Nigeria: Incoming President Buhari has to deal with 40 years of arrested development

Saturday May 23 2015

Nigerian youths protest in 2010 in Abuja against the state of the nation, lack of security and electricity as well as for electoral reform. AFP PHOTO | WOLE EMMANUEL

Nigeria’s 2015 elections have come and gone. For those who predicted and still expect political Armageddon, disappointment looms.

Fewer than a sixth of Nigeria’s 170 million population voted in the elections; and the country continues to sail peacefully through its most introspective moment in history. It is the dawn of a new era and the political prognosis for this 54-year-old nation remains cautiously optimistic.

With the poll fever treated and cured, Africa’s most populous and largest economy has moved seamlessly into inauguration mode. Nigeria’s new future begins on May 29. On this day, Abuja will host local and international dignitaries as 57-year-old President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan hands over power to retired army general Muhammadu Buhari, 72.

Buhari is not a newcomer to national politics and Nigerians know him very well. Loved by those who say he is a squeaky-clean man with Spartan principles and a personal vision of an egalitarian society, he was a regional governor and minister of petroleum in the early 1970s. He was also a military head of state between December 1983 and August 1985.

Under Buhari, the government had a low tolerance for corruption and social indiscipline; and he was loathed by many on account of his draconian reign.

In 20 months as commander-in-chief, about 500 politicians, officials and businessmen were jailed for corruption. He was the ultimate autocrat. An anti-corruption czar who didn’t care whose “ox was gored.” Working with the Israeli secret service, his regime’s attempt to kidnap and ship a corrupt politician who had fled to London back home in a crate (labelled diplomatic baggage) was foiled by the British authorities.


It was Gen Ibrahim Babaginda’s putsch that eventually ended Buhari’s rule, landing him in detention for months.

A taciturn, slightly laconic character, this year’s election was Buhari’s fourth but most organised attempt at high office, having run unsuccessfully in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 election.

So now, he’s a converted democrat. Nigerians however have a saying: “Old soldier never die,” a pidgin English reference to how difficult it is to change folks hitherto steeped in military traditions.

Many Nigerians today believe the old general’s views about what is wrong with Nigeria and how to fix things may not have changed very much over the years. They eagerly await to see how he will preside over the affairs of his country, under a free, democratic dispensation.

Expectedly, Buhari’s 2015 campaign theme was “change.” In the months leading to the election, the incumbent Jonathan’s team ramped up their newspaper, outdoor, television and Internet campaigns, mostly attacking Buhari’s education, health and human rights records.

Buhari’s team however kept their media messaging and town hall meetings with citizens focused on the key issues most Nigerians cared about: The economy, corruption and Boko Haram.

The electorate simply desired change, or as one politician told me, “a drastic amendment to the status quo.” They had had enough of the “nice man, weak leader” who had been their president since 2010.

What lies ahead

So, for president-elect Buhari, winning this election was the easy part. Leading and fulfilling the expectations of this potentially wealthy but underperforming country will be harder. Change will not happen overnight.

“Governing Nigeria is always a complex challenge, and Nigerians should not expect any miracles under Gen Buhari,” Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria’s vice president between 1999 and 2007, told reporters recently in Lagos.

As vice president, Abubakar was chair of the Bureau of Public Enterprise, the agency responsible for the sale of state owned companies during those early years of Nigeria’s fourth republic. That privatisation agenda remains unfinished.

Commercialisation and widespread reforms in the financial services, retail, agriculture and telecommunications expanded the qualitative depth of the Nigerian economy over the past decade, which also witnessed “positive pandemonium” in the Nigerian entertainment sector.

The creative explosion and global spread of “Made in Nigeria” music and movies has helped to sell Nigeria to the rest of the world, countering to some extent some of the negative narratives that dominate international news. The fecundity of these cultural ambassadors did as much for Nigeria’s image globally as did the scourge of the Boko Haram sect in the country’s northeast.

Putting out the lights of Boko Haram will certainly be a top priority for Buhari.

Add to this crucial task the urgent need to light up the country. Nigeria may now account for over 120 million mobile phones but the country remains literally in the dark. Power supply has dipped since the privatisation of state-owned utilities was completed two years ago.

According to government data, the country currently struggles to generate less than 3,600 Mega Watts of electricity. Turkey generates about 70,000MW, South Africa over 45,000MW and Mexico about 100,000MW. These countries have smaller population than Nigeria, which has been implementing load shedding for the best part of the past 40 years.

Using diesel-powered generators, solar energy and other biofuels, 81 per cent of Nigerians now generate their own power outside the national grid, which is served by recently privatised power firms. This off-grid electricity is reportedly enough to power Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the three West African nations worst hit by last year’s Ebola epidemic.

How a major gas and crude oil producer and exporter, and key member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries ended up in this sorry state of affairs offers a peep into the contemporary issues bedevilling the Nigerian environment.

Crude oil accounts for over 80 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. International crude oil prices have hovered at the $50-$60 per barrel mark for months, and are not likely to rise beyond this level throughout this year, according to oil industry analysts.

Nigeria’s foreign-exchange reserves have been depleted to around $30 billion, an all-time low, barely enough to cover four months of imports. The International Monetary Fund has called for a further devaluation of the naira, which has depreciated by 23 per cent between November 2014 and March 2015.

Nigerians at the bottom of the pyramid and small business owners across the country disagree with this advice. They prefer a peaceful nation; productive refineries and infrastructure; reforms that restore the professional dignity of the civil service, the police and other public service providers; pragmatic housing programmes; deeper financial and economic inclusion and a drastic reduction in the size of government.

Can the country afford all these plans? Or rather, will Nigeria’s incoming government perform better than its predecessors?

Nigerians are hoping that the incoming government will provide strong leadership and strengthen national institutions, while building on the positive policies of the outgoing administration.

A seismic shift in the style and character of governance is needed, says Olu Akanmu, a policy and public affairs commentator.

“A prudent government under the current situation is critical. We do not need 40 ministers and hundreds of special advisers and assistants,” Akanmu said.

The country’s public sector costs have been adjudged to be among of the highest in the world relative to the size and productivity of the economy. Beyond the numerous ministers and ministers of state in the executive, there are also about 133 presidential aides.

The pyramid of power and positions is replicated at the National Assembly, which houses over 400 lawmakers in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Then there are governors and over 1,000 commissioners and special advisers across Nigeria’s 36 federal states and in Abuja, the federal capital territory, which is governed by a minister, a minister of state and a retinue of administrators and aides.

If he sticks to the extant structure of the civil service, President-elect Buhari’s administration is expected to make (during a four year tenure) close to 4,000 appointments across the ministries, departments and agencies of government.

Alhaji Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a former governor of the Federal Bank of Nigeria and now the Emir of Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city, once accused Nigeria’s federal lawmakers of taking up as much as 25 per cent of the nation’s fiscal budget through salaries and allowances.

He has also consistently maintained that the activities of the state-owned oil industry regulator, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, continue to be a drain on the nation’s finances. The figures involved over the years are mindboggling. For exposing the shenanigans of Nigeria’s public finances, Sanusi got sacked from his job at the central bank by President Jonathan last year.

Inevitably, President-elect Buhari must now begin to govern a nation riddled with a despicable culture of “settlement,” an aphorism for corruption. No easy task in a nation brimming with politically connected moguls, many of whom have silently supported his bid for the nation’s top job.

In his acceptance speech, he said, “I shall work for those who voted for me as well as those who voted against and even those who did not vote at all.”

Running back to the future

Meanwhile, how did one of Africa’s most influential economies, in its quest for political and socio-economic rejuvenation, come to this juncture in its history?

Nigeria has experienced at least 40 years of arrested development. Successive governments failed to (re)build savings buffers.

Hobbled internally for decades by ethnic and religious strife, the global view of Nigeria has always been defined by its ignoble contradictions: A youthful population, which means it is a commercial Eldorado in the making; economic underperformance and the slow pace of development despite the country’s abundant human and material resources; and despite all these, the consistent positive contributions of Nigeria to the global humanitarian, scientific, economic, and cultural order over the years.

Prior to 1999, military régimes had governed the country for 16 years. Many argue that those 16 years stunted growth and socio-economic development. But has the country fared any better after 16 years of democracy? The answer to this question is obvious. Nigeria has experienced some measure of economic growth mixed with little development and plenty of disappointment.

Nigeria’s only Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, described the build-up to the presidential and national assembly elections as the most vicious, unprincipled, vulgar and violent he had ever witnessed.

“This one was like a no-holds-barred kind of election, especially, frankly, from the incumbency side. One shouldn’t be too surprised anyway given the kind of people who are manning the barricades for the incumbent candidate.”

The immediate verdict by Nigeria’s media and civil society on the impact of the Jonathan presidency on business and the economy has been somewhat complimentary.

Fisayo Soyombo, editor of the Cable, an online newspaper, believes that, “In the final analysis, history will be kinder to Jonathan than his underwhelming four years deserve — because he will not be remembered as the one who made life difficult for Nigerians with fuel price increases less than a year into his tenure; or the one under whose watch Boko Haram blossomed; or the one in whose time the naira fell to its all-time low; or the one in whose care billions of nairas disappeared without consequence; or the one who granted state pardon to one of Nigeria’s most notorious and ignominious public office thieves. Jonathan will be remembered as the first civilian president to peacefully hand over power to another. That, matter-of-factly, is an undeservedly glittering end to what has been an unflattering four years.”

Think tanks and savants of African politics have however observed that Nigeria’s peaceful political transition was a defining moment, a democratic tonic for Africa.

It set a good precedent for scheduled elections across the continent this year, as Ethiopians are expected to go to the polls in May; Burundi, the Central African Republic, Guinea and Somaliland (June); Togo (July); Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania (October). Voters will also elect new leaders in Ghana and Cape Verde in 2016.

Thankfully, the domino effect of Nigeria’s actions and inactions has never been lost on its leaders. Constantly fishing for respect and eager to be perceived as “Big Brother,” Nigeria has never been shy of playing a leading role in the affairs of the African Union and the 15-member nation regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Nigeria’s $540 billion economy represents 77 per cent of West Africa’s wealth and two-thirds of its population. Nigeria’s GDP has been projected to hit $790 billion by 2019.

Statistically, one in four Africans is Nigerian. The Nigerian economy is responsible for a quarter of the investment flux on the continent. The country’s infrastructure ecosystem may be 50 years behind schedule, but this has not stopped the world from doing business with Nigeria.

The world’s major airlines all fly to Nigeria’s major cities of Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Port Harcourt and Kano in search of passenger and cargo traffic, and they can’t have enough of this market.

The rest of Africa and Africans in the diaspora also cannot get enough of Nigerian movies and music, warts and all. In West Africa, the Nigerian influence is even more pervasive: Its companies and citizens ply every economic sector across the Ecowas region.

Formal trade between Nigeria and between Ecowas and the rest of Africa is certainly not enough. Intra-Africa trade still accounts for only about 7 per cent of Africa’s total trade.

The change that Buhari has promised Nigerians must certainly include improvement on this statistic, reaching out to partners across sub-Saharan Africa for economic value creation.

Buhari also wants to implement a “Marshall Plan” for the impoverished communities in the Niger Delta regions of southern Nigeria, which produces the country’s oil, and sections of northern and eastern Nigeria where Boko Haram has taken advantage of the decrepit social and economic conditions to wreak havoc.


Buhari is known to have little interest in politicking, and is likely to appoint trusted aides and technocrats to the political and economic management roles of his administration.

He will however find himself in a deep fiscal hole, in a very vulnerable position in terms of oil revenue and because of the amount of fraud and stealing in the system, says Bismark Rewane, a respected economist and chief executive of Financial Derivatives, a financial services consultancy in Lagos. “He is a welfare-oriented leader, so he has to do things for the people — health, education — but he can’t do those with an empty cheque book.”

To compete globally and raise its status out of the so called Third World, Nigeria desperately needs to build modern power stations, airports, roads and high speed railway infrastructure. Diversifying tax collection from the current overreliance on oil will certainly help. Outside of petroleum industry activities, tax contributes just 5 per cent to GDP.

Jide Akintunde, editor-in-chief of Financial Nigeria magazine, believes that real change will mean accelerating the pace of reforms and deepening the gains of the past decade, especially in the key petroleum, services and agriculture sectors.

“Nigeria’s potential is currently locked up in agriculture. The potential here needs to be unlocked. With more investments in the agriculture value chain, we will save more money, grow external earnings and create more sustainable jobs.”

Forecasters at Citigroup believe Nigeria’s growth this year will top 5 per cent.

Buhari will certainly be inheriting a lot more that the unfinished business of making Nigeria an agriculturally industrialised economy, fixing education, healthcare, unemployment, power, police-community relations and the huge infrastructure deficit.

“This country has to be fixed... with the engine running,” says Prof Yemi Osinbajo, Buhari’s vice president-elect.

The Buhari-Osinbajo presidency has the next four years to succeed or fail.

Muyiwa Moyela is a Nigerian journalist