Splintered Nigeria Needs a Shared Vision
The new president also needs to tackle a flailing economy, impaired public utilities and corruption.
As President Muhammadu Buhari assumes office this week, he takes the reins of a country in serious distress. Security poses a towering challenge, the economy is in dire straits, and corruption and impunity are rife.
Buhari, who won the election on the promise of change must now make good on that promise and start by rallying Nigerians around what they have lost: a common vision for the future.
The killings by the radical Islamist Boko Haram may have ebbed following recent offensives by forces from Nigeria and her neighbours, but the insurgency is not yet ended. Over the past four years, the group has killed at least 16 000 people, displaced more than 1.5-million and laid waste to many communities in the northeast. The country is also plagued by lower-intensity conflicts and unacceptable levels of criminal violence.
The economy has slumped during the past year, following a more than 50% plunge in the price of crude oil, whose export accounts for more than 70% of government revenue. Economic growth slowed to 4.6% in the first quarter of this year, down from 6.2% in the first quarter of 2014.
In recent months, the federal government has had to borrow just to pay workers. Eighteen of the 36 state governments owe employees back pay, some for up to nine months.
Infrastructure is in disrepair and public utilities are hopelessly unreliable. Last week, electricity generation dropped to an unprecedented low of 1 327 megawatts (MW) for Nigeria’s 180-million people, compared with the 44 175MW generated for South Africa’s 54-million people.
During this inauguration week, an acute shortage of refined petroleum products has created kilometres-long queues of vehicles outside filling stations, grounded many flights and seriously damaged commercial life.
Unemployment remains pervasive: officially 22-million are jobless, but many believe the real figure is much higher. The country still has 10.5-million out-of-school children – the world’s highest number – many of whom may be future candidates for insurgency and organised crime.
Corruption and economic crimes have brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy. Crude oil is stolen on an industrial scale. The chief of Nigeria’s navy, Vice-Admiral Usman Jibrin, recently estimated that petroleum worth $2.18-billion is siphoned off annually. The proceeds could fuel a new phase of violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Early statements by Buhari and his transitional team suggest a keen awareness of the gravity of the crises and some sense of urgency to tackle them. But Buhari’s first task must be to persuade all Nigerians that he is president for the entire country and rally them around a common vision for the future. Although the recent elections ended without the widely feared violent protests, the campaign before it revealed a country deeply fractured along regional, religious and ethnic lines. The latent contradictions and gaping discontent between, and even within, major interest groups threaten to frustrate even the most well-meaning plans for progress.
Buhari, who is from the northern Katsina state, needs to constitute a competent but inclusive government, with credible representation from all major regional, ethnic and religious blocs. More importantly, the new government must devote a great deal of effort to policies and programmes that will address grievances, reconcile differences, build social cohesion and provide better security against the likes of Boko Haram.
It also needs to engage positively with states where the outgoing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won, particularly in the Niger Delta, where long-standing economic and environmental grievances have been aggravated by the ousting of the first-ever president from the region (Goodluck Jonathan) after only one term.
In seeking to reconcile, stabilise, secure and revitalise the country, the administration will need all the support and assistance it can get from international partners, including African countries. This should include military training and equipment, intelligence sharing, humanitarian support in the northeast, bridging loans, technical assistance and bilateral co-operation in tracking the proceeds of corruption.
Investments on security and stability could greatly benefit not only Nigeria but also the entire Africa region. Deepening democracy in Nigeria could also have positive spillover on governance across Africa. If Buhari succeeds in delivering on his promise of change, he will have achieved a historical reversal of Nigeria’s long slide towards dysfunction. If he fails, the country will slide deeper into ruin. The stakes could not be higher.