Buhari: too little too late?

President Buhari has announced that he will run for office again in the 2019 general election, but his record to date may hinder his chances of success.


When Muhammadu Buhari won the Nigerian general election in 2015 by more than 2.5m votes it seemed that Africa’s largest economy had finally turned a new leaf after a long history of political and economic mismanagement.

His election campaign cut to the very heart of Nigeria’s continuing setbacks and offered solutions by promising to secure the country, rebuild the economy and fight corruption.

The septuagenarian peddled a new vision of Nigeria in which divisive identities and personal enrichment gave way to lifting the country’s 180m-plus population out of unemployment and poverty. Now, three years into office and with elections next year, his name is often associated with missed opportunities as opposed to promises fulfilled.

Bold claims coupled with the high expectations of Nigerian citizens have meant that even though Buhari has moved the country in the right direction he continually comes up short.

His supporters point out that solving Nigeria’s problems will take far longer than four years and Buhari has already done much to set the country on a gradual ascent to becoming a global powerhouse. 

Pressing issues include questions surrounding his health, problems with appealing to the country’s youth and the unfolding clashes between farmers and herdsmen in central Nigeria. However, a lack of strong opposition and a widespread desire to see increases on the small economic gains made in the last few years mean Buhari is well positioned to contest next year’s presidential elections.

Mixed bag

Many of Buhari’s most vocal claims and flagship initiatives have been repeatedly called into question. In 2015 the new president made a statement that would haunt his presidency. While talking about Boko Haram – Nigeria’s northeastern Islamic insurgency – Buhari announced that “technically we have won the war”. The militant group has since disproved the president’s assertion over and over again.

“We had the impression that once Buhari came into power Boko Haram would come to an end,” says Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Roman Catholic diocese of Sokoto. “Three years later we have not covered that much ground and I am a little concerned about whether we can close the door on Boko Haram at all by ending the war in the northeast.”

Most recently, the kidnapping of around 110 Nigerian schoolgirls in Dapchi, Yobe state, shows that Boko Haram are still alive and kicking. Although most of the schoolgirls were quickly returned, the kidnapping remains symbolic of a force still at large.

Others, however, argue that progress has been made and Buhari’s administration is on the right track to defeating the group, regardless of continued attacks. “The recent attack by Boko Haram comes as an unwelcome development,” says Okechukwu Enelamah, minister of industry, trade and investment. “Whether these are the last desperate acts of the group or they are reinforcing, time will tell, but the government’s commitment to defeating Boko Haram is total.”

Another cause célèbre for Buhari is his anti-graft campaign. Vice-president Yemi Osinbajo has stated that there is no corruption in Buhari’s government and for a long while this reputation did wonders for the president’s image. 

The reputation was bolstered by the introduction of the Treasury Single Account in 2015 where money collected from the public sector was diverted to the central bank as opposed to different ministries and government departments where it risked being

Other initiatives such as the establishment of special courts tasked at fast-tracking justice in corruption cases have been introduced. Many argue there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes. “There has been a massive change,” says Kunle Elebute, national senior partner, KPMG Nigeria. “People now have to work for their money and hand-outs are more or less reduced.”

At the same time Nigeria has dropped 12 places in the annual corruption ranking produced by Transparency International, a global US-based corruption watchdog. Nigeria now stands 148th out of 180 countries. The report has shattered Buhari’s claim to have cleaned up public office and severely affected his popularity. Indeed numerous high-profile cases have come to light in the first half of this year.

Buhari has made slight improvements in terms of Boko Haram and corruption, setting himself apart from his scandal-ridden predecessor Jonathan
Goodluck, but the overblown claims that emerge from his administration make for easy criticism.

Current hurdles 

In the short term Buhari faces a number of key issues that if successfully managed could boost his popularity in the run-up to next year’s elections.

Buhari, 75, has long been plagued both by an undisclosed illness being treated in London and the disfavour it brings the president at home. Understandably Nigerians are concerned that Buhari is simply not fit to lead. The issue came to ahead last year as the president spent a total of 103 days in the UK receiving medical care. To counter the problem Buhari would do well to make his illness public and restore confidence in his ability to lead, if indeed he is physically able.

His age also presents a slightly different snag in a country where 60% of the population are under the age of 30. Buhari recently made statements implying that Nigerian youth are lazy. These comments were unsurprisingly met with a strong backlash on social media and point to yet another failure in the management of Buhari’s public image. The president will need to successfully woo the younger vote if he wants to secure next year’s election.

Finally an unravelling conflict in Nigeria’s middle belt is increasingly testing Buhari’s ability as a politician. Thousands have died and been displaced as environmental constraints push nomadic – and predominantly Muslim – Fulani herdsmen from the north into the middle belt, which is inhabited mainly by Christian farmers. Buhari has offered few solutions, and as the clashes show very few signs of abating the issue may make or break Buhari’s presidency.

Still an improvement

All things considered, Buhari is making some moves in the right direction but there are still many constraints to overcome. As Bismarck Rewane, chief executive of Financial Derivatives Company, says: “To be honest not having an incompetent Jonathan is positive and Buhari is therefore better than where we came from. That said his administration still has a lot of work to do.”

Tom Collins

This feature is extracted from the June issue of African Business Magazine, out now, which contains a comprehensive special report on Nigeria under Muhammadu Buhari. 

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