69. Nigeria’s Curious Election

The Guardian
February 12, 2019
Adekeye Adebajo

Nigeria will hold its sixth presidential election since 1999 on 16 February, with 84 million prospective voters set to take part in Africa’s largest democratic exercise. However, in the last four years, the lackadaisical president, Muhammadu Buhari, has spent a total of five months in a British hospital (leading to rumours that he is now using a Sudanese body double, Jubril, to campaign for him). Buhari also took six months to appoint his cabinet. His feisty wife, Aisha, has publically accused a shadowy cabal of having hijacked his government, echoing accusations that her husband has pursued corruption selectively, and protected his allies.

Buhari had campaigned on tackling corruption, improving securing, and reviving the economy. His Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) envisages tackling Nigeria’s large infrastructural deficit through upgrading and building roads and railways and  promoting industrialisation, with the aim of creating 15 million jobs and achieving 7% growth rates by 2020. This is reminiscent of the “euphoric planning” of the oil boom days of the 1970s, when General Yakubu Gowon notoriously stated that the problem was not the money, but how to spend it.  Nigeria’s current alchemists have, however, come no way near achieving these goals. Unemployment stands at 23.1%, with over 10 million youths (who constitute 60% of the population) out of work. A $5 billion hydro power project has proved illusory, with the country continuing to suffer from erratic electricity supply.

Buhari has also filled key security posts with fellow Northerners, making his regime appear factional. Insecurity between herdsmen and farmers has increased local conflicts, even as Boko Haram  and its breakaway Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) continue to wreak death and destruction on the country’s north-east. In the last few months of 2018, these militants killed over 100 government soldiers, overran the army’s multinational headquarters, and seized several towns, rendering hollow Buhari’s earlier claim that the militants had been “technically defeated.” The $1 billion reportedly allocated for security last year has clearly not been used effectively.  Nigeria’s ill-equipped soldiers remain demoralised and often out-gunned. Niger Delta militants had earlier shut down a third of the country’s oil production.

Buhari’s main presidential challenger – businessman, Atiku Abubakar – was vice-president for eight years between 1999 and 2007. Atiku has been trailed by accusations of corruption (he was accused by a 2010 United States [US] Senate report of wiring $40 million of “suspect funds” to the US, but has never been charged or convicted for corruption). Atiku has promised to create 3 million jobs; lift 50 million Nigerians out of poverty; nationalise the staggeringly corrupt national oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC); promote jobs and development in the volatile north-east; and establish an infrastructure debt fund. But many have asked why he should be believed now, when he failed so spectacularly to deliver socio-economic development during his eight years as vice-president under Olusegun Obasanjo.

Buhari’s campaign has been carefully scripted, avoiding direct debates with his main rivals, and instead engaging in question and answer sessions, with cabinet members seated next to him to assist in answering difficult questions. The apathy of the electorate is clearly demonstrated by the fact that 40 million registered voters failed to cast their ballots in 2015, with just 27 million people voting. In what was widely considered to be a rigged political system, much of the electorate instead voted with their feet. 87 million Nigerians continue to live below the poverty line, and the country has now overtaken India – with a population six times bigger – as the state with the largest number of people in the world suffering from extreme poverty.
Many of Nigeria’s profligate parliamentary dunderheads have rarely covered themselves in glory, even as several of its gluttonous governors reportedly continue to use “security budgets” and other shenanigans to perpetrate massive corruption. Meanwhile, a lack of party democracy has seen several departing governors seek to impose successors on their states. The system is also highly chauvinistic, with no female governors out of 36 state executives. Just 29 out of 469 legislators (a paltry 6.2%) are women. Unsurprisingly, Oby Ezekwesili, theonly female presidential candidate – with cabinet experience, energy, and impressive international technocratic experience – dropped out of the race. Many business people have further exacerbated this situation: being too greedy and lazy to use their entrepreneurial skills to succeed, they instead often rely on personal connections to members of the ruling cabal to enrich themselves. These opportunists are well known as AGIP: “Any Government in Power.”  Many pastors, rather than preaching a “liberation theology,” instead practice a “prosperity gospel.” These “Brother Jeros” have built their mansions on earth while urging their flock to await theirs in Heaven. A country of many talented people has somehow contrived to create a deeply anti-intellectual environment with a poor reading culture.

Buhari is expected to win a close election, but questions linger over how fair the polls will be. Past elections have often been violent: 800 deaths were recorded in 2011; and 100 in 2015. The recent suspension by Buhari of the chief justice, Walter Onnoghen – who would have adjudicated any electoral disputes – was a deeply troubling action which already throws thelegitimacy of the polls into question even before any ballots have been cast.  It is important to remember that two retired generals – Obasanjo and Buhari – have been in power for 12 out of 20 years of the current democratic dispensation. Military instincts are thus still evident in several government actions.

Both sides have recently had their most powerful sticks to beat their opponents taken away: Buhari – portrayed as lacking the energy to be out on the hustings – has campaigned actively across the country; Atiku – said to have been barred from entering the US on corruption charges – has recently visited America. Both sides also appear desperate for victory in this “do-or-die” battle. Most cynical voters, however, continue to yawn at the sight of two establishment candidates resembling Tweedledee and Tweedledum, in this curious “Alice-in-Wonderland” election that is almost totally detached from the lived realities of most Nigerians. Voters cannot be blamed for declaring a plague on both the houses of the country’s two major parties.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.