Whoever takes up residence in Aso Rock after this month’s polls will face a number of critical challenges. James Schneider and Max Siollun lay out what they are and how Jonathan or Buhari might have to deal with them.
Four enormous challenges face the winner of the Valentine’s Day presidential election: Boko Haram, tensions in the Niger Delta, the low oil price, and bringing together a politically polarised nation.
Goodluck Jonathan, we can assume, will confront these challenges in a broadly similar manner to how he has been governing thus far. Buhari has a very different temperament. Those who worked closely with him in the military, such as his former commanding officer Lieutenant-General Theophilus Danjuma or former president General Olusegun Obasanjo, have described him as “inflexible”.
If Jonathan remains president, there is a fear that failure to protect citizens from Boko Haram will continue. If Buhari wins, his unyielding temperament and his record as a military officer suggest that he is unlikely to try to end the Boko Haram insurgency through compromise. Accusations of heavy-handed tactics by the army in tackling Boko Haram may increase. Ironically, if Buhari’s, probably firmer, approach ends the insurgency, it may play into the hands of conspiracy theorist opponents, who will interpret his success as evidence that the insurgency was a northern/Islamic plot to destabilise the presidency of a southern Christian.
If Jonathan remains president, there is a fear that failure to protect citizens from Boko Haram will continue. If Buhari wins, his unyielding temperament and his record as a military officer suggest that he is unlikely to try to end the Boko Haram insurgency through compromise.
The Niger Delta amnesty agreement, negotiated while Jonathan was vice president, expires this year. The amnesty saw militants in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta, give up arms in exchange for amnesty, cash and training. If the expiration is not handled carefully, insecurity on-shore could re-emerge along with an expansion of piracy offshore. It does not automatically follow that Jonathan, as a fellow Delta native, will be able to solve this deep-running issue quickly. However, he is clearly better placed to than Buhari, who many former militants (see page 24) have pledged not to accept as president. If Buhari wins, he could face a bolder militancy, which, without shrewd handling, could define his presidency.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer. The government is heavily reliant on receipts from the sector. In the last six months, global oil prices have tumbled, falling more than 50% to around $48 per barrel. Not only does this hit profits for Nigerian companies and put downward pressure on the naira (which is now 190 to the US dollar, up from around 160 six months ago) but it has forced up interest rates, which are now at 13%, and it also blows a hole in the budget.
Fortunately, finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has limited the short-term pain. She has consistently resisted having a high benchmark price for oil in her national budgets. For example, the 2013 budget had a benchmark price of $75 per barrel at a time when the oil price was $109 per barrel. Russia’s budget, by comparison, balanced at $110 per barrel. Okonjo-Iweala’s conservative calculations have restrained Nigeria from spending commitments dependent on extremely high oil prices. However, the low benchmark price ($65 for 2015) will not be able to fill the revenue gap, which in theory it should have been able to do.
Nigeria’s Sovereign Wealth Fund is supposed to receive excess oil revenues. The account is not full enough to buffer falling income for long. Both Jonathan and Buhari have capable technocrats to call upon who should be able to help manage the oil shock. But both should go further than this, taking heart from the fact that the bad economic news is not as bad as many predicted. There are signs that Nigeria’s economy is diversifying away from oil. The sudden oil price drop may incentivise investment in other, more productive, value-adding and labour-absorbing sectors of the economy. Vigorous policies could snatch opportunity from the jaws of crisis, setting Nigeria a more sustainable growth and development path.
Whichever candidate wins, they will have an enormous task ahead of them to bring the country together after divisive elections, which exacerbate existing national fault-lines. Both men must prove they are a national, not sectional president. They are trying to gesture in this direction in their campaigns. Jonathan is seen wearing his trademark fedora hat less often, and Buhari has traded in his traditional robes and skullcap for a suit and short haircut for publicity photos.
To heal the hearts broken by the Valentine’s Day vote, the victor will need bigger gestures and concrete actions to bridge the divide.