The Lowdown Hub

Dysfunctional politics blights Nigeria’s prospects The country’s vast oil wealth has been absorbed

Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president since 2015, will step down in February 2023 © Kola Sulaimon/AFP/Getty

The idea that government is the problem, not the solution, is well ingrained in Nigeria — a state whose presidential and federal system is largely based on the US, and seems to share some of that country’s libertarian tendencies, too.

Even Bismarck Rewane, an economist and businessman who has advised the administration of Muhammadu Buhari on economic policy, argues that the government’s best course of action is sometimes to get out of the way. If a private equity company ran Nigeria and stripped it of its inefficiencies, he says, “this country would be a wealth-creation machine.”

Successive governments — military and, since 1999, civilian — have failed to turn Nigeria’s vast oil wealth into the prerequisites for sustainable growth. They have not provided the levels of health, education and infrastructure needed to catapult the country to the next stage of development. Instead, government has become a patronage machine to collect and distribute oil revenues and to subsidise parts of the economy, according to economists and political scientists.

Politics is often seen as the quickest way to make money, says Dimieari Von Kemedi, an environmental activist, former presidential adviser, and agricultural entrepreneur.

“Youth don’t talk about business because the opportunities are so few,” he says, adding that the commercial openings that do exist often involve extracting “rent” from government.

At federal level, most of the roughly $30bn budget goes on recurrent expenditure — paying salaries, the bureaucracy and servicing debt. That leaves little left for capital expenditure or long-term investment in Nigeria’s people.

According to the OECD, Nigeria’s tax to GDP ratio is among the lowest in the world at 6 per cent — less than half the level of Kenya’s — and an indication of how little faith there is in the government’s capacity to spend wisely — or honestly. “Trust is really broken,” says Abubakar Suleiman, chief executive of Sterling Bank.

Nigeria’s best hope, says Suleiman, is to create what he calls “pockets of prosperity” in individual states, enterprises or sectors — to produce a ripple effect. “It’s difficult to have some smart person at the centre sit down and figure it out and then deploy it — that’s not going to happen,” he says, contrasting Nigeria with the state planning that has been a part of China’s economic success.

Only a handful of Nigeria’s 36 state-level governments — each with its own governor, state assembly, bureaucracy and fleet of cars — are solvent. Beyond Lagos and a few oil-producing states, many are in perpetual budgetary crisis, with much of their officials’ time taken up in Abuja lobbying for resources. Talk of “restructuring” — changing the number of states as a way of cleaning up the system or redressing perceived power imbalances — is a constant of Nigerian politics.

These structural problems aside, many presidential hopefuls are already jostling for position for next February’s presidential election, the culmination of a money-fuelled process that historian Max Siollun likens to a “cut-throat Game of Thrones”.

Bola Tinubu has said he intends to run as the APC’s candidate for president © Stefan

Heunis/AFP/Getty Yemi Osinbajo, the current vice-president, is a another possible APC contender © Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty

Bola Tinubu, the so-called “godfather of Lagos”, has already declared his intention to run for the ruling All Progressives Congress. Tinubu’s vast wealth is an asset, although persistent questions about its source could yet trouble his presidential bid.

So could Nigeria’s complex “zoning” traditions, an informal understanding about power-sharing between north and south. As a southern Muslim, Tinubu will need a northern vice-presidential running mate, but it will not be easy to find a vote-winning Christian candidate in the predominantly Muslim north. An all-Muslim ticket could lose him votes in the mainly Christian south.

The complex geographical and religious puzzle means that several other candidates could yet emerge to challenge as the APC’s candidate. On a long list of whispered names are: Yemi Osinbajo, the vice-president; Kayode Fayemi, governor of Ekiti state; and Rotimi Amaechi, transport minister.

There are many more. One outsider sometimes mentioned is Akinwumi Adesina, president of the Abidjan-based African Development Bank, although his long absence abroad means he lacks deep political roots.

The opposition Peoples Democratic party ticket is also up for grabs. And the names listed are no less extensive. They include: Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2019; Aminu Tambuwal, governor of Sokoto state; and Goodluck Jonathan, the former president who lost the 2015 election to Buhari.

Potential candidates must first get their party backing — a lengthy and costly process. Candidates running on independent tickets, which last time included Kingsley Moghalu, former deputy governor of the central bank, and Oby Ezekwesili, a former World Bank executive and co-founder of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, stand little chance without the electoral machinery, and cash, of the two main parties.

Atiku Abubakar, a presidential contender in 2019, could run again for the PDP © Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty

Sokoto governor Aminu Tambuwal is another PDP possibility © US State Department

Many had hoped that the EndSARS campaign — which started in reaction to police violence but developed into a much broader movement advocating better governance — would become a political force in its own right. But its supporters — who were active online as much as on the streets — did not rally around particular leaders and resisted formal structures.

Many of those involved — often young and with little memory of military governments — are still reeling from the October 2020 shooting by the federal army of protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos state. At least 12 people died, according to Amnesty International.

Unless either of the main parties comes up with a new-style candidate capable of appealing to Nigeria’s young population, many expect turnout to be low. Last time, with two old familiar faces to choose from — Buhari and Atiku — the electorate stayed away. Only 35 per cent of the population bothered to exercise its democratic right.

It is, says Donald Duke, a former governor of Cross River state and a PDP politician with presidential ambitions of his own, difficult to see how the present two-party system can create a mandate for the sort of change Nigeria needs. “Unfortunately, our system does not throw up good leaders,” he says.

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