His failure to bring peace or prosperity offers lessons for his successor
Jan 9th 2023
“Buhari has given us very big wahala (trouble),” says Usama Sani, a student in Kano, the biggest city in northern Nigeria. “There is insecurity and unemployment,” he complains, before shouting: “We are going to kick Buhari aside!” President Muhammadu Buhari used to be popular in Kano; he won landslide support there in two presidential elections. Now, says another student, Umar Garba Umar, “we are so hungry for change.” Even members of Mr Buhari’s own All Progressives Congress (apc) are down on the outgoing president. Kashim Shettima, the apc’s vice-presidential candidate in the general election scheduled for February, concedes that Mr Buhari has done only “modestly well”.
When Mr Buhari was first elected in 2015 many hoped Nigeria was about to turn a corner. This newspaper cautiously endorsed him. Yet he has floundered on almost every measure. Between 2015 and 2020 the average income per person (adjusted for local purchasing power) slid from $5,400 to $4,900 a year. The share of Nigerians living on less than $1.90 a day, which had fallen from about 43% to 37% in the previous five years, increased to almost 40% in 2019, before covid-19 hit. Violence has spread across the country. Last year jihadists, bandits, and separatists hit at least 550 of the country’s 774 local government areas (see map.) More than 3,000 people were kidnapped last year, an almost thirty-fold increase on 2016. Many were children.
Not all of this was Mr Buhari’s fault. The price of oil, Nigeria’s only big export, plunged just as he took office, kneecapping the budget. The state he took charge of was weak and corrupt. The taxes it raised (not counting oil royalties), were a paltry 5% of gdp. Covid-19 buffeted Nigeria during his second term, and the war in Ukraine added to food-price inflation.
Even so, Mr Buhari has failed to impress. He is indecisive. After his first inauguration he took 166 days to swear in a cabinet. He is reluctant to delegate, but often unavailable to make decisions himself, owing to ill-health. He has spent more than 200 days in Britain, primarily for medical treatment, leaving his government paralysed.
His government has failed to coordinate its decisions, or to execute them competently. To get things done, a Nigerian president has “to be a coach and a referee at the same time”, says Amaka Anku of Eurasia Group, a consultancy in New York. Failing to coordinate, manage and strike deals is Mr Buhari’s biggest failing, she says.
Though perhaps this was a mercy: many of his economic decisions have made things worse. A former general (and military ruler in the 1980s), he likes to give orders. But markets tend not to obey them. After oil prices plunged in 2014-15 he should have let the currency weaken. Instead he tried to prop it up by banning a long list of imports, from toothpicks to tinned sardines, to conserve dollars. Investors fled; factories closed. What might have been a short commodity shock turned into a lingering recession. In 2019 he closed Nigeria’s land borders to all imported goods, hoping to stimulate local production. Instead he spurred inflation.
Some bits of the economy have flourished, mainly by staying away from the state. Industries that rely on Nigerian talent, such as information technology, music or film-making, have thrived.
Mr Buhari has not provided the unifying leadership Nigeria needs to ease the (sometimes violent) rifts between its many ethnic groups and faiths. He rarely speaks in public, creating a vacuum that more extreme voices fill. Separatist movements have grown. Clashes between farmers and herders have become more deadly.
At times Mr Buhari has stoked division. After winning his first term in 2015 he said that places where he won only 5% of the vote could not expect the same treatment as those that gave him 97%. In 2021 he reminded separatists in the south-east of Nigeria’s civil war in the late 1960s, in which perhaps 1m people died, and warned them that if they kept on “misbehaving” they would be dealt with in “the language they understand”.
Mr Buhari’s government appears reluctant to listen to criticism or acknowledge mistakes. Lai Mohammed, the information minister, insists that Mr Buhari has “taken the bull by the horns, as far as security is concerned”. In reality, the main jihadist group, Boko Haram, was suffering big reverses when he took over, which continued for a while. But then other groups started causing mayhem across far more of the country. Last year about 10,000 people were killed by jihadists, kidnappers, bandits or the army, roughly double the level of 2016 (see chart). This is comparable to the worst years of the Boko Haram insurgency.
In December an investigation by Reuters, a news agency, alleged that the Nigerian army ran a forced abortion programme in the north-east, ending the pregnancies of 10,000 women who were thought to have been impregnated by jihadists, often through rape. Reuters suggested the motive was a baseless belief that the children of insurgents would inevitably grow up to be insurgents, so it was better to destroy them before they were born. The army accused Reuters of “demonic journalism”.
Governments that minimise or deny problems tend not to solve them.
Incompetent officials are seldom held to account, laments Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a think-tank in Abuja. For instance, no one senior was sacked after hundreds of prisoners, including more than 60 jihadists, escaped from a jail on the outskirts of Abuja last year. In eight years Mr Buhari has sacked just three ministers. “As long as you are seen as personally loyal to him it doesn’t matter how poor your performance is,” says Cheta Nwanze of sbm Intelligence, a consultancy in Lagos.
Mr Buhari’s administration can point to some achievements. It has worked with the legislature to pass much-needed electoral reforms and an overhaul of the oil and gas sector. Unlike past governments it has passed regular budgets in advance of the fiscal year, points out Ms Anku. And it has completed major rail and road projects that have been in the works for decades (though it has struggled to keep travellers using them safe). Mr Buhari is stepping down after two terms as the constitution requires. Many other presidents in west Africa do not clear that modest bar.
Still, surveys suggest that Nigerians would prefer someone younger, more energetic and more communicative.
Peter Obi, a third-party candidate who fits this description, comes top of many polls and was recently endorsed by Olusegun Obasanjo, an influential former president.
Many pundits nonetheless expect the eventual victor to be Bola Tinubu, the apc’s candidate. His campaign has deep pockets, and the ruling party holds many state governor offices making it easier to persuade, push and pay people to vote for its candidate. Like Mr Buhari, Mr Tinubu is old (70) and dogged by rumours of infirmity. To dispel these, he released a video of himself pedalling an exercise bicycle. He has struggled to articulate a vision. Facing questions recently at Chatham House, a think-tank in London, he asked his team to answer nearly all of them. His supporters note that he had a good record as the governor of Lagos between 1999 and 2007, increasing the state’s tax take nearly sixfold.
The stakes are high. “There is a lot of anger,” says Osita Chidoka, a former minister in the opposition People’s Democratic Party. “People are going to vote and are going to express that anger.” Maybe so, but Mr Tinubu has no official role in Mr Buhari’s government, so he may be able to distance himself from it, in voters’ eyes, while still enjoying the support and muscle of the ruling party. “Sadly”, says Mr Chidoka, ”Buhari is not on the ballot.” ■