Nigeria: Time is running out for Buhari administration

In the absence of decisive leadership, Nigeria’s economic and security problems are being left to fester.


As throngs of demonstrators congregated in Abuja on 15th August to protest against president Muhammadu Buhari’s protracted medical leave in London, Nigerian security forces dispersed them with live ammunition and tear gas.

Popular musician and protest organiser Charles Oputa – known locally as Charly Boy – collapsed from tear gas inhalation. Pro-Buhari protestors had joined the fray, sparking violent clashes which reportedly left two dead and several injured. Four days later, as Nigerians in London demonstrated outside Buhari’s residence, the president returned to Abuja after more than three months away.

In the remaining two years of his presidential term, Buhari will attempt to bring stability to a country divided by ethnic and religious tension and economic strife. But with unresolved questions over his health, a lively battle for succession is taking shape. Meanwhile ordinary Nigerians are struggling.

Before taking office in 2015, Buhari promised comprehensive reform, from addressing oil dependence to strengthening the economy and outlawing corruption. But after taking six months to name a cabinet, he was distracted by illness and a taxing war against militant Islamist group Boko Haram. “President Buhari’s reform agenda has been comatose and weak,” says Mark Amaza, an independent political analyst in Nigeria. 

Although he reaffirmed these commitments on his return, the president today faces a litany of problems. With the Nigerian military unable to capitalise on its early gains against Boko Haram, the group has escalated attacks on military convoys, villages, universities and refugee camps in Buhari’s absence.

“The resurgence of Boko Haram points to glaring inadequacies in intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism activities in identifying terrorist cells and crushing them before they strike,” says Amaza. Now in its eighth year, the war has ushered in a grim humanitarian crisis, marked by recent cholera outbreaks in the northeastern camps that house those it has displaced.

With more than 20,000 dead and 2.6m uprooted, continued deadlock is a stain on the army’s reputation. “The military would have us believe they have obliterated Boko Haram and killed most of their leaders,” says Dr Ini Dele-Adedeji of SOAS, University of London. “The evidence says otherwise.”

Other security challenges include a surge in kidnappings, and bloody clashes between farmers and Fulani herdsmen. Once confined to middle belt states, drought and famine have spread these killings throughout the country, leaving hundreds dead.

Economic strain

Meanwhile the Nigerian economy is emerging from a six-quarter recession, exacerbated by an exchange rate peg that starved businesses of foreign currency. “The government is still not allowing foreign exchange markets to clear properly, so even achieving a measure of macroeconomic equilibrium is elusive,” says Jan Dehn, head of research at Ashmore Investment Management.

Although Nigeria’s recession officially ended in the second quarter of 2017, year-on-year growth was a modest 0.6%. “There are signs of life, but it is nothing more than a weak cyclical upswing around a still very poor structural story,” says Dehn.

The oil sector disappointed analysts with year-on-year growth of less than 2%. “Worse, growth in the non-oil sector actually slowed,” says John Ashbourne, Africa Economist at Capital Economics. While financial services experienced some recovery, agriculture and manufacturing output weakened. “We are revising down our 2017 GDP growth forecast from 2% to 1.2%,” says Ashbourne.

Economic strain is exacerbated by corruption, which has smothered Nigerian entrepreneurship for decades. A recent survey by the National Bureau of Statistics found that the average Nigerian pays six bribes per year. And despite Buhari’s promise to clamp down on graft, little has been accomplished.

“Basic problems such as inadequate electricity supply – a problem whose existence is entirely due to the influence of parasitic vested interests – are left to fester for years,” says Dehn. Finally, after simmering for years, secessionist sentiment in the southeastern state of Biafra has intensified.

“The Indigenous People of Biafra movement is gaining more steam on a daily basis,” says Dele-Adedeji. The government’s response has alternated between platitudes about Nigerian unity, and violent clampdowns. At least 150 pro-Biafra protestors have died since 2015 according to Amnesty International. “A long-lasting solution will mean fundamentally changing the structure of this country – in other words, restructuring,” says Amaza.

Indeed, restructuring – rejigging Nigeria’s governance system to return fiscal and political autonomy to its regions – has emerged recently as a political buzzword. Many poor southerners, for instance, bemoan the lack of regard with which oil revenue from the Niger Delta is shifted to Abuja. “Restructuring is the song everyone is singing,” says Dele-Adedeji. “It will determine the way the 2019 election will sway.”

Though vice-president Yemi Osinbajo won plaudits for his steady leadership in Buhari’s absence, reform seems unlikely with the stricken president back at the helm. “He has at most one full year of work before intense politicking and jockeying ahead of the 2019 elections becomes a huge distraction,” predicted Amaza. Few expect Buhari to run for re-election, but the implications of an early exit are fraught.

A tacit agreement dictates that the Nigerian presidency must rotate after two terms between the Muslim north and the Christian south. As a result, sectarian conflict could arise if Buhari, a northerner, were to resign or die, thereby gifting power to his southern vice-president. In July, some northern factions issued threatening “quit notices” to Igbos and other southern ethnic groups living in their territory.

In the past, political paralysis has been tolerated to maintain this agreement. When former President Umaru Yar’Adua was indisposed in Saudi Arabia for months before dying in 2010, attempts were made to impede his southern vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, who angered many northern Muslims when he eventually assumed power.

Jockeying for leadership

Jockeying for the leadership of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress is underway, with former vice-president Atiku Abubakar already lobbying. Other potential APC candidates include former Kano State governor Rabui Kwankwaso and Nasir el-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna State. All three are northerners. Meanwhile, the opposition People’s Democratic Party is looming large after emerging from a two-year internal leadership dispute.

In the absence of decisive leadership, Nigeria’s many problems have been left to fester. And with prompt reform unlikely from Buhari’s torpid administration, the hopes of citizens and onlookers rest on the 2019 elections. “We can always hope that the next government will take its responsibilities more seriously,” says Dehn.

Charlie Mitchell

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