November 21, 2018 3:00 am by David Pilling
Nigeria’s election cycle is almost as fast-spinning as that of the US. It seems only yesterday that Muhammadu Buhari, a former general with a reputation for ascetic self-denial, scored a historic victory over former president Goodluck Jonathan to cement the country’s first democratic transition.
That was 2015. After taking six months to pick a cabinet, Mr Buhari’s tenure has been punctuated by long absences for treatment of a mysterious illness in London. Now 75, he faces a battle for re-election in February after a first term that analysts rate as mediocre. Efforts to improve security, rebalance the economy and lure foreign investment have had mixed results.
But where the state has stepped back, private enterprise has often stepped forward. A mega refinery is set to transform the country’s energy balance, while Lagos start-ups are working to provide essential services and ease Nigerians’ everyday lives. In the agriculture sector, investors are forming international partnerships to improve yields.
Observers do not reserve much praise for the government. “The main problem is there seems to have been a lack of energy and ambition to meet the scale of the challenge and opportunity that this country faces,” says Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator.
“I can’t recall a single structural reform of a key sector or a key institution that they undertook,” he says. “Overall, they probably thought of themselves as better custodians of the country. But the results have not justified that sentiment.”
The economy, hit by the 2014 slump in the oil price, is limping out of recession. So lacklustre has been the recovery that commentators, including Godwin Emefiele, the central bank governor, have warned it could slip back into negative territory — though the latest forecasts are rosier.Despite a push to diversify by backing sectors such as manufacturing, the economy has not kicked its oil addiction. As in the past, its recovery has been petrol-powered.
“Buhari appeared to be a moralistic person, but he lacked complete vision of how to run an economy,” says Olu Fasan, a visiting fellow in the department of international relations at the London School of Economics. He says Nigeria can succeed only if it builds on the economic liberalisation begun by former president Olusegun Obasanjo in his two terms from 1999.
146th Nigeria’s place in World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings. This is not a priority shared by Mr Buhari, whose statist views date back to his time as head of Nigeria’s military government in the 1980s. The country has failed to sign up to a continental free trade area, despite participating in the negotiations for its formation.
That ideology underpinned Mr Buhari’s stubborn adherence to a policy of fixing its currency, one that the central bank was forced to abandon in 2016 and move to a more flexible exchange rate. The delay harmed foreign investor confidence, say critics, with rationing of dollars starving many businesses of the funds they required.
The government has sent mixed signals to foreign investors. It has worked to remove obstacles, including what had been a difficult visa process. But most observers regard an attempt to slap a $10.1bn fine on MTN, the South African telecoms company and one of Nigeria’s biggest investors, as a spectacular own goal. One South African investor said it rendered Nigeria “uninvestable”. According to the latest World Bank ratings, Nigeria ranks 146th out of 190 countries for ease of doing business.
Another of Mr Buhari’s pledges was on security. Boko Haram, an Islamist terror group, has been put on the back foot, though attempts to declare it defeated have looked hasty. Mr Buhari’s tenure has been punctuated by kidnappings, suicide attacks and army ambushes in the north-east.
Other threats have worsened, including secessionist sentiment in the south-east and clashes between migrant herdsmen, who are mainly ethnically Fulani, and settled farmers from other ethnic groups. Mr Buhari is accused of going easy on his fellow Fulani.In October, soldiers opened fire on Shia activists marching in the capital Abuja, killing 45, according to Amnesty International. On Twitter, the Nigerian army’s official account posted a video of US President Donald Trump saying it was permissible to fire on crowds throwing rocks.
Nor has Mr Buhari’s much-vaunted battle against corruption made huge inroads, though a few important convictions have been made. Still, Mr Buhari has maintained his reputation for honesty, though others close to power have not. “Almost all the wealth going around this country, if not inherited, is stolen or the result of injustice,” says Bismarck Rewane, chief executive of Lagos consultancy Financial Derivatives, voicing the frustration of many Nigerians.They believe too little effort has been put into providing public services such as health and education. Nigerians with money pay for private schools, medical care, electricity and security. Those without are left to their own devices.
One of the richest countries on the continent in terms of scale and natural resources, Nigeria’s social indicators make for grim reading. Oxfam puts Nigeria last out of 157 nations in its commitment to reducing inequality. An estimated 87m people live on less than $1.90 a day, more than in India, which has more than six times its population.
Few expect the next president, whether Mr Buhari or his challenger Atiku Abubakar, to change these fundamentals. At least, say Mr Abubakar’s supporters, he represents a more pro-market vision for the country. Detractors see Mr Abubakar as a ruthless businessman-politician who has milked the system for decades.
Mr Olojede complains that Nigeria “has been recycling the same set of political elites for the past 40 or 50 years”. It needs someone “with imagination and extraordinary levels of energy”, he says. Neither of the two men appears likely to provide that, he says.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a world-renowned novelist and part of a flowering of Nigerian talent in the creative arts, says Nigeria is a young country and one with a
complicated colonial inheritance. It deserves credit, she argues, for transitioning to a fairly robust democracy and civil society. “Holding people accountable is happening slowly,” she says, citing a more confident, tech-savvy middle class.Nor can Nigeria’s soft power be underestimated, says Ms Adichie. “Nigerians are the Americans of Africa, you know. We sort of overshadow everyone else in a way, and there’s a certain kind of aggressive confidence that seems to me particularly Nigerian.”If that confidence speaks volumes about Nigeria’s potential, it also bears witness to a potential as yet unfulfilled.
The Financial Times.