I was only 7 years old the very first time I recognized political fear. My parents and their friends were talking about the government, in our living room, in our relatively big house, set on relatively wide grounds at a southeastern Nigerian university, with doors shut and no strangers present. Yet they spoke in whispers. So ingrained was their apprehension that they whispered even when they did not need to. It was 1984 and Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari was the military head of state.
Governmental controls had mangled the economy. Many imported goods were banned, scarcity was rife, black markets thrived, businesses were failing and soldiers stalked markets to enforce government-determined prices. My mother came home with precious cartons of subsidized milk and soap, which were sold in rationed quantities. Soldiers flogged people on the streets for “indiscipline” — such as littering or not standing in queues at the bus stop. On television, the head of state, stick-straight and authoritative, seemed remote, impassive on his throne amid the fear and uncertainty.
And yet when, 30 years later, in 2015, Mr. Buhari was elected as a democratic president, I welcomed it. Because for the first time, Nigerians had voted out an incumbent in an election that was largely free and fair. Because Mr. Buhari had sold himself as a near-ascetic reformer, as a man so personally aboveboard that he would wipe out Nigeria’s decades-long corruption. He represented a form of hope.
Nigeria is difficult to govern. It is Africa’s most populous country, with regional complexities, a scarred history and a patronage-based political culture. Still, Mr. Buhari ascended to the presidency with a rare advantage — not only did he have the good will of a majority of Nigerians, he elicited a peculiar mix of fear and respect. For the first weeks of his presidency, it was said that civil servants who were often absent from work suddenly appeared every day, on time, and that police officers and customs officials stopped demanding bribes.