Mohammadu Buhari’s talks with UK prime minister May in London on Monday and news of his upcoming meeting with President Trump at the end of the month could not have come at a better time for him, writes Adwoa Korkoh.
The Nigerian president has just announced that he is to contest a second term in next year’s election and cosying-up with world leaders can only be a useful opener to his campaign. Although May commended Buhari for the “good progress” he has made in the country, many Nigerians are disappointed with his record thus far in government, particularly on the three main pillars of the “change” mantra of his 2015 election campaign: the economy, security and corruption.
Much of the goodwill that swept him into power took a denting early on when Buhari, now 75, took six months to appoint his cabinet at a time when the country was being seriously battered by collapsing international oil prices. For this he was nicknamed ‘Baba Go Slow’. There followed long periods of ill health that saw him seeking medical treatment abroad, none of Nigeria’s hospitals apparently good enough to deal with whatever ailed him. With rumours at one time that the president was suffering from dementia or was even dead, his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, took over running the country, adding to the air of uncertainty.
By the time the administration was roused to take some decisive action on the economy, it was already in recession, with the national currency, the naira, losing 70 per cent of its value. According to the Economist magazine unemployment rose from 6.5 per cent to 26 per cent and some commodity prices tripled. The Central Bank of Nigeria’s foreign exchange control policy further weakened the naira and put increased strain on local and foreign businesses. Calls for the implementation of a market-based exchange rate, which proponents said would have kick-started an economic rebound, were not heeded. Meanwhile, the return of militancy in the Niger Delta crippled the oil and gas sector and reduced oil production to a decade-low of 1.7 million barrels a day following Buhari’s disastrous decision to scale back the generous amnesty programme aimed at rehabilitating armed insurgents.
Although the president is making attempts to diversify an economy too heavily dependent on oil and gas, and aiming to boost the production of staples like rice to cut down on import bills, the country remains vulnerable to external shocks. All hopes are resting on the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan to boost neglected sectors and promote private sector growth through improved infrastructure and business efficiency. This must be swiftly implemented if it is to make any real headway.
It was Buhari’s pledge to tackle what he described as the “hydra headed monster” of corruption that probably clinched victory for him, bringing to an end 16 years of People’s Democratic Party (PDP) rule in 2015. As far as most voters were concerned, Nigeria’s considerable riches had been squandered with impunity by the governing elites and, given Buhari’s lack of interest in amassing personal wealth, there was every hope that he meant what he said. But according to the latest report of global anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International (TI), Nigeria is ranked 148 out of 180 countries evaluated in its corruption perceptions index, lower than its 136 ranking in 2014. This follows a number of scandals involving senior government officials, who have either remained in office or been allowed to quietly retire with their ill gotten gains in tact.
They include David Babachir Lawal, chair of a government body set up to cater for displaced people in the northeast of the country as a result of Boko Haram attacks. Lawal, a member of Buhari’s inner caucus, was accused of diverting funds to the tune of $551,000 by awarding reconstruction contracts to companies in which he had a personal interest. Buhari set up a three-man committee headed by vice-president Osinbajo to probe Lawal alongside the director general of the Nigeria Intelligence Agency, Ayo Oke, who had been indicted over a $43m cash haul discovered in a luxury apartment in Lagos. Osinbajo submitted a report into both claims in August 2017 but it was not until October that Buhari sacked Lawal and Oke.
Nigeria’s state-owned oil giant, the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), has long been associated with sleaze and continues to be so under Buhari. Last year a leaked memo to the president from the minister for petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu, revealed that five NNPC contracts with a total value of $25bn “were never reviewed by or discussed with the board”. Kachikwu added: “There are many more, your excellency.” He pointed the finger of blame at NNPC chief and Buhari insider Maikanti Baru. However, the core allegations were never investigated. Instead, Buhari invited Baru and Kachikwu to the Presidential Villa and urged them to find ways of working more effectively together.
Many people are also scratching their heads over the case of Yusuf Usman, who was suspended from his job as head of the National Health Insurance Scheme in July 2017 after being accused of stealing public money amounting to $2.534m. Although he is still under investigation by the country’s anti-graft agency, Buhari unilaterally reinstated him in February. Segun Awolowo also remains in his position as executive director of the Nigeria Export Promotion Council (NEPC) despite accusations in 2016 that he diverted $165,442 from it and ran an illegal fund allocation system. Incredibly, Awolowo, grandson of revered nationalist Obafemi Awolowo and a relative through marriage of the vice-president, was not investigated and re-appointed for a second tenure.
A ‘looters list’ doing the rounds on social media says probes into corruption allegations against members of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) party “no reach their side”. These include a number of state governors, who were once PDP stalwarts but jumped ship to join the APC come the 2015 poll. The PDP, in the meantime, insists that the anti-graft crusade is being used purely as a witch-hunt against its own members.
As a former military leader who during his brief tenure of power in the early 1980s displayed a no-nonsense if not autocratic attitude to managing the country, there was hope that Buhari would finally get to grips with the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast of the country, which since 2009 has killed an estimated 20,000 people and displaced more than two million others from their homes. Indeed, in December 2015 Buhari grandly announced that Nigeria had “technically won the war” against the Islamists after they were driven out of areas they had previously controlled. However, Boko Haram’s continued hit and run attacks show it is still a brutal presence. In February it managed to abduct 110 schoolgirls in Dapchi in an ambush reminiscent of the 2014 abduction of more than 270 girls from a school in Chibok that caused international outrage. Beefing up Nigeria’s counter-terrorism measures will be top of the agenda of Buhari’s White House meeting on April 30. In the meantime, the seemingly endless clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers in Benue, Taraba, Plateau and other states that have claimed thousands of lives and the destruction of millions of pounds worth of property are another cause of concern on the security front.
Former presidents Obasanjo and Babangida, who still regard themselves as Nigeria’s king-makers, have both put the boot in via open letters to Buhari, saying in so many words that he should call it a day. “The lice of poor performance in government”, wrote Obasanjo, while Babangida talked of the need for “a new breed of leadership”. But despite his critics, his advancing years and less than robust health, Buhari has chosen to fight on, motivated either by honest determination to finish the job or by the dysfunctional power politics that pull the strings whoever is in state house. With the PDP wracked by divisions and the likes of the UK and US regarding him as a safe pair of hands, who knows, Buhari may well be able to pull it off again.