Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is barely 18 months in office and he has another two and a half more years in office, but that’s hardly enough to stop Nigerian political stakeholders from looking ahead towards the next round of presidential elections in 2019. Buhari ran for election three times before his eventual victory in 2015. His victory was unlike any other in recent memory. He was swept into power by a current of popular will that was a complete rejection the then-President Goodluck Jonathan’s government.
For many Nigerians, that rejection may have turned into a mixture of regret and nostalgia for an era gone by. Under President Jonathan, Nigerians, like many other oil producing nations, enjoyed a period of peak crude oil prices, as demand from markets in China and other emerging economies kept prices hovering at more than $100 per barrel. This resulted in a period of abundance and financial liquidity.
However, under Jonathan, corruption in the public sector was so widespread that it was nearly institutionalized. The proceeds from the sale of crude oil were mostly concentrated in the hands of a privileged few in the corridors of power and their cronies. Many Nigerians were happy to compete for the crumbs that fell from the table of political office holders and top government officials and carry on with business as usual.
Buhari campaigned on a promise to clean out the rot in Nigeria’s political affairs. He identified corruption as the bane of Nigeria’s underdevelopment, despite being endowed with an assortment of human and natural resources. He vowed, among many assurances, to bring down the exchange rate of the Naira, put a halt to Nigeria’s public infrastructure decline, defeat terror-group Boko Haram, and introduce a national social security scheme.
Buhari however did not foresee or didn’t fully appreciate the effect of a slump in global oil prices. Crude oil prices were already on a downward spiral even before Buhari assumed office in May 2015, but prices plummeted even further in the weeks after he moved into the State House, with the full effect of the decline in government revenue only becoming apparent at the beginning of 2016.
Double-digit inflation rates and accompanying rising oil prices welcomed Nigerians into 2016. In August, the International Monetary Fund released data showing that South Africa had leapfrogged Nigeria to become the continents biggest economy. By late August, the country’s Finance Minister, Kemi Adeosun, announced that the country was officially in a recession after a successive quarter of negative growth.
Connecting the Dots
For many ordinary Nigerians, it was easy to correlate the economic crises with the election of President Buhari, the man who had promised to bring about tangible change. Public opinion has increasingly turned against Buhari and his government, with political watchers suggesting that he may have already squandered whatever goodwill he enjoyed before.
Last week, in the face of intensifying theories from the opposition that the President has exhausted his political capital, the Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, issued a statement supporting Buhari’s chances if he decides to seek re-election in 2019:
Ordinary Nigerians are the backbone of his mandate and the only reason he ran for the office is to protect them against the rapacious merchants of corruption, who have held Nigeria back for decades.
The masses are solidly behind Buhari because he is not stealing their money and their future. The President’s enormous goodwill remains ever strong because the people are convinced the President is acting in their best interest, despite the temporary unintended consequences of reforms.
President Muhammadu Buhari is far from isolation. He enjoys a very strategic relationship with ordinary Nigerians. This relationship is as solid as the proverbial rock.
While it is probably true that President Buhari is far from isolation, his relationship with ordinary Nigerians is less than solid. His only major achievements thus far include pushing back Boko Haram fighters into their stronghold in the Sambisa Forest, and more importantly his success at mopping up the excess liquidity in the public finance system by plugging leakages in government.
Sadly, it appears that President Buhari’s attempt at curbing corruption in one fell swoop may have backfired. The arrests of several “big wig” politicians and businessmen charged with embezzlement has served to create a climate of uncertainty and rampant speculation about the government’s next move.
A Nation Built on Corruption
The truth is Nigeria’s economy is built around corruption. Buhari’s endeavor to forcefully re-orient a society that had comfortably settled into a system of sharp practices in a new direction, was an attempt at teaching an old dog new tricks. It was never going to be smooth sailing.
But critics of his policies say the problems with the ongoing anti-corruption crusade are caused by what they describe as “a one-sided anti-graft campaign that only targets old political foes and renegades from within his own political party.” Buhari has a reputation of never letting go of grudges.
His supporters however insist that his administration’s progress has been slowed down by the burden of challenges, which he inherited. They mention the profligacy of former President Jonathan’s administration that failed to accrue any meaningful savings from the sale of crude oil, despite prices hitting record peaks during his time in office.
Most economic experts however have accused Buhari of being inordinately obsessed about pursuing people accused of corruption. They claim that he has stumbled from one fiscal blunder to another ad his economic management team has been dismissed as an incompetent and dishonest group. His administration has reversed its own policies so many times that it now borders on the farcical.
The public relations arm of his cabinet has not fared any better. Buhari’s attempts at speaking off the cuff have repeatedly landed him in hot water. Soon after being elected, he told an interviewer on national TV that he can’t be expected to treat those who voted for him the same way as those who didn’t. In October, he managed to offend many around the world when he casually declared that his wife Aisha belonged to his kitchen.
While the debate over how much support president Buhari enjoys from the Nigerian public continues, 2019 provides ample opportunity to test his popularity and that of his political opponents at the polls. The 2019 presidential election could prove to be the perfect referendum on his performance thus far.