Nigeria: Will Buhari be the man to fix it’s problems?

Zachary Barker - Assistant Editor

General Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria | Image: Chatham House

“Nigeria has no business with poverty. With our human and material resources, we shall strive to eradicate poverty from our country.”

Olusegun Obasanjo – Former military and democratic leader of Nigeria

Hope can come from strange sources. In Nigeria hope came in the form of a former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari winning the March 2015 presidential election, which is also Nigeria’s first peaceful transition of power. Buhari has a good sense of what most Nigerians are mainly fed up about; corruption. His party the All-Progressives Congress (APC) regularly displays a broom during rallies to symbolise the clean-up effort that needs to be carried out to stem the corruption that has permeated every level of government. But as Buhari and his supporters know all too well, this is not the only problem that Nigeria faces. Nigeria according to a recent government recalculation has a bigger economy than South Africa, long seen to be the guiding light of Africa. And yet corruption, terrorism, ethnic strife, inadequate infrastructure and low oil prices stand in the way of Nigeria reaching it’s potential.

To say that retired General Muhammadu Buhari has a colourful past is an understatement. He entered power through a military coup and left the same way. His brief 20 month term in power, from 1984 to 1985, was dominated by his “War Against Indiscipline” which featured alarming heavy handedness, some well-meaning reforms and much eccentricity. 500 businessmen and politicians were arrested to officially set an example against the evils of corruption, although there were many concerns around about the apparent arbitrariness of the incarcerations. However other Nigerians fed up of corruption felt heavy handed moves against corruption was better than nothing at all. In one amusing case Buhari made civil servants who were late to work do jumping-jacks before they got to work. Despite his excesses to his credit Buhari is one of the few former military rulers of Nigeria who have not robbed from the government. Because of that many Nigerians credit him with being a rarely honest public figure.

One of the main problems that Nigeria has to face is insurgency in the north by the ISIS-affiliate known as Boko Haram. Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates as “western education is forbidden”, is a radical Islamist terror group that was founded in 2002. The conflict waged by the group has killed thousands of people and displaced 3 million others. Buhari’s predecessor the soft-spoken Goodluck Jonathan was seen as too aloof to the challenge posed by Boko Haram. Speculation mounted when Boko Haram listed Buhari on a list of people it would accept as mediators between itself and the Nigerian Government. The group’s interest in Buhari may have been due to rumours that he harboured an ideology similar to their own. Buhari however swiftly rejected their offer and made his opposition to the group known loudly and clearly. An assassination attempt by Boko Haram on Buhari helped to solidify his credentials as a firm enemy of the group, raising his popularity among Nigerians concerned about the government’s seeming inaction against it. Buhari promised during the election campaign to defeat the group within months. In large measure due to the regional coalition set up to fight against Boko Haram the group has seemingly been fought into a corner of Borno state, apparently on the verge of death.

However caution is needed since Boko Haram was apparently wiped out years ago only to come back a lot stronger. It is up to Buhari to make his fellow northerners trust the government again which mostly fighting corruption.

Corruption in Nigeria is the main cause of public dissatisfaction with the government. Under the previous administration looting the state reached epic proportions at the cabinet level with Goodluck Jonathan seemingly reluctant to do anything, except occasionally pardon seemingly unforgivable cases. When the head of the Central Bank revealed that $2 billion in oil money had inexplicably disappeared Goodluck even more inexplicably shot the messenger by firing him. With such a bad example set at the top corruption has filtered through all sections of society. On the local level police corruption is a common complaint, where failure to pay a bribe (often a costly one) often leads to police harassment. Buhari has promised to clamp down on such behaviour, taking the notable move of declaring his assets shortly after his inauguration. More frustratingly after declaring that he would abolish the office of First Lady, after declaring it to be a source of corruption, he has so far done nothing of the kind as the office continues to spend money. Buhari has selected a cabinet for the most part not seen to be tainted by corruption, although there are some allegations concerning his former campaign director Rotimi Amaechi.

The current period of low oil prices has acted as a hammer blow to the finances of many of Africa’s oil rich nations, not in the least Nigeria. Although oil contributes only about a tenth of Nigeria’s GDP, it directly accounts for around 70% of government revenue. Taking into account indirect taxes, which accounts for the lion’s share of the tax system then its contribution rises to about 85% according to government officials. Arguably this makes a good argument for the tax system to be reformed to a more income based system, but that will raise the logistical problem of enforcing such a tax. The oil industry needs a vast injection of investment to help repair and expand pipeline networks and expand refining capacity. The latter is particularly important since the current lack of refining ability means that oil rich Nigeria is in the absurd position where it has to import petrol, since it cannot refine it’s own oil sufficiently. To offset the consumer cost of this imported petrol the Nigerian Government subsidises petrol at great cost. Focusing on increasing refining capacity therefore will be a long term investment in Nigeria that will certainly pay off when oil prices rebound. In more positive news agriculture has grown to keep pace with making the country self-sufficient while the manufacturing sector has grown to have a share in the economy to rival the oil sector. Nigeria also boasts the second largest film industry in the world, known as Nollywood, which is a strong currency earner and beacon for culture in the country. However all of these industries are constrained by a lack of infrastructure, most notably in terms of power generation.

The problems that President Buhari faces are stark but not insurmountable. In many ways these problems are interconnected. Corruption and lack of security makes the average Nigerian a lot less trustful of their government. Both of those problems also impose heavy costs on the economy. If Nigeria can improve it’s scope of infrastructure the possibilities are massive. Farmers will be able to transport in fertilisers to help improve crop yields, and in turn transport those crops to markets before they spoil. A better power grid will take away the extra costs from many businesses and new start-ups that come from generating their own electricity. Corruption also imposes an extra burden on industry and deters foreign investment. At the same time Buhari has to keep an eye on ethnic relations between the three main groups; Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. The latter in particular have signalled their displeasure at the state of things, threatening to proclaim an independent state of Biafra, like they did many years before. Once the war against Boko Haram is over Buhari will have to make sure that the conditions in the north do not give them yet another lease of life.

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles
Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol's Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1