Nigeria: Buhari victory means more of the same

Date first published: 12/3/2019

Key sectors: all

Key risks: political instability; internal conflict; civil unrest

Far from a promised thriller, Nigeria’s 23 February general elections had few suspense-building qualities. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how little the electoral map differed from the 2015 elections, apart from a few swing states changing camp. President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military strongman-turned-democrat was voted into office in 2015 on promises of freeing Nigeria from the yokes of graft and Boko Haram. This year he secured a 15 per cent lead over his main rival, former vice president Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who refused to concede defeat, alleging manipulation and vowing to contest the result in court. Indeed, the suspension of Supreme Court chief Walter Onnoghen on charges of violating asset-declaration rules weeks before the vote raised questions, as did the polls’ last-minute postponement by a week and a disproportionate presence of security forces in opposition strongholds. Yet, there is little to substantiate claims of wholesale fraud.

Even so, Buhari’s 2019 victory is marred by an extremely low voter turnout of less than 36 per cent. The 56 per cent win that Buhari garnered translate into a mere 15.2 million votes, or about eight per cent of Nigeria’s 200 million strong population. This is hardly the resounding expression of faith in Buhari’s leadership that the outcome might suggest at first glance.

In part, the abysmal turnout is explained by the one-week delay and the controversy surrounding the Chief Justice’s suspension, as well as well-founded fears of violence – nearly 600 people were killed in election-related violence since campaigning began in November 2018. But this also indicates that voters did not feel their choice made much of a difference. Despite Abubakar’s pledge to unleash the economy, it is doubtful that half of his promised pro-business reforms would have survived the reality of Nigerian law-making. With the string of corruption scandals under the most recent PDP government still fresh in the collective memory, most voters didn’t feel Abubakar’s platform convincing enough to give the PDP another try.

Buhari, for his part, is unlikely to veer much from his trodden course. On security, he continues to lack a coherent strategy to de-escalate Nigeria’s numerous insurgencies. In the Niger Delta, militancy could flare up again at any time given widespread anti-Buhari sentiment in the region. Security force deployments in central and north western states, where communal violence and banditry have surged, have been escalated but this has been to the detriment of deployments elsewhere. Meanwhile, Boko Haram’s recent attacks on military bases have served as a stark reminder that the group is from being defeated. Buhari might order a new anti-terrorist operation, but in the absence of a credible roadmap to develop Nigeria’s north east, any improvement risks being temporary at best.

On economic policy, the government is likely to remain committed to reviving investment in the upstream and midstream hydrocarbons sectors while increasing local capacity building and accelerating economic diversification, with a priority on the first of the three. Passage of the long-awaited Petroleum Industry Governance Bill remains uncertain, although prospects have moderately improved following Buhari’s backtracking on his vow not to sign the bill into law. To the chagrin of the business community, the naira is unlikely to be floated. Thus, beyond the short-term economic boost that the removal of election-related uncertainty might bring, Buhari’s second term is unlikely to usher in an economic renaissance.