Nigeria’s next general election will take place in February 2019 and the campaigning and speculation are already in full cry. But what are President Buhari’s chances of being re-elected in the face of a mounting series of crises including the recent (yet again) Boko Haram attack and kidnap of 110 Dapchi school girls, which poured water on official claims that the deadly insurgents had been totally defeated. Peter Ezeh has been reading the runes.
In just less than a year from now, Nigerians will have decided whether to retain Muhammadu Buhari as their President or change him. They will also elect new members of their bicameral federal legislature.
However, by last October many in the country already believed that they had divined the outcome of the presidential election, from the results of the gubernatorial election which took place in Anambra, one of Nigeria’s most advanced states.
All the major parties in Nigeria have strong representation in this state, which has one of Nigeria’s highest literacy rates. In the keenly contested election, All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), roundly defeated President Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC), currently in power in central government; and the former president, Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
In the run-up, President Buhari, with a throng of aides, travelled from Abuja to drum up support for his party’s candidate, Tony Nwoye. As did Jonathan, coming from his base in the Niger Delta, to support PDP candidate Oseloka Obaze. But a relatively unknown banker, Governor Willie Obiano, won resoundingly against their candidates.
Many consider corruption as the Catch-22 of the Buhari administration.
I was in Awka, the capital of Anambra State, the day that President Buhari came to campaign. Roads to the venue were shut down and one of the largest campaigning crowds witnessed the event. Only intermittent applause punctured his address and those of leaders of the party, who had travelled from all over Nigeria. Days later, former President Jonathan came there too. The effect in terms of manifest excitement was comparable.
Instead of swaying the voters towards their chosen candidates, these high-powered delegations served only to provide the voters in Anambra with a platform on which to make their own views clear.
The worst of times?
It had not been the best of times for the Buhari administration. It was clear that the wave of popularity which he rode to power two years ago had plummeted. He himself seemed to have noticed that and was talking of reshuffling his Cabinet and tweaking his administrative strategy in a number of other ways during the run-up to the election that Governor Obiano won.
Many consider corruption as the Catch-22 of the Buhari administration. Many in the government of former President Jonathan were rounded up on charges of corruption, but it was not long before observers started pointing fingers at some of those in Buhari’s government as well.
When it was alleged that the National Pension Fund under the former administration was rife with corruption, the response by the government was to appoint a posse to set things right. But shortly afterwards, the head of the Special Correctional Group was himself suspected of diverting nearly N2bn. It gave rise to one of the biggest scandals in the new government, dubbed Mainagate – after the chief character in all this, Abdulrasheed Maina.
Maina was suspended from his civil-service job in consequence but a while later, he was quietly brought back until the matter was leaked to the press.
Maina denied any wrongdoing but reportedly said that corruption in the pension fund was actually worse than reported. He counteraccused other government officials, saying that up to N3.3bn was actually being lost monthly through inflating the number of bona fide pensioners with fake ones. He alleged that on one occasion, an attempt was made on his life when he tried to report the goingson. The National Assembly was investigating as I write this story.
Many think that what President Buhari says in terms of anticorruption campaigns is very different from what happens in the workaday life of his administration.
At the time of writing, arguments have erupted about the propriety of some important members of the Buhari government handling N50bn of the proceeds of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Many see a sad irony in this, when it has been with similar accusations that the new government has pursued some of the officials of its predecessor.
Many think that what President Buhari says in terms of anticorruption campaigns is very different from what happens in the workaday life of his administration. He himself is accused of nepotism. The majority of those who matter in his government are appointed from his part of Nigeria, the North. His recent appointments to the NNPC, and the higher levels of the federal judiciary, are also criticised for favouring his geopolitical region.
The Igbo-speaking southeastern districts of the country are particularly under-represented. The President himself was once quoted as saying that it made political sense for him to pay more attention to constituencies where he got large number of votes in the last election.
The rising conflicts between the nomadic herdsmen from his Fulani ethnic group and sedentary farmers in the central, northern and southern districts of the country have also been blamed on such favouritism. Thousands have lost their lives in those clashes, compelling two state governors, those of Ekiti and Benue, to ban open grazing in their jurisdictions.
The Boko Haram reality
Critics also see the same disparity between claims and reality in the fight against the violent fundamentalist group, Boko Haram.
Just as government and military spokespeople were claiming that the group had been “virtually defeated”, 110 school girls from Dapchi in the Northeast, were on 19 February kidnapped in the same style as the much-publicised Chibok girls abductions of 2014.
President Buhari’s government was reported to have been permitted by governors of Nigeria’s federating states to take $1bn (worth N365bn in the local currency) from a special public fund set up for the conflict, for use on new efforts.
The report about the new finances for the battle against Boko Haram came barely a week after the President was reported to have said, during a visit to Kano: “Nigeria, Chad and Niger Republic have succeeded in crushing Boko Haram insurgents in the North-East.”
The opposition, including Ayodele Fayose, the PDP governor of Ekiti State, was critical of the decision to allocate such funding to the Boko Haram campaign. A PDP spokesman, Kola Ologbondiya, told a Lagos daily, “How can you justify that? Do you want to spend N365bn on an insurgency you claimed you have defeated?”
President Buhari’s government was reported to have been permitted by governors of Nigeria’s federating states to take $1bn (worth N365bn in the local currency) from a special public fund set up for the [Boko Haram] conflict, for use on new efforts.
A spokesmen of President Buhari said that he had done well on the economy, citing declining inflation. However, economists note that inflation is still high in sectors where it matters most to ordinary consumers, ie, food and transport.
There was also a report that the country has come out of the recession which began in the first place during the new administration taking power. Besides, foreign debts are rising. In November when the government got the approval of the National Assembly to take a fresh $5.5bn foreign loan, the Debt Office said that debts in that category already amount to $3.5bn.
Overall, observers say that Buhari needs to improve greatly to do well in the coming elections. Lagos University political philosopher, Dr Douglas Anene, wrote in an article that was widely circulated in the media: “APC and the PDP are basically two sides of the coin of poor quality leadership,” adding, “In my opinion, the PDP is slightly better than APC because of the level of hypocrisy and deliberate mass deception by APC.”
The President has a different view, though. Surveying the large crowd that came to receive him during a visit to the populous Northern city of Kano after the humbling election in Anambra State, he gave himself a pass mark. He was widely reported as saying, “I am overwhelmed by the reception the people of Kano offered to me. This has indicated that I can still win an election in Kano.”
He said that the slow pace of the anti-corruption campaigns of his government was a function of the democratic process. He attempted a comparable campaign as the head of a military junta in 1984, telling his Kano audience, “When I was the military head of state, I arrested many people and jailed them and in the end I ended up in jail myself.”
Decisions are made faster under the authoritarian approach of a junta than in a democracy, yes. But observers do not accept that the finesse of the democratic process also explains why most of those targeted in the present anticorruption campaigns are either members of the opposition or those who are otherwise critical of the government. Indeed, one tactic that has been tried by less principled suspects is to denounce the opposition groups and embrace the ruling party. And usually nothing more is heard of their accusations of corruption.