Will Buhari be given the opportunity to complete his project?

by Oct 9, 2018

In 2019, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a president. Will they stick with Buhari or decide that he has been ineffectual, failed and not improved their lives and choose somebody else? The election of Buhari has been a major new development in the country in a number of ways. It was the first change in leadership from one party to another, as distinct from a military coup or shift from one leader to another within the same party. Buhari had ruled as a military leader without amassing wealth and has continued in that fashion since he took office. He has implemented measures to address security, economic, corruption and infrastructure issues. It has not however been smooth sailing going against entrenched interests, notably, many legislators whose major focus is staying in power, with very high salaries and expense accounts and not much interest in good governance and service delivery. In many ways reality soon set in, thwarting Buhari’s reform agenda. His project, which aims to realise the country’s enormous potential has been slow to get off the ground and unless he can significantly revamp his narrative, political and economic strategies and pace, he is unlikely to get an extension to complete his project and alter the trajectory of the country’s development despite his laudable goals and objectives.

In going to the public for a second term, Buhari would need to highlight his track record, what he has achieved, how Nigerians are better off compared to when he took office, why he needs more time for his project and how he can do a better job if given a second chance. The key metrics would depend on what voters consider to be the most important issues. In the Nigerian context with limited and unreliable polls we need to be cautious. One can assume though that certain issues which were constantly in the media and which Buhari focussed on when he last went to the polls are important. These are public safety, the economy, corruption and the infrastructure, notably, power supply. In his campaign, while he can point to challenges outside his control, including the machinations of his opponents and other branches of government that made it difficult or impossible for him to implement his agenda, the public is unlikely to buy into a narrative that assigns failure to other parties, because it assumes that any leader will face such hurdles and the mark of good leadership is how s/he responds to such challenges and comes on top.

Towards the end of the previous administration the Boko Haram insurgency was quite severe in a number of ways. It was very active in the north-east, there had been some high profile kidnappings of civilians, notably the Chinook girls and it was spreading to other parts of Nigeria. The economy had been in the doldrums largely because the Jonathan regime did not appear to have a coherent economic policy but also because of the depressed oil price, Nigeria’s lifeline. Corruption was as usual rampant but the thing that brought it into focus was the attitude of the administration which did not see corruption, as Jonathan noted, as a problem. In the run up to the election there were rumblings of a run on public funds by politicians to buy the support of the electorate. Voters complained about the country’s crumbling infrastructure and in particular, the very limited and unreliable electricity. The Jonathan administration had privatised electricity in a crony set up with no due diligence being conducted on the new owners to validate their capacity and expertise to provide the services and even more important, to significantly improve the paltry supply and reliability of this crucial service. Other infrastructure and government services were also under severe strain as a result of lack of investment, mismanagement and corruption although the Jonathan administration could not obviously be totally blamed for a situation that had also been caused by many other previous administrations. Voters as was their prerogative, decided that they needed a new leader to run the show.

While the Boko Haram insurgency is still rumbling on and as the BBC’s Tony Oladipo noted, continues “to threaten the stability of Nigeria’s north-east and its wider Lake Chad Basin area”, there has been a very significant improvement because of measures taken by the administration. These include changing the military command, moving the command centre to the region most affected by the insurgency, providing more resources and ensuring that those resources were delivered to the fighting force. In 2015, in Buhari’s first year when his policies were being devised and implemented, there were 270 attacks and 6006 deaths. In 2016 the 80 attacks recorded were 29% and deaths at 937 were 15% of the previous year, a huge improvement. While attacks and deaths in 2017 at 109 and 937 deaths respectively are up on the 2016 figures, they are still a huge improvement on what Buhari inherited. Boko Haram’s attacks are now primarily limited to Borno state.

On the economy the administration has made attempts, albeit in a very modest way, to stimulate non-oil sectors in its long term goal of reducing the country’s dependency on crude oil exports and reliance on imports. His budgets have made significant allocations for agriculture, roads and power, including renewable power generation. He has liberalised foreign exchange and thereby effectively removed subsidies to importers who had access to foreign currencies at preferential exchange rates, a perverse policy that was a disincentive for Nigeria’s manufacturers and farmers. He has taken measures to minimise corruption as noted in my previous paper. The administration’s policies have resulted in a significant improvement in the ease of doing business in Nigeria with the country moving from 170th in 2015 to 145th according to the World Banking ranking. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has seen a modest but steady growth.

It should be noted though at the end of the day Nigerian voters are going to judge Buhari according to their perceptions of how he has affected their lives. The tepid economic growth which has, in the last five quarters ranged from .72 to 2.11% is significantly less than the population growth rate of 2.6 percent. Despite major efforts the fight against corruption is still work in progress and in its latest report Transparency International ranked the country at 148/183 with a score of 27/100 in its corruption perception index. Electricity output has continued to be a problem. Nigeria’s electricity power capacity at 7,000 megawatts (MGW) is only a fraction of South Africa’s capacity of 40,000 MGWs even though that country has less than a third of Nigeria’s population. Indeed the country’s actual electricity output is only a fraction of its installed capacity, ranging from 2,000 – 4,452 MGW in an analysis of recent production by Energy Mix. Buhari has therefore not been able to make a major breakthrough in this crucial sector, although as noted above he has been constrained by the crony privatisation of his predecessor; he has kept within the law and refrained from revoking the franchises awarded by Jonathan. His effort at diversifying into solar energy has been stymied by payment related guarantees.

The country’s shortcomings are severely limiting its potential, in particular, with regard to industrialisation which Nigeria should have unmatched comparative advantage in Africa because of its natural resource base and size of the domestic market. In a recent report (September 2018) by Landry Signe of the Brookings Institute on the potential of manufacturing and industrialisation in Africa, Nigeria had the lowest score on the quality of electricity and second lowest transport (roads, railroads, ports and air transport) infrastructure among the top ten manufacturers in Africa. The author noted that “Nigeria continues to be constrained by its political and regulatory environment – especially high levels of corruption, poverty and bureaucratic red tape”.

A review of critical indicators on the welfare of the population shows that much work still needs to be done. The fragile state index compiled by the Fund for Peace which looks at the security, economy, state legitimacy and demographic pressure faced by Nigerians shows that the country is still very fragile although there has been a significant improvement in the last two years. Another indicator is the Severely Off Track Countries (SOTC) index which measures a country’s ability to ensure its population can escape extreme poverty over the medium term. In SOTCs neither the markets nor the bureaucracies are reliable pathways because the former are shallow and inefficient and the latter are under-skilled and ineffective. Finally, the most glaring indicator of the current situation is the level of emigration, with Nigerians forming a significant proportion of people currently crossing the Mediterranean Sea fleeing to Europe.

So how does Buhari stand in his attempt to persuade voters to give him a second chance? Detractors are likely to use the famous phrase by Ronald Reagan, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” They will say that his policies have not improved the lives of Nigerians and he does not have the skills to leverage the other legislative bodies, businesses and foreign governments and international organisations to support, devise and implement policies and invest in the country to improve the lives of Nigerians.

Buhari can correctly say that he is on the right path. He has reduced the impact of the Boko Haram problem. He has taken measures to reduce corruption, to diversify the economy by allocating resources at crucial but neglected sectors – as an observer noted, “Now contractors are actually working on road projects rather than simply pocketing the money and sitting down”. On the issue of whether the electorate feel things are better off and are willing to give him another chance he can note that this is not be an appropriate way of judging his administration. Firstly, the time he has had has been relatively short given the immense challenges he faced after decades of mismanagement, rampant corruption and administrations that were indifferent to the needs and potential of the country and the fact that he has shared power with other legislative bodies who do not share his progressive agenda, it was never going to be plain sailing. He is taking an approach that previous administrations did not take but which are crucial in making the country realise its potential.

The challenge for Buhari is how to shape the narrative for the electorate to win the election and then, if successful, how to leave a transformative legacy. To control the narrative his campaign would need to decipher the attitudes and effectively deliver the relevant message to the diverse voter demographic that he will face, namely, by state, region, age, ethnicity religion and gender. He needs find out how they view his track record, their knowledge of, why or how he has failed/succeeded and aspirations to tailor his message and its delivery to maximise the impact. This is difficult enough in advanced democracies but in a country like Nigeria with high levels of illiteracy and voter decision making that is significantly influenced by ethnicity and religion it is far more challenging, with voters often taking perverse decisions. They are for example often swayed by a bag of rice, ignoring the fact that a bag of rice once every four years is far inferior to measures to provide the means to produce or purchase many bags of rice over that four year period. He needs to sell the idea that corruption is an inefficient and ineffective way of distributing the country’s resources and general development to an electorate that although they only infrequently get the crumbs of corrupt practices have come to regard such practices as the norm.

To realise his goals and objectives Buhari has to convince the electorate that he needs to complete his project and leave a legacy that all Nigerians will benefit from. Given the governance structure, namely, the federal, state and multi-party democracy, he needs to develop partnerships. The challenge therefore is to get a mandate at the various levels to ensure that stakeholders are aligned to his reformist agenda. He needs to sell his project to create a cohesive party structure in the regions and states. The recent defections from his party by legislators should be an opportunity because he can choose replacements and readmit defectors who will closely adhere to his reform agenda.

Buhari needs a review of his approach if he is given a second shot to leave a lasting legacy. He needs to take a much more ambitious line and speed up the process relative to his first term. Nigeria needs a quantum leap in developing its infrastructure and particularly the level of electricity power generation given the needs of the public and industry and its natural resource base. This has got to be done now, and may require radically departure from the approach so far. He should borrow from the experience of other African countries.

In borrowing from other African countries he could look at the examples of Rwanda and Ethiopia (which used to be in the SOTC group with Nigeria) that have achieved very high economic growth rates for decades and attracted significant FDIs largely because they have taken bold measures, minimised corruption and invested heavily in their physical and soft infrastructure. Over half a century ago Nkrumah took a bold step in constructing the Akosombo dam that still provides the bulk of Ghana’s electricity and the Ivory Coast has developed its electricity generation capacity to a level where it exports power. Ethiopia is currently developing its huge power generation capacity (the project manager is Ethiopian) to a level that will allow it to develop its rapidly growing industrial sector, export power to several countries as well as provide irrigation to thousands of farms. The policies, governance structures and investment partners used by those countries would be relevant to the Buhari project. Interestingly, in its effort to resuscitate its national air service Nigeria appears to have shortlisted Ethiopian Airlines, one of the few national airlines that have survived in the continent. While Nigeria is the giant of Africa it can still learn from smaller nimbler countries on the continent.

Buhari’s legacy would be how significantly he can accelerate the fight against corruption and develop the infrastructure that he has started to realise the country’s huge potential. The country has the potential with regards to power – oil, gas, rivers, sun and coal, diverse agricultural base – rain forest, savannah and semi-temperate highlands, and market for food and manufactured products – 170 million consumers. Buhari’s project will allow Nigeria to rightfully assume its mantle as the giant of Africa.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO), www.oxfordmemo.co.uk