Nigeria: President Buhari hits the ground walking

There were good reasons for President Muhammadu Buhari to seek to make a big impact in the days following his re-election. Having been accused of not having the energy needed to run one of the world’s most complex countries, he has a strong incentive to cultivate a new dynamic reputation. The controversial nature of the elections, which were rejected by the opposition despite his comfortable victory – with Buhari’s main rival calling the polls a return to “military dictatorship” – provide another reason to grasp the political mantle.

The country’s poor economic condition, complete with continuing local resistance to central state authority in parts of the north and also the east of the country, also suggests that urgency is required. One might also expect Buhari, for whom this represents an important opportunity to supplement his existing reputation as a stoical military leader with a degree of democratic legitimacy, to be determined to make the most of his final term in office – Nigeria employs a two-term limit on the presidency, and this has so far been respected by all multi-party leaders in the current political dispensation.

Despite this, the first few weeks of the President’s second term have been anything but dynamic. There have been no fresh initiatives to rebuild bridges with disgruntled members of the Igbo community, some of whom speak of the need to return to the days of Biafra – bringing back memories of the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the widespread suffering that occurred following the attempted secession of the Eastern region in 1967.

The pace of economic reform is also closer to a crawl than a sprint. While the government will increase the national minimum wage from Naira 18,000 to N30,000, after this was approved by the Senate in mid March, it is not yet clear how this will be funded. One option – supported by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – is to bolster revenues by increasing and effectively collecting Value Added Tax (VAT). However, while the Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service, Babatunde Fowler, has stated that the government intends to raise greater revenue VAT – potentially from 5 to 7.5% – this plan has been in the background for some time and there seems to be no urgency about implementing it now.

The slow start of the new government appears to be rooted in three main factors.

The first is that the electoral cycle continued after the presidential election, with a further round of sub-national elections, including for local representatives and the influential position of Governors, held in 29 of the country’s 36 states. These contests have been particularly hotly contested, with considerable evidence of electoral manipulation and no little political unrest. As a result, Buhari’s government has invested more effort in consolidating its hold on power than in governing the country.

The second is that Nigeria is stuck in a rut because the most effective policy options available to the government are unpalatable and have been for some time. Many of the policies that might actually generate revenue and so create new possibilities for government investment are unattractive precisely because they would be politically unpopular. Increasing and implementing VAT, for example, would mean asking citizens who feel that their government is failing to provide for them to pay more for the privilege. The response could be similar to that which greeted an increase in the removal of fuel subsidies in 2012 – popular protests and the emergence of a growing sense that the government is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The third factor is that President Buhari himself seems to have run out of ideas. Despite the vast amount of money invested in his re-election, there is no evidence that he has the vision or energy required to effectively lead the country. Back during the chaotic reign of President Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari’s focus on order and discipline appealed to ordinary Nigerians fearful of the spread of Boko Haram and unrestricted corruption. Now that the memory of Jonathan is starting to fade, and the country desperately requires a more creative and inclusive development strategy, the former military ruler’s limitations risk being painfully exposed.

Time will tell whether the more reformist elements around the president will be able to impress on him the need to respond more effectively to the popular thirst for change. If not, it could be a long and painful second term for one of Africa’s most powerful leaders.

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