Politics of Poverty

Nigeria votes 2023: Will the country bound back?

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Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with the largest GDP. Presidential elections in 2023 could change the course of its future. Photo: Oxfam

After eight years under its current president, Nigeria is worse off than ever. Will the presidential election this weekend bring new leadership and new ideas—or has the recent currency exchange swap undermined the integrity of the election?

When most westerners comment on corruption in Africa, the talk usually focuses on heads of state and senior government officials as culprits. We often envision funds being secretly diverted from state treasuries to offshore bank accounts.

However, what is more often overlooked, or underreported, is the corrosive impact corruption has on public administration--and how the public must develop extraordinary systems to obtain services.

For example, take the way most people get a driver’s license in Nigeria. They don’t bother to visit the department of motor vehicles to take a written exam or road test. Instead, the average Nigerian obtains a copy of the application, fills it out, and pays a fee to a fixer (10,000 naira, about $20--depending on the exchange rate, which fluctuates wildly). One or two weeks later, the applicant has a new driver’s license and is off to the races.

I offer this illustration as a cautionary tale for those interested in helping Nigerian civil society sustain confidence in democratic governance, economic reform, and justice. The reality is complicated and difficult to comprehend.

The most populous country in Africa is plagued by troubles

With more than 200 million residents and the largest GDP in Africa, Nigeria has played a powerful economic leadership role on the continent. However, for much of the past eight years, Nigerians have largely been left to fend for themselves with very little government intervention.

Insecurity is rampant throughout all six geopolitical zones, and youth unemployment is nearly 20%. The country has endured two recessions and rising interest rates on loans—particularly those needing to be paid in US dollars--have skyrocketed the cost of debt servicing and commodity imports.

Moreover, despite the fact that it is a major oil producing country, there has been a failure over the years to invest the profits from the industry back into the economy; oil theft (“bunkering”) has robbed the nation of much needed revenue; and, ironically, fuel scarcity is a problem for everyone.

The recent currency swap exercise has compounded problems

Last October the government announced a currency swap exercise that was to run through January 31, 2023. The government ordered the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to collect old high value naira notes (N200, N500 and N1,000), and replace them with new ones. The government said the swap was intended to hamper efforts by bandits to secure kidnapping ransoms, avoid vote buying in the upcoming February 25 presidential elections, and move Nigeria toward a cashless economy.

The plan has been a disaster. While millions of citizens turned in old notes, the CBN failed to produce enough new currency to replenish the supply; the result has been a nationwide cash crunch, with rural areas impacted the most.

Over the past several days, riots and violence have broken out across the country. CBN state offices have been burned, ATM machines have been destroyed, and countless people have been unable to access their own money.

On February 15, the Supreme Court of Nigeria ordered an extension of the currency swap through the upcoming February 25 elections. In a shocking turn of events, President Muhammadu Buhari gave a nationally televised address where he overruled the high court’s decision and ordered CBN to stick to its timeline. This is not the first time Buhari has countermanded the Supreme Court.

Despite the stated aim to move to a cashless society, Nigeria remains a cash-and-carry, highly transactional country. Many observers inside and outside the country wonder why the government waited so long to introduce the swap so close to elections. After eight ruinous years, this debacle illustrates why so many Nigerians have grown disillusioned with the ability of his government to offer a true accounting of events, protect them from violence, or create jobs.

When Buhari took office in 2015, many hoped his presidency would be a departure from the past, and would steer Nigeria toward better governance. After all, his election saw the defeat of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) (which had been in power since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999), and the peaceful handover of power.

As a former military ruler from the early 1980’s, Buhari gained a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, with zero tolerance for corruption. It was hoped he would replace the ineptitude of former President Goodluck Jonathan. Eight years later, however, Nigeria is worse off.

How can Africa’s most populous country reverse its fortunes?

The answer to this question may or may not be answered in this weekend’s presidential election. It matters little what each candidate says he will do if elected; Nigerian politicians always promise to fix the many ills facing the country.

In at least one respect, the upcoming contest is a departure from past elections. Previously, the two main political parties contested the presidency; this year, there are three political parties--with one, the Labor Party, positioned to play the role of spoiler.

The presumptive candidate to beat is Asiwaju “Bola” Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Tinubu is an immensely wealthy former governor of Lagos state and political kingmaker.

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate is Atiku Abubakar, former Vice President of Nigeria under former president Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007). He is also a wealthy businessman, running for president for the sixth time.

Labor Party (LP) candidate Peter Obi, a wealthy businessman and former two-term governor of Anambra state, has brought a level of excitement and exuberance seldom seen in Nigerian politics. His campaign has caught fire through the support of millions of new young voters and sophisticated use of social media. Obi would be the first president elected from Nigeria’s east. Many hope Obi would have fresh ideas about how to tackle the intertwined crises of insecurity, unemployment, economic stagnation, and outward irregular migration.

The race is too close to call at this point. It remains to be seen what role cash vote buying will play, and whether the extensive political apparatus of the APC and PDP will blunt the surging LP. Nigeria’s political elite are very nervous, as they were caught unaware by Obi and his “Obidients” (as the millions of young voters call themselves).

In the end, it remains to be seen if Nigeria can resume its regional and international leadership role. It’s estimated that Nigeria drives 50% of the West African economy; it has successfully funded past ECOWAS peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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