President Buhari: The Honeymoon is over

Silhouettes of People Holding Flag of Nigeria“I belong to nobody, yet I belong to everybody”. These words were uttered by President Muhammadu Buhari during his inauguration speech on 29th May 2015 and resonated amongst Nigerians who had voted for him two months earlier. Both Buhari and his party – the All Progressives Congress (APC) – tapped into widespread discontent over how the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had governed the country for the past 16 years, promising to rid Nigeria of three major evils: unemployment; insecurity; and corruption. The optimism and expectation surrounding Buhari’s victory was almost unprecedented in recent Nigerian history, as many people genuinely believed in the President’s ability to change the country for the better.

Unfortunately for Buhari, Nigeria’s economic conditions were not favourable to such an ambitious plan. Even before his inauguration, the fall in the price of oil had badly affected over-reliant government finances and the government was forced to borrow heavily in order to cover costs. Additionally, unlike elsewhere, the previous administration had failed to create substantial savings during the boom years for the country to fall back on. And since Buhari assumed power a year ago, these conditions have gone from bad to worse.

On 24th May 2016, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria – Godwin Emefiele – warned of an “impending recession” after it was reported that GDP had contracted by 0.36 percent in the first quarter of 2016. This followed reports in April, which revealed that Nigeria was overtaken by Angola as Africa’s largest oil producer, with oil production falling to 1.69 million barrels per day (bpd). It is projected that this will continue to fall, which is extremely worrying for the government as this year’s budget is based on production at 2.2 million bpd.  Although the country’s oil sector was obviously a driving force behind this slowdown, it was not restricted to this area of the economy; the non-oil sector also contracted by 0.18 percent in the first quarter. Moreover, even sectors of the economy which grew in the first quarter, such as agriculture, had slower growth levels than in 2015. In addition to this, it was reported that foreign investments were down by 74 percent in comparison to 2015, and that the inflation rate was at 13.7 percent at the end of April, which is well above the Central Bank’s tolerance point of 9.6 percent. Inflation is also likely to worsen following a recent outbreak of tomato blight in Northern Nigeria, which has reportedly destroyed as much as 80 percent of crops in Kaduna State and caused the price of tomatoes – a staple food in Nigeria – to increase by 400 percent.

Against this economic backdrop, it is unsurprising that Buhari has failed to reduce unemployment as  he pledged to do so in 2015. Recent data from the National Bureau of Statistics revealed that the population of unemployed Nigerians increased by 518,000 to over 1.45 million (12.1 percent) in the first quarter of this year, while underemployment also increased to 19.1 percent, compared to 18.7 percent in the first quarter of 2015. Furthermore, even for those in employment, in both the private and state sectors, unpaid salaries are becoming an increasing problem. Thus, it appears that job opportunities and living conditions have deteriorated for the majority of Nigeria’s population since Buhari took power.

Although it would be unfair to solely attribute Nigeria’s worsening economic conditions to the current government, the Buhari administration has faced fierce criticism over some of its economic policies, most notably regarding exchange rates. The government’s decision not to devalue the Naira, which trades at around 340 to a dollar on the parallel market compared to an official rate of 198 to a dollar, has been criticised for exacerbating fuel shortages, reducing foreign investment and damaging Nigeria’s fledgling manufacturing sector. Moreover, it has seemingly failed to contain inflation. Although the government are beginning to adapt to the situation and are open to a greater level of “flexibility”, it seems likely that the refusal to devalue the Naira has done damage to Nigeria’s economy and restricted Buhari’s ability to reduce unemployment.

On assuming the Presidency last year, the overriding security concern facing Nigeria was the activities of Boko Haram in the northeast of the country. The group had taken over large areas of the region and were conducting a violent campaign against civilians and the Nigerian armed forces. Although Buhari has failed to meet his target of destroying the group within a year, Nigeria’s armed forces have made significant inroads in the northeast. Boko Haram no longer controls the territory it once did and its attempt to create a caliphate has seemingly failed. Under Buhari, international co-operation in dealing with Boko Haram has increased and the group’s waning strength is undoubtedly a signal of success for the President. However, Boko Haram is far from being defeated. The group has resorted to its previous strategy of using suicide bombers to attack soft targets, rather than engaging in conventional warfare. This was shown on the anniversary of Buhari’s inauguration, when 5 people were killed in a bombing on the outskirts of Biu in Borno State. Furthermore, although much was made of the rescue of one of the Chibok schoolgirls last month, a further 275 still remain missing, along with hundreds more who were kidnapped by the group in 2014-2015. Thus, although significant gains are being made, the Buhari administration still has a long way to go before it can claim victory over Boko Haram.

Moreover, it appears that while conditions have improved in the northeast, insecurity has increased in other sections of the country. In the south, which was relatively peaceful under the previous administration, unrest has increased during Buhari’s first year in office. Pro-Biafra groups have become more active and on 30th May, ten people were reportedly killed during a protest commemorating the 49th anniversary of the declaration of an Independent Republic of Biafra. Furthermore, a new militant group has emerged in the Niger Delta. This umbrella group –the Niger Delta Avengers – is primarily made up of youths who did not benefit from the previous government’s amnesty programme and is seen as responsible for Nigeria’s decline in oil production through attacks on pipelines and other facilities. In a recent statement, the group warned oil companies operating in the region that “it’s going to be bloody this time around”. Thus, it appears that insecurity, and its effect on Nigeria’s most important export, is set to increase over the coming years. This rising threat in the Niger Delta will be examined in depth in an upcoming article.

Separately, the security situation in central states also appears to be deteriorating. Conflict between predominantly Christian farmers and Muslim Fulani Herdsmen has been a longstanding problem in central Nigeria. However, it seems that this conflict has intensified over the past year. In February 2016, 300 people were killed by Fulani Herdsman in Benue State and in April 2016, more than 40 were killed in Enugu State. These increasing attacks mean that Fulani Herdsman have killed more people in 2016 than Boko Haram. Nonetheless, it seems that this problem has not garnered as much attention from the Buhari administration as might be expected. Although Buhari pronounced in April that the police and armed forces should “take all necessary action to stop the carnage”, his decision not to include this matter in his Democracy Day speech on 29th May 2016 has led to him being heavily criticised. In response, it seems that central state governors are taking matters into their own hands. As the Governor of Ekiti State – Ayo Fayose – stated, “we must take all action to stop it […] This Ekiti war must be fought with the totality of our spirit [and] strength”. Such rhetoric illustrates a growing anger and suggests that reprisals against Fulani Herdsmen are increasingly likely.

These developing pockets of insecurity in the south and centre of the country could potentially re-ignite underlying ethnic and religious tensions. This is particularly the case, if Buhari – a northern Muslim – is viewed as paying more attention to southern Christian militants than the northern Muslim Herdsmen. Thus, although Buhari is seemingly dealing with Boko Haram in the northeast, other security situations have developed, which have the potential to be even greater problems.

During his campaign for the presidency, Buhari’s tough stance on corruption was viewed as a major factor in drawing support from outside his usual strongholds in the north of the country, and it seems that this has been carried in to his first year as president. Under the Buhari administration, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has been re-invigorated and, despite the country’s economic conditions, the government has invested more in anti-corruption organisations than its predecessor. Buhari has opened talks with countries in Europe and the Middle East over the repatriation of stolen assets and set up the National Prosecution Co-ordination Committee (NPCC), in order to deal with high profile corruption cases. Moreover, unlike previously, Nigeria’s anti-corruption bodies have pursued high profile targets, such as the National Publicity Secretary of the PDP – Olisa Metuh – and the former National Security Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan – Sambo Dasuki. Although such figures have not yet been convicted of any offences, it indicates the intent of the administration. Moreover, even though this is beyond the ability of one president, the culture of ethics and anti-corruption around the presidency is likely to have a trickle-down effect and begin to address the ingrained corruption which exists across Nigeria. In order for this to happen, the EFCC must also look beyond high profile targets to try to change the culture of corruption.

Nevertheless, Buhari has faced criticism over the fact that the vast majority of those targeted for prosecution are members of the opposition PDP and have close ties to the previous administration. Although this is unsurprising given how corruption increased under the previous government, many from the opposition have criticised the Buhari administration for its bias, and allege that senior members of the APC are being provided protection from prosecution. As such politically motivated prosecutions are not unheard of in Nigeria, it is important that Buhari attempts to reduce the apparent bias in order to maintain legitimacy. However, the prosecution of senior APC figures could put pressure on the alliance between the political elite in the north and the southwest of the country, which the APC rests upon. Thus, it is possible that the legitimacy of Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign may come into conflict with the management of the APC.

After one year in power, Buhari is one quarter of the way through his presidency, as given his age, it is highly unlikely that he will run again. Despite worsening economic conditions, it appears that the majority of Nigerians still support him and are understanding of the problems he has had to face. This was indicated by the distinct lack of public outcry over the removal of the fuel subsidy on 12th May 2016, in comparison to a similar removal under the previous administration in 2012, which sparked the Occupy Nigeria protest movement and forced the government into a policy reversal. It seems that many Nigerians were receptive to Buhari’s Democracy Day speech, in which he pointed out that “in short, we inherited a state near collapse” and said “I thank you and appeal to you to continue supporting the government’s efforts to fix Nigeria”. However, given Nigeria’s deteriorating economic conditions, worsening security situations in central and southern states – which could amplify ethnic and religious divides – and the apparent bias of the administration’s anti-corruption campaign, it is questionable how long the majority of Nigerians will remain receptive to Buhari’s message. With the pressure mounting after one year as president, the honeymoon looks like it is over for Buhari.

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