Nigeria and President Buhari One Year On
A year ago, President Muhammadu Buhari assumed the office of President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. His assumption followed an epochal election in the country’s history. It was the first time that an incumbent president lost an election and, without legal rancor and political violence, handed over power to the opposition, a rare occurrence in Africa to date. The close of his first year in office presents an opportunity to assess the achievements and failures of the government so far.
Security and International Relations Successes
Over the past year, Buhari has set high expectations on taming corruption, improving local governance, and tackling insurgency. The terrorist group Boko Haram has been seriously degraded and its capacity for violence diminished. Nigeria and the three countries bordering northeastern Nigeria where Boko Haram operates—Chad, Niger, and Cameroon—have set up a Multinational Joint Military Task Force to combat the terrorist group within the Lake Chad Basin. A combination of these military efforts, the erosion of civilian support for terrorists, and a change in the political climate have degraded the capability of Boko Haram to widen its base. Though the group still has capacity to attack, as evidenced by occasional attacks and suicide bombing episodes, the president’s achievement on this front is noteworthy compared to the state of Boko Haram activities at the inception of his government.
The Buhari government has also made visible efforts to reposition the country’s engagements within the international sphere. President Buhari has traveled more than 30 times since inauguration. Though his constant travels have been met with domestic criticism, his meetings with key world leaders and attendance at important global forums could actually do more for the country than keeping a lower profile on the world stage. In April when he met President Xi Jinping in China, they discussed bilateral issues of trade, infrastructure support, and a currency swap to ease the import regime between the two countries.
Last year, President Buhari visited Washington at the invitation of President Obama. A key take-away from his visit was the promise of U.S. security support for the fight against insurgents. Beyond that, the meeting was a sign of U.S. confidence in the new leadership and of a willingness to recommit to ties that had grown frosty under former President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. To truly improve relations and solidify U.S.-Nigeria ties, Nigeria’s leadership needs to learn from the recent history of the security relationship between the two nations. The relationship between Nigeria and the United States reached a nadir in the last year of the Goodluck administration. By all indications, the causes of the frosty relationship were rooted in the Goodluck administration’s handling of the war against insurgents, the military’s behavior, and the overall context of the country’s governance. During this period, the military was hit with several corruption scandals, including the mismanagement of soldier emoluments that led to mutiny, the widespread theft of weapons, and an inept political response to the Boko Haram menace.. The direct outcome of this mismanagement was a loss of respect for the military among the public and a corresponding lack of cooperation, preventing effective intelligence gathering and further damaging troop morale. Poor leadership, lack of sufficient supplies, and low morale among the infantry has resulted in soldiers frequently fleeing direct confrontation with insurgents.
Governance, Corruption, and Power Supply Challenges
Beyond the fight against insurgents and corruption, Nigeria’s governance problems persist, and the economic situation is worsening. As I write, power generation and distribution has reached its lowest ebb. At one point in March, national power generation reached zero megawatts for several hours. More generally, power generation hovers around 2,000 megawatts, against a national power target of 10,000 megawatts. The previous administration trudged towards meeting the target, reaching about 5,000 megawatts before it left office. Minister for Power, Works, and Housing Babatunde Fashola has consistently blamed low output on the vandalization of gas pipelines that supply power-generating plants, a weak excuse. Pipeline vandalization is not a new phenomenon, and while previous administrations have always raised concerns about the issue, it did not bring power production to the lows presently experienced.
A stronger indication that this administration is still grappling with basic governance issues is the growing shortage of consumable products. For instance, there is an acute fuel shortage that has spanned months. The scarcity occasioned by these shortages has created black markets, allowing these products to sell at double the official price. Though fuel shortages are not alien to Nigeria, they have always been occasional and temporary. A few weeks ago, the government announced a review of petrol regulations with an upward price review of about 70 percent. The intention is to make the product price reflect market fundamentals and do away with a subsidy regime that has proved to be inefficient and ineffective. How this will play out is not obvious.
The fuel shortage and foreign exchange issues in the banking system are symptomatic of bigger policy failures. Major economic indicators are negative and the outlook is dismal. The recent economic report from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows the country’s GDP contracted by 0.36 percent in the first quarter. International rating agencies have downgraded the country’s ratings. JPMorgan Chase and Barclays Plc have excluded Nigeria from emerging market bond indexes. Standard and Poor’s (S&P) has revised Nigeria’s sovereign credit outlook from stable to negative. Moody’s Investors Service is reported to be reviewing Nigeria’s government bond and issuer ratings for downgrade. More recently, it was reported that MSCI Inc. is considering dropping Nigeria from its Frontier Markets Index, which could make the country’s stock lose up to $500 million in value. All these are reinforcing the fears in economic and business circles that there seems to be a lack of government capacity to drive economic and private sector development.
Going forward, this administration needs to demonstrate that it has the capacity to improve governance as promised. The right place to start is to ease restrictions on foreign exchange. For the major currencies, the difference between the official foreign exchange and the black market is about 100 percent, which is simply unsustainable. While the crash in the international price of crude has resulted in low oil revenue, the flip side is that it presents an opportunity to cut the subsidy regime around fuel in the downstream sector.
Buhari has only two clear years left in his term to achieve improvements in governance, as governance in the fourth year of a president’s term is overshadowed by politics and elections. What we have seen so far falls below expectations, and change is needed—a continuation of poor governance will ultimately fuel conflict and instability. Boko Haram’s transition from a nonviolent organization in 1999 to violence today is largely a reflection of a failure of governance at various levels over a long period. While fighting corruption and building a better international reputation are important, ensuring that domestic governance does not suffer is fundamental to building a strong nation and long-term sustainable peace in Nigeria.