Nigerian Presidential Election 2023

by Mar 10, 2023

The way forward – Nigerian presidential election 2023

March 2023 – J Boima Rogers

The Nigerian election this year will determine the way forward at a critical juncture in the path of this sleeping giant of Africa, hopefully on the road to realising its full potential.  The headlines in the run up to the election – the shortage of new Naira as the country grapples with the move to a new currency – would unfortunately appear to be the major determinant of the new president.  There are also issues with kidnappings, inflation, electrical power outages and the myriad of other issues that Nigerians have to cope with.  The contenders in the election parade promised that they would resolve these issues as soon as they are elected even though most of them did not exactly outline, in a comprehensive and credible way how they would resolve them or have any track record of resolving such issues in previous positions held.  Ironically the headline issue, the currency fiasco,  is a policy that was largely designed to resolve the country’s crucial fault line, namely, corruption and its effect on elections.   Buhari wanted to   forestall the efforts by criminals to produce counterfeit notes;  force corrupt politicians to produce huge amounts of money siphoned off government projects for which they would have to explain how they acquired such funds and/or not produce such funds because they would be criminally liable and; prevent such funds being used to  “buy” elections.

Bizarrely, the currency fiasco was a lifeline to politicians who used it to hammer a leader who is probably the best thing that has happened to Nigeria, the ultimate patriot with regards to anti-corruption and his attitude towards development even if some of his policies in achieving laudable goals may be flawed.  Politicians cried foul for dubious reasons, many of whom would have been adversely affected because of Buhari’s laudable objectives.  A policy – change of currency – that was quite popular initially for objectives noted, particularly among younger internet-savvy voters is now being panned by a wide cross-section of the electorate. Yes, in addition to the issues that cropped up in the run up to the elections there were others with the Buhari administration. His direct, non-ostentatious style though a welcome relief has been a hindrance in communicating with the public or manoeuvring around political minefields.  His positive attitude towards corruption and development though  impressive was not sufficient in addressing challenges he faced. 

President Buhari has had two terms as president and as he leaves office as mandated by the constitution – he cannot serve a third term- what is his legacy, what is the way forward and and what can we expect from the new leader.  His election eight years ago was a breadth of fresh air with regards to his character, previous rule and policies advocated.  He leaves office with a mixed legacy. One that falls short of somebody with laudable objectives and policies which are due to what he inherited, global headwinds beyond his control but also his policies and management style. The present situation and his successor are pivotal currents that will usher negative or positive outcomes  to the huge challenges Nigeria faces.  Buhari’s  shortcomings cannot be ignored which are the reasons the country needs a new approach by the president elect who has indicated that he would build on some of Buhari’s legacy but take a different path in  some crucial ways. The president-elect has indicated that he will adopt Buhari’s objectives but apply smarter policies and given his track record will no doubt have a different management style.

This is Buhari’s second time as leader of the country, the first time as a military leader through a coup and this time as an elected leader.    As a military leader, general Buhari issued decrees and took drastic actions on discipline, corruption and policies aimed at substituting imports with Nigerian grown produce and manufactured products.  Fast forward three decades later as a civilian politician he turned on a charm offensive, if his campaign could be labelled as such, and won the electorate over, and then won a second term.  As a member of the audience in a presentation he made in Oxford in his first campaign, I was not convinced he could make it, thinking his presentation was wooden and he just did not have the charm and glib persona of politicians in general, particularly African politicians whose presentations are often bombastic slogans. 

The key planks of the Buhari platform were: fighting corruption; defeating terrorism and fixing the economy. Underlying the stated election pledge were two drivers that marked him out as unique, namely,  his character/record with regards to corruption and his strong belief that Nigeria’s development must be predicated on  producing goods rather than merely as consumer of goods produced elsewhere, a theme which in his view virtually all previous administrations did not prioritise as stated policy and/or in practice .  This rare trait meant that as a military ruler and a civilian president he and his family were not engaged in corrupt practices, he discouraged such practices in his government and took measures to prevent and punish officials engaged in corrupt practices.  He has also taken significant measures to fight corruption at the federal level. His strong belief in Nigeria developing its agricultural and industrial base has been demonstrated in statements and policies aimed at developing that base and removing measures that encourage or provide advantages to imports, particularly where he believes Nigeria has the capacity and/or potential to produce items locally.  As part of that effort he has made a big push in the development of the physical and some soft (including “ease of doing business”) infrastructure.

This aspiration and policy framework  are unique particularly with regards to investment and time devoted as distinct from empty rhetoric of previous administrations.  While all of Nigeria’s other leaders had made similar pronouncements on (anti) corruption, they had either only paid lip service to it, never considered it a major issue or actively been involved in it personally or as it relates to their families, friends and/or officials in governments.  The attitude to developing the country’s agricultural and industrial base has similarly been made in grand pronouncements by all Nigerian leaders but has also been either empty statements, not as deeply held beliefs, not followed through with actual policies and/or vigour in implementation of same or contradicted by measures adopted, including not providing sufficient support and/or providing incentives to importers to undercut domestic producers for political or (often personal) financial gains.  Below is a summary of key Buhari initiatives/achievements although the list is not exhaustive

=>Antiterrorism policies – degradation of Boko Haram – measures included – change of military command; move of military command centre to the northern region, the epicentre of the Boko Haram terrorist operations; significant increase in resources to anti-terrorist command; and incentives to terrorists renouncing violence.

=>Anti=corruption drive – blocked treasury leakages, recovery of looted funds, conviction of corrupt officials and minimised corruption among senior federal officials and legislators:  measures included – Treasury Single Account(TSA); Biometric Unification Number (BVN); Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA); liaising with US, UK and other foreign entities to identify and retrieve stolen funds; sacked and/or prosecuted corrupt senior (and former) officials including chief justice, high court judge, senators and governors; minimal/zero corruption policy for Buhari appointed senior officials; appointments of cabinet positions made by administrations rather than names submitted by state governors; budget submissions devoid of bribes to legislators.

=> Support for agriculture and industry – major support included direct aid and conducive framework – Anchor Borrower Programme (ABP); Backward Integration Policy; 24-hour online registration of business; zero company tax for SMEs with turnover below N25 million and 20% between N25 – 100 Million; directive on agro-industry support in all 36 states;  partial and/or total ban on preferential foreign exchange access for importers of food items such as rice, poultry and tomato paste and non-food items such as cement, textiles furniture; closure of borders to prevent smuggling.    

=> Infrastructure projects – Construction (and maintenance) of major bridge, roads and railways and ports – specific projects included – construction of second Niger bridge; 3800 km of roads constructed and 16000 km of roads maintained; 325 km of railways constructed and ; major extension of Lagos port.

=>Macroeconomic management – initial success included stability in exchange rate; partial liberalisation of foreign exchange market; increases in external reserves; increases in capital inflows; improvements in trade balance. However, reversal of these gains in later part of administration overall tepid GDP growth, less than population growth rate and; decline in Human Development Index (HDI); high (51%) of population in extreme poverty trap.

The Buhari administration made a good start on pledges made but after eight years, a review of his record indicates significant shortfalls which can be attributed global headwinds outside the administration’s control such as the precipitous drop in the world oil price soon after he came into office, from US$111/barrel in June 2014 to US$30/barrel in January 2016 which caused a recession as can be seen in the sharp drop in the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the table below and generally depressed oil prices until last year.  The Covid19 pandemic in the last three years and the war in Ukraine have both had significant negative impacts although the upsurge in the world oil price is a welcome relief; Nigeria has unfortunately not fully exploited because it has not ramped up its oil production sufficiently largely due to bottlenecks associated with security issues, a failure of the administration but also inadequate investment and maintenance issues much of which predated the Buhari administration but he had not addressed.  Global  headwinds were compounded by  inappropriate policies, flawed management and communication by the administration.

Buhari came in when Boko Haram was a major force and measures taken in the military command and related policies resulted in a significant degradation of that terrorist group.  Unfortunately, there have been other outbreaks. notably an upsurge in kidnappings and terror attacks in the north; perversely much of this is the result of attack by Fulanis, Buhari’s ethnic group but also new terrorist attacks in the south east region. A report by Dr Jose Luis Bazam  documented 2339 persons killed by terrorist attacks between 2017 and 2020 in 554 attacks by Fulani militants.  Nigeria was ranked as the 14th most fragile state in the world, 9th in Africa in 2022, by the Fragile States Index, the same rank it had in 2015 at the beginning of the Buhari administration.  

On the issue of corruption while the Buhari administration implemented much lauded measures noted above which was reflected in international indices the early stage of Buhari’s reign, it is a difficult problem for any administration because of significant corruption at all levels of government, a way of life ingrained over decades.  Transparency International, in its index of corruption as perceived by the public gave Nigeria a score of 24 in 2022 (out of a total score of 100) which is less than the score of 26 it achieved in 2015, ranked the country 150th,  less than ranks of 146th and 149th in 2019 and 2020 respectively. While the administration can rightly highlight measures noted above and indeed these may have reduced corruption (as indicated in rankings in 2019 and 2020), the impact may have been limited to senior (cabinet level) officials but not lower level corruption; and/or officials that interface with the public carried on as usual; or the public is just not convinced that officials have changed their habits which is reflected in the Transparency International Index, a measure of the public’s “perception” of corruption.

There was been very significant positive changes in the environment for business, notably with regards to the ease of doing business. According to the World Bank data, twenty such (ease of doing business index) measures were adopted between 2016 and 2020, more than that made by any other administration. These measures resulted in the country improving its ranking from 146 in 2018 to 131 in 2020. This compares very favourably to the five positive measures recorded by the World Bank in the preceding  years between 2008 and 20015.  The quadrupling of positive measures in the Buhari administration relative to his predecessor is indeed the defining factor of his regime which has seen an upswing in production in sectors involved, with significant increase in investment in agriculture.  A far more important long-term impact is the “can do” factor, the confidence that local producers have that they can add value, make use of local resources and engaging the country’s farmers, workers and producers, providing credit and support to such producers that they had not received before. This has been reflected in economic data which consistently showed positive growth in the non-oil sectors, out-performing the oil sector in the last eight years. The downside of the administration has been the huge rise in the price of some agricultural products, notably, rice, with the price per bag increasing from N900 in 2015 to current price N26,000 which is largely due to the closure of the border even though Nigeria is a signatory to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement; ironically it would appear that while the closure has been relatively successful in preventing imports, agricultural products that have benefited from the administration’s support have been shipped abroad by farmers for higher prices.  The administration has also been panned for the huge sums spent on the ANCHOR programme with insufficient controls on disbursements.

The administration’s record on the  infrastructure noted above does not cover the full picture. Under Buhari contractors have been obliged to demonstrate that work in progress means exactly that, not an initiation process followed by a lull  with contractors siphoning funds for personal (non-project like taking a new wife or mistress) activities as was often the case with other administrations; largely as a result of PICA.  Investments by third parties such as Dangote Industries have not been included above but are substantial.  The one crucial area though that Buhari could not unravel from the mess he inherited was in power generation.  The previous Jonathan government compounded the inadequate investment and mismanagement of the power sector over many decades by privatising power distribution and generation.  The new owners notably did not have the track record or expertise for their acquisitions, bought very cheaply because of patronage.  Buhari was unable to unravel this mess and the country continues to have very limited power supply for its needs and perversely for a country with an abundance of oil, gas, coal and significant solar and hydropower potential.

While the initial Buhari macro-economic management record was impressive given  the dire situation at the start of his administration with plummeting oil prices as noted above – revenue from this source accounting for the overwhelming (77%)) proportion of Government funds – the government’s overall record  on the economy has indeed been its biggest flaw.  Initially, the administration was lauded for  implementing measures that stabilized the exchange rate, significantly increasing external reserves (from US$$28.6 billion in June 2015 to US$40.3 billion in May 2020), increasing capital inflows and the value of exports was significantly higher than imports.   A review of the economy for the entirety of the Buhari reign shows tepid growth in the economy, with the population growth rate of 2.6% in excess of GDP growth for most years.   

                                             Year       % GDP change

                                             2016      -1.58

                                             2017      0.83

                                             2018      1.89

2019      2.26

2020      0.125

2021      3.40

2022      3.10

Sources ICIR

Business Insider Africa

This rather low GDP growth rate relative to the population growth rate means that the administration is leaving office with 51% of the population (105 million) classified as within the extreme poverty trap and the country  sliding in the Human Development Index ranking from 152nd out of 189 countries  in 2015 when Buhari was elected to 161st ranking now according to the World Bank. As he leaves office inflation and unemployment are increasing as has what has been described by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group as “unsustainable government borrowing”.

Detractors have said with some justification, that while Buhari outlined laudable objectives, he, like all his predecessors has not realised them.  Critiques  have noted that the Buhari doctrine is flawed and his poor management style rendered the few plausible policies empty promises that were stymied in implementation by a president who could not understand and/or wriggle through the intricacies of Nigerian politics.  They contend that despite his lofty pronouncements and haranguing of other parties and politicians he is leaving office with many of the problems he inherited still plaguing the country or even worse. 

Certainly, Buhari could have done better, notably, he appeared not to have game planned the reaction of vested interests to his reforms such as  the currency issue,  to gauge the level of opposition of politicians from his own party and the opposition to how his policies threatened the entrenched (often corrupt) interests of the economic and political elite and measures they would take to protect those interests.  These include the electric power supply quagmire, restrictions on imports of a range of items, anti-corruption measures  that he correctly assumed would be to the benefit of the country.  He failed to adequately realise and plan how to counter the measures by opposition forces and how to counter them.  This opposition was manifested in a wide variety of forms including the mobilisation of opinion leaders to rage against rational policies. 

Buhari also failed to adopt appropriate macro-economic instruments.  He failed to fully liberalise the foreign exchange market, continued the fuel subsidies and resorted to bans on imports of certain products.  Rather than allow market forces to play the critical role, Buhari the ex-general tried to apply force.  While he had a point because ceteris paribus (all things being equal) rarely applies in markets, particularly in Africa, he faced  a combination of opposition forces, namely, market and  political/economic entrenched interests.  To be fair to Buhari, it should be noted that he could have faced issues in imposing high import duties on targeted products (for import substitution)  under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and the new Africa free trade agreement.  Buhari has not been very effective at communicating the benefits of his actions.  In particular he has not been successful in in reaching out and persuading the young digitally savvy electorate about how his aspirations and policies are very much to their benefit in a country with huge unemployment. 

As we go to press the All Progressive Congress’s (APC) candidate Bola Tinubu has been elected as the new president; the president elect is also from the same party as the outgoing president.  The three leading candidates in the election demonstrated the challenges Nigeria faces.  The (long-term) main opposition, People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) candidate, Atiku Abubakar lives for the most part in the Gulf, having amassed a huge fortune while mostly engaged as a politician including eight years (1999-2007) as vice-president.  When he is not contesting election in Nigeria, he  is managing his huge investment portfolio in  Dubai.  While he wanted to be president of Nigeria he has been  wallowing in the comfort of Dubai where its leaders although fabulously rich have built impressive infrastructure (including constant electricity) that Nigeria has failed to develop from its own oil and gas resources. His candidacy. given his current domicile status was an irony verging on the perverse.  The Labour party candidate, Peter Obi, currently objecting to the election result has been described as a reformer mounting an insurgency campaign, ironically he comes from a state and region where a violent secessionist insurgency is currently taking place- including the murder of a senate candidate; Obi has not publicly taken a strong stand against the main terrorist group.  He cultivated the Christian movement, with pastors across the country overwhelmingly endorsing him, something that has alarmed the predominantly Muslim north and Nigerians across the country who are opposed to a close relationship between religious  institutions and the state. Obi has been very good with soundbites without actually outlining in a credible way how he would resolve the major challenges facing the country.  He has been very popular with digitally savvy young voters through his social media feeds although that group is a very small minority of voters even though they are very vocal. 

The president elect, Bola Tinubu has a reputation as a political fixer. He has highlighted his work as the Lagos state governor,  playing a pivotal role in making it the most dynamic state in the country with functioning infrastructure and governance.  As he likes to stress, in Lagos things work whereas before his reign and plan, which his successors followed,  things were in the doldrums.  He has been lauded as an effective administrator, astute politician and credited with sponsoring technocrats and visionary leaders, including Buhari and some of the senior officials in the Buhari administration.  As part of his mantra of getting things done, he has been accused of using dirty tricks, namely using “area boys”,  paid hooligans, to control the streets of Lagos and intimidate opponents.  He has been accused of giving plum jobs to loyalists and critics note that unlike Buhari he is not an anti-corruption crusader or even devoid of corruption personally.

The Tinubi agenda according to a recent statement will be building on the Buhari project, notably, continuation on development of the country’s agricultural, industrial and infrastructural base.  Security issues would take a more prominent role as Buhari did at the beginning of his administration, with Tinubu stressing that the issue is paramount for any development to take place.  Resolving the energy issue would be a top priority which he perceives as a prerequisite for economic development. He has highlighted development of the creative industry, a sector that Buhari never publicly highlighted.  He has promised to adopt macro-economic tools to revamp the economy, notably, fully liberalising the exchange rate so that the Naira is floated to arrive at a single market determined rate and removing the fuel subsidy – a significant departure from Buhari, who for much of his reign demonstrated a distrust of unfettered market forces. While he mentioned a fight against corruption, this was not a top item and going by his track record, unlike Buhari we cannot expect this issue to be an obsession of the administration.

Nigeria has had eight years of rule by a president who is unique in terms of his attitude and actions on corruption and economic development.  For decades the  prevailing attitudes and culture by the majority of the electorate and certainly the political/economic elite has been that anti-corruption and home grown/made in Nigeria products were merely political slogans and for many of the political/economic elite who have thrived on corruption and all types of imports, the Buhari project was an existential threat.  Over the years corruption has been seen as merely business as usual and imports of a myriad of items as essential goods, even refined products from oil that Nigeria has produced for over seventy years.  With this background and buffeted by adverse world developments Buhari was partly overwhelmed but also appears to have adopted some inappropriate policies, lacked the ideal relevant temperament and management style to steer this juggernaut of a country.  Consequently, while he is leaving some positive legacies, he is also leaving office with significant challenges noted above.  His successor has announced that he will build on those positive features and ameliorate the negative aspects of that legacy.  Unlike Buhari he is a political animal with years of experience in the brutal trenches of Nigerian politics, none more so than his home turf Lagos.  Let us hope that for Nigeria, Africa and the world that Tinubu makes good on his promise and exploits the huge potential of this sleeping giant.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO),