By Olu Fasan
Nigeria, like the rest of the world, enters a new decade this new year, 2020; it’s the decade of the twenties!How Nigeria starts the new decade, that is, how it performs this year, will tell us how it might end it in 2029. But the omens are not good. Truth is, the preceding decade, from 2010 to 2019, was an utterly wasted one; indeed, a lost decade for Nigeria! Yet, nothing in the behaviour or the mindset of Nigeria’s leaders suggests they are willing to stop the institutional sclerosis that has gripped this country and stunted its progress. It is therefore very unlikely that Nigeria will finish the new decade better than it did the last!
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”, Cassius famously told his friend, Brutus, in Julius Caesar. Similarly, the cause of Nigeria’s acute underdevelopment lies not in anything else but the abject incompetence and lack of vision of those running the country, and their unwillingness to spearhead the radical institutional and structural reforms it badly needs to make progress. Sadly, this sclerosis and the decline it produces are likely to continue and even get worse this year. But why?
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Well, before we consider why that might be so, why the sclerosis and the rot might persist, let’s first recall some of the experiences of the last decade, because that will give us clues on where things are likely to be heading this year and, possibly, in the years ahead this decade.
Nigeria: 2010 to 2019
Nigeria started 2010 with a sick president, who later died in office. After a protracted illness and prolonged medical treatment abroad, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was sworn in on May 29, 2007, died in office on May 5, 2010. Following his death, his deputy, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan,assumed office as president to complete his late boss’s term. But this being Nigeria, Jonathan faced intense political pressure from those who questioned his right, even though constitutionally guaranteed, to complete Yar’Adua’s term. In 2011, however, Jonathan secured his own legitimacy when he won election as president.
Goodluck Jonathan: 2010 to 2015
But what did Jonathan do with his mandate? Well, to his credit, he formed a government consisting of some of Nigeria’s internationally-acclaimed technocrats, including Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former managing director of the World Bank, and Dr Akinwunmi Adesina, who later became president of the African Development Bank. Jonathan can claim some credit for a fairly good management of the economy, which grew at an average of 6 per cent annually between 2010 and early 2015 when he left office. But it was a jobless growth, with unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, stubbornly high. Furthermore, the failure to save for the raining day, to create buffers for the economy, came home to roost when world oil prices suffered a steep fall in mid-2014, affecting government revenues.
However, President Jonathan’s most notable failurewas his rudderless leadership. Hewas a hopelessly weak, laidback and ineffectual leader.In her book, Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous, Dr Okonjo-Iweala recalls that when she first met President Jonathan to discuss her appointment as his Finance Minister, “he kept saying he did not know economics”. Fair enough; he was being truthful. But it’s difficult to escape the feeling that hewas out of his depth; that he was so overwhelmed by the intellectual demand of the office that he abdicated leadership, allowing some of his ministers to run wild!
Jonathan’s blasé attitude to corruption, poverty and insecurity clearly betrayed his cluelessness. He famously said, for instance, that “stealing is not corruption”. On poverty, he was solividwhen the World Bank’sranked Nigeria among the five poorest nations. He angrily retorted: “If you talk about ownership of private jets, Nigeria will be among the first 10 countries, yet they are saying that Nigeria is among the five poorest nations”.In other words, he was measuring Nigeria’s wealth and the wellbeing of its people by the number of the country’s billionaires and private jet owners. Even if he didn’t know economics,such ill-informed comments on corruption and povertywerebeneath a president. Then, what about insecurity? Well, a long-running Boko Haram insurgency that claimed over 13,000 Nigerian lives, with more than 200 girls taken captive, is not a good record for any president, or is it?
So, the first five years of the last decade was, on the whole, wasted.Most Nigerians were certainly dissatisfied with the way President Jonathan ran the country. But history will be kind to him for the way he handled the 2015 presidential election,conceding defeat to General Buhari and even calling to congratulate him. That gesture, unprecedented in Nigeria, helped to avert a conflagration, for which he will always be commended!
Muhammadu Buhari: 2015 to 2019
General Muhammadu Buhari was elected president in 2015 after three failed attempts.Colin Freeman, chief foreign correspondent ofThe Telegraph, a Londonbroadsheet, wrote in the newspaper in May 2015 that: “In the eyes of many Nigerians, General Muhammadu Buhari is just the kind of politician that the country should have moved on from years ago.”He was right. But, given the appalling situation under Jonathan, “many Nigerians were willing to give Buhari a second chance”, as Freeman put it. So,riding the wave of popular anger against the Jonathan government, Buhari, a former military dictator, became president in 2015. Butwhatdid he too do with his own mandate?
Truth is, President Buhari’s rule from 2015 to 2019, the second half of the last decade, was utterly disappointing, an unmitigated failure. From political and economic governance to social cohesion and nation-building, President Buhari played Russian Roulette with Nigeria.
Take the economy. Of course, Buhari inherited a struggling economyin 2015,due to falling oil prices, but he made a bad situation worse. He refused to form a cabinet in his first six months in office and pursued misguided economic policies that damaged investor confidence and caused capital flight.As a result, the economy fell into recession in 2016, for the first time in 24 years, with a negative growth of minus 1.5 per cent. Although growth later crept back to about 2 per cent, it’stoo anaemic to generate sufficient tax revenues, create jobs and reduce poverty, all of which depend on robust economic growth.
What about political governance? Well, Buhari talked about national unity more thanany other Nigerian president, yet he did more to undermine it. A president who proudlysurrounds himself with a cabal from his tribe, and who fills virtually all critical national positions with people from his ethnic group, lacks credibility when he preaches unity. A president who, five years in power, refuses to takeany actionon political reforms ispaying lip service to political stability. A president, whoresponds to herdsmen’s rampant killings of innocent people from other ethnic groupsby proposingto establish cattle coloniesfor thekiller-herdsmen in the same communitiesthey are terrorising has a strange sense of social and ethnic cohesion. And what can we say about a president who abuses of human rights, disregards the rule of law and erodes free speech and free press?
So, truth be told, President Buhariran the country appallingly badly from 2015 to 2019, the second half of the last century. He did not deserve re-election in 2019, not with unemployment rising from 8.2% to 23% under him, not with youth unemployment rising from 3m to 13m (a 263% increase) under him, and, of course, not with Nigeria becoming the “poverty capital of the world” on his watch. What about the widespread insecurity and general maladministration? Yet, compared with his main opponent in last year’s election, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, most voters still saw Buhari, the self-proclaimed champion of the poor, as epitomising personal integrity, even though, unlike Buhari,Atiku had radical programmes of political, economic and institutional reforms.
Can Buhari stop the institutional sclerosis in 2020?
The dictionary defines “sclerosis” as “excessive resistance to change.” Institutional sclerosis is the worst thing that can happen to any country. This is because, as Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue in their book Why Nations Fail, the success or failure of any nationdependson the nature of its political, economic and social institutions. Everything is about incentives, and differencesin institutions will create differencesin the incentives for change.
The stark truth is that Nigeria urgently needs political reform, indeed, restructuring, to create a new political and constitutional settlementto heal its ethnic tensions and induce political stability. Nigeria also needs structural reforms to transform its economy. And, of course, it needs to build its social institutions, including its educational system, human development, bureaucracy and state capacity, for social cohesion and progress. Sadly, President Buhari has absolutely no willingness to spearhead and build national consensus for such reforms.
The imperatives for political and economic restructuring
Take political reform. President Buhari once said that “True federalism is necessary at this juncture of our political and democratic evolution.”Great, but what did he mean by “true federalism”? And why, nearly five years in power, has he taken no initiative on political reform?His party, All Progressives Congress, set up the El-Rufai Committee on restructuring, but the Committee’s report has been gathering dust for nearly two years. The indications are that Buhari, who rejected the reports of all previous political conferences, has also rejected that of the El-Rufai Committee.
Truth is, President Buhari will continue to ignore political reform this year, yet Nigeria will face political headwinds as ethnic tensions and agitations are mounting. But Buhari’sreflex response of threatening military action will not work; he will need to start talking the language of restructuring and bring Nigerians together to discuss how best to achieve it.
Which leads us to the other equally urgent matter: economic reform. Nigeria’s economy is comatose. Foreign investors are shunning Nigeria; according to a recent UN report, foreign investment flow into Nigeria has dropped by 43 per cent. Oil revenue projection fell below target by 49% in the 2019 budget due to instability in world oil prices; and non-oil exports are declining. What’s more, the Buhari government is accumulating massive foreign debt, which, as former President Olusegun Obasanjo pointed out recently rose from $10.32 billion in 2015 to $81.2billion in 2019. Is there any greater combination of circumstances for a perfect storm? And is there any greater imperative for radical economic reforms?
Both the World Bank and the IMF have repeatedly called for structural economic reforms in Nigeria. Indeed, recently, in its Nigeria Economic Update, the World Bank warned that without such radical reforms, the number of Nigerians living in extreme poverty, currently about 90 million, would increase by 30 million by 2030 and that the country would then account for 25 per cent of total extreme poor population!
The truth is that Nigeria needs an open and competitive economy that is attractive to foreign investors; it needs productive and trade capacities to become an export-driven economy. These are not possible with protectionist policies of import bans, border closures and foreign exchange restrictions. Sadly, instead of seeing the new African Continental Free Trade Area, AfCFTA,as an opportunity to trigger reforms, Nigeria sees it as a threat. President Buhari recently inaugurated a National Action Committee but asked it to ensure that AfCFTA reflects Nigeria’s “development plans”, which are based on import-substitution, and to protect the domestic market against “injurious practices”. That’s a defensive strategy; the focus should be on building Nigeria’s export competitiveness.
Happy 2020, but don’t hold your breath on transformational reforms
So, can transformational change happen this year? The answer is no. President Buhari simply has no appetite for radical reforms. What’s more, Nigeria is under an elite capture. Buhari once said”I belong to everybody, I belong to nobody”, but, in truth, he’s beholden to the cabal running his government and the country. They have vested interests and won’t allow radical political and economic reforms. So, expect no such reforms this year and the years ahead. But also expect Nigeria to sink deeper into political, economic and social decays!
It’s grim, yes; but Happy New Year all the same!