Last week, during a retreat to assess his stewardship, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari took to the podium to declare that his administration has made progress in all fronts to improve the quality of life of his country men and women and set the citizens on the path to prosperity. Apart from promising to ensure equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth and close the gap between different classes, he committed to lifting 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next ten years. He, however, did not explain how he intends to achieve this. Speaking further, he commended his administration for addressing insecurity and insurgency through innovative approaches through rehabilitating and re-integrating repentant terrorists into the society. Seemingly triumphant, he highlighted the efforts of his administration to build strong institutional capacities to fight against corruption and urged his appointees to defend his government by going on the offensive to package information better.
However it appears that many Nigerians do not believe their President. They rather feel the opposite – that things have actually gone from bad to worse, under Buhari’s watch. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo expressed such sentiments saying he was embarrassed by how President Buhari is running the country, insisting that Africa’s most populous nation may be moving towards becoming a failed state. The former President openly accused the current administration of mismanaging diversity by allowing disappearing old fault lines to reopen in greater fissures with drum of bitterness, separation and disintegration. He is not alone. Even within the President’s own party, many people who worked for his victory now complain that the mission that brought them to power might have been willingly betrayed.
The recent increases in fuel pump price and electricity tariffs were huge triggers. Frustration and discontent is fast spreading among the populace already being negatively impacted by the negative economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. However the government continues to blame the pandemic for the sudden economic downturn that necessitated the deregulation policy that seeks to permanently remove the costly and opaque subsidy regime. Many sections of the populace doubt their sincerity and might have lost confidence in a government that was voted-in under the Change mantra. For instance, despite being a signatory to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), Nigeria’s borders still remain closed. Even with the continued closure and huge investments in domestic agricultural production, nothing seem to have changed substantially.
For instance, in the last five years, price of food items has risen steadily with rice that used to sell for 9,000 naira per bag in 2015 now tripled up to about 26,000 naira. A fact that was acknowledged by the Nigeria’s Minister for Finance, Budget and Planning, Zainab Ahmed. This is impacting disproportionately on the poor in a country said to the home of the highest number of poor people in the world.
Covid-19 Pandemic: Another Government Drainpipe?
Although government through a Presidential taskforce appear to have fought and successfully minimized the fatality and spread of the pandemic in Nigeria, citizens are still doubtful. They hardly trust the information coming from government especially the numbers. They suspect that it is all a ploy that provides another opportunity to siphon public resources into the private pockets of the parasitic elite. Sad indeed. But the general public doubt about the pandemic apparently reflects a clear deficit of trust between the government and the governed. It appears to be a reflection of many years of lies and failed promises from politicians to the people. For many ordinary citizens, information coming from government should be taken with a pinch of salt. Even the death of one of Nigeria’s most powerful men and former Chief of Staff to the President, Mallam Abba Kyari, as a result of the pandemic, could not convince many. Rather those who ever believe that the pandemic is real dismiss it as the ‘disease of the elite’. Although many ordinary people have died due to the raging virus, the fact that their names were not carried by the media helped to reinforce the public doubt towards fatality of Covid-19. Despite the lockdown and other forms of restrictions imposed by government, officials encountered a lot of difficulty enforcing it. Angry protesters in many parts of Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity attacked police officers enforcing the government directive to restrict movement. In many locations outside the urban areas life was going on as normal with inhabitants believing that there is little to fear despite government announcements to the contrary. Furthermore, although government and well-meaning individuals tried to provide some food aid in terms of palliatives while the restrictions lasted, there were widespread complaints that the distribution pattern was not inclusive but was rather done along partisan lines especially in favor of the ruling party and other ethnic considerations. This misgiving contributed to fuel public angst and discontent especially among the poorest of the poor who felt that the lockdown increased their hunger. Apparently after gnashing their teeth for many weeks, some people had to take to the streets to cause pandemonium and loot vehicles on essential duties transporting food items from one city to another.
Economic Re-engineering or Crony Capitalism
On the economic front, a prominent non-partisan private sector organization, Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) recently criticized the Buhari’s administration for taking actions that left the economy prostrate for the last five years with rising inflation, contrasting GDP, unsustainable borrowing, dwindling value for naira, falling industrial capacity utilization and frightening unemployment figures. The group frowned at the fact that despite huge sums of money disbursed in the Anchor Borrowers Program, a huge gap still exists as many Nigerians still remain hungry. It must be recalled that efforts that were made to contain the economic shock as a result of the immediate aftermath of the pandemic gulped billions of naira as reported by the CBN. It is therefore valid for stakeholders to demand necessary explanation and transparency from the Central Bank authorities as appropriate. Furthermore, the group raised concerns about the newly enacted Bank and other Financial Institutions Act (BOFIA) 2020, which seeks to confer immunity on some officials of the Central Bank. The NESG insists that such a legislation is draconian, totalitarian and inimical to the development of a transparent regulation of the financial sector. Although the CBN has vehemently denied this, many observers concur that some form of regulatory capture is not unlikely. There is a developing back story to all these. For instance the current governor of Central Bank, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, before his appointment served as the Managing Director of Zenith Bank, one of the biggest banks in the country; thus, as a regulator, many analysts fear that it will be difficult for him to exercise necessary neutrality while presiding from his position over an industry where he once played in.
Spreading Insecurity Amidst Apparent Helplessness
Despite government claims to the contrary, insecurity appears to be spreading across the country. The narrative that Boko Haram insurgents in the Northeast have been ‘technically defeated’ now appear to be propaganda as fatalities continue to be recorded from attacks. In addition, other bandits continue to cause mayhem through countless kidnappings and massacres in parts of Zamfara and the President’s home state, Katsina. An independent researcher Dr. Jose Luis Bazan, reported that an estimated 2,539 persons have been killed from 654 attacks between 2017 and 2020. Attacks and reprisal attacks have continued in states like Kaduna with accusations of ethnic cleansing and mismanagement of religious and cultural diversity. Part of the reason for the spreading of insecurity that has allowed these groups to operate with impunity, is partly due to what someone described as; ‘ it is the failure and unwillingness of those in authority to address these non-state actors and secure ungoverned spaces that has allowed the violence to mutate. The heightening insecurity continues to impact negatively on the business environment and business flows into the country.
Declining Trust for Democratic Institutions
In Nigeria as in elsewhere in the world, there appear to be a steady decline of trust in democracy and on democratic institutions. In the past there were conversations that many democracies in Africa, like Nigeria have not been sufficiently deepened or consolidated. That brought out the debate about democratization at a time when some western democracies were perceived to be the model from where others must take ingredients to flavor their own. . However, things are changing and such assumptions are being challenged especially with the United States of America under the excesses of Donald Trump and Brexit controversy and likely and consequences brewing in the United Kingdom. It is now becoming fruitless for countries to continue to look towards the west for ‘models’ of democracy to copy from. Rather there is a minority study that revolves around a thinking for a more contextual approach that seeks to adopt a copy and paste prescriptive approach which is failing. The promise of democracy for a country like Nigeria is to guarantee freedom of expression, spread prosperity and democratic dividends to the many. While dividends are said to circulate among a select few members of patronage networks, the democratic space appear to be shrinking. Until deliberate efforts are made to reverse this trend, it is difficult to justify the benefits of democracy especially if it is juxtaposed with the cost. Across all arms of government, footprints of democratic authoritarianism have led to regular elections which are legal but resulted to outcome that did not exactly reflect the legitimate will of the electorate. Many sections of the citizenry now prefer to sit at home rather than come out for elections as they are almost sure that their votes will not count.
Preference of Form Over Substance
The Buhari government is becoming increasing unpopular. It is obvious that the President himself knows it. Some of the achievements he is quick to point to like the Anchors Borrowers Program are yet to produce the expected results. The conditional cash transfer program is mired in controversy. His acclaimed anti-corruption efforts have been marred by political ‘weaponization’ by his inner caucus and inter-agency squabbles. The wrath among the population is palpable. This is partly because he has not been able to fulfill any of the three promises that he gave his countrymen – fixing security, revamping the economy and fighting corruption. It is unlikely that there will be any major improvement in the coming months before the frenzy of succession politics and attendant blurry uncertainties take over. Many people who supported him against the incumbent President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan believed that the former military Head of State had what it takes to turn the dwindling fortunes of the country around. Apparently they were wrong. His personal reputation as “Mai Gaskiya” (the honest one) and his aura of discipline and incorruptibility have been proven to be insufficient to lead a complex country like Nigeria. Rather, many of those who spearheaded his campaign are now disappointed especially with his non-inclusive approach, something re-echoed by many political leaders of repute. Just one year into his second and final tenure, several critical voices are now rising and many political alliances are in the works. For someone who initially appealed to the grassroots, especially in the Northern part of the country, there are more questions than answers whether public expectations of him can be equated with reality. However, President Buhari appear confident and unperturbed that his appointees are able help him to secure a comfortable place in the Nigerian political history after he finishes his term in 2023. For many, this is a pipedream as he has very little to say about his stewardship except for appointing his to juicy positions. Whether the long expected radical change will ever happen is still a matter of conjecture. For now it is all looking like a desperate effort to elevate form over substance.
Dr. Uche Igwe is a Visiting Fellow at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org