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UMB Expert Weighs in on New Nigerian President and Boko Haram

University of Massachusetts Boston Professor Darren Kew watched the Nigerian presidential election in late March while visiting country’s Adawama state. Reports of armed fighting between the government and Boko Haram surfaced, postponing the process. Incumbent candidate Goodluck Jonathan phoned 72-year-old challenger Muhammad Buhari to concede shortly after final votes were tallied on March 31.

A former general, Buhari is now in charge of dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency, estimated to have upwards of 10,000 members. The jihadist group regularly engages in aggressive conflict and last spring kidnapped 276 schoolgirls.

“Boko Haram will soon know the taste of our collective will to rid this nation of terror,” said President Buhari in a televised announcement days after winning the election.

Boko Haram’s goal is to subvert Western influence and establish “sharia law,” wherein society functions according to religious guidelines. They announced allegiance to the extremist Islamic State ISIS this spring. Boko Haram is centralized in Nigeria, though it is spread across multiple northeastern African countries.

Professor Kew, who teaches conflict resolution at the McCormack Graduate School, expects Buhari will seek to finish off the militant factions of Boko Haram through military measures, and then address the poverty and poor education systems that contributed to its rise.  

Kew is executive director of UMass Boston’s Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development. For years he has worked for peace in Nigerian communities, often sites of friction between political and religious groups. He is a premier U.S. expert on Boko Haram and Nigerian conflict, regularly tapped by news outlets like the New York Times, CNN, and the Washington Post.  

Kew says some Boko Haram factions have respect for Buhari, having asked him to mediate with the Nigerian government several times in 2012 and 2013. Earlier in his campaign, he vowed to put an end to the insurgency within months if elected.  

“Buhari brings a measure of credibility for his anti-corruption drive when he was a military ruler, as well as his military background, which should also give him some leverage,” says Kew. 

In the early 1980s Buhari staged a military coup and ran as head of state for two years. His rule is remembered for enforcing discipline, removing hundreds of politicians deemed corrupt, and human rights violations. He was removed from power by another coup in 1985 and imprisoned for 40 months.

A Muslim popular in northern Nigeria, where the country’s Islam practitioners are concentrated, Buhari failed to draw the support of Christians in the south during the 2003, 2007, and 2011. His current victory marks the first time an oppositional party has won over an incumbent’s though voting and not takeover.