggs, a human-rights activist, said. “It is being done as if only members of the PDP are corrupt.”
Corruption has blighted Nigeria since independence from the UK in 1960. Africa’s biggest oil producer came 136th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s latest global corruption rankings, the same level as Russia. Buhari has blamed graft for keeping most Nigerians in poverty and for the dire state of roads, schools and hospitals.
Although Buhari promised his government would be impartial in its investigations, he has accused the previous administration of looting billions of dollars and said that he inherited a “virtually empty Treasury”.
Buhari’s spokesman, Garba Shehu, said it was logical for the authorities to go after those who handled Nigeria’s finances in previous years.
“The APC was outside the government; it was not invited to share the money,” Shehu said. “The APC had no access to crude oil or defence money. The PDP handled the money. They must account for it.”
Rising political tension could threaten Buhari’s ability to carry out the widespread reforms he promised, including strengthening Nigeria’s poor electricity supply and improving its dilapidated infrastructure – at a time when the economy, which depends on oil for two-thirds of government revenue, is reeling from falling crude prices and growing at its slowest this century. Inflation accelerated to a three-year high of 9.6% in December.
Last year’s elections dealt a blow to the PDP but it still has almost half the seats in the Senate and more than a third in the House of Representatives, which it can exploit to stall Buhari’s plans. The party showed its clout last year when it backed rivals to Buhari’s preferred candidates for leaders of each of the chambers. Both the rivals prevailed, thanks to the PDP’s support.
The PDP’s grievances have grown as the anti-corruption campaign gathers momentum.
“The APC, having realised that it lacked what it takes to deliver on its numerous bogus campaign promises, has ignobly resorted to intimidation and harassment of the opposition through its witch-hunt policy,” the PDP said.
Shehu said that the APC dismisses those claims and that “absolutely zero will come of” the impeachment threats.
“The natural thing to do, for the drive to be seen to be more fair, would be to empower investigators to go after people close to Buhari, people who sponsored his campaign, even people in his own cabinet,” said Manji Cheto, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, in London. “Do I think he’s going to do it? No. The moment he goes down that path, he begins to threaten the unity of his own party.”