Buhari’s first year: Mixed results for Nigeria’s ‘Baba Go Slow’

11Jun 2016
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Buhari’s first year: Mixed results for Nigeria’s ‘Baba Go Slow’
  • President Muhammadu Buhari was elected last year promising to root out corruption, defeat Boko Haram and turn around Nigeria’s sluggish economy. But one year on from his inauguration, Nigerian commentators aren’t so sure that “Baba Slow” can deliver.

This time about a year ago -- on Friday 29 May 2015, to be exact -- Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as the President of Nigeria. It’s hard to oversell the significance of this moment.

Muhammadu Buhari

Buhari had done something no other Nigerian politician had ever been able to do: he had defeated the ruling party in a free and fair election, uniting many of the country’s many disparate opposition figures behind him.

Just as exceptional was the behaviour of the defeated incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, whose record in office may have been unexceptional to poor, but who made history by peacefully ceding power.
It could all have been so much bloodier. That it wasn’t is an unexpected testament to the strength of the democracy in Africa’s most populous country.

Key to Buhari’s success was one simple, Obama-esque promise: change. This encompassed, among other things, pledges to stamp out the Boko Haram insurgency; to tackle the government corruption which costs Nigeria billions of dollars every year (if not tens of billions); and to kick-start economic growth.

Having occupied Aso Rock, the president’s residence, for a year now, has Buhari been able to make good on his promises? Has he delivered the change that Nigeria’s citizens are so hungry for?

His new nickname, Baba Go Slow, would suggest not. Buhari took nearly six months to appoint a Cabinet – that’s about 12.5 per cent of his term spent ruling by executive decree.

Not exactly the best formula to convince the one-time dictator’s critics that he had really changed his ways. Coupled with repeated delays to the release of the 2016 budget, Buhari has earned a reputation as a slow mover.

An exception to this rule is the fight against Boko Haram, which appears to be more intense and certainly more effective under Buhari’s administration.

“Even to his legion of ardent critics, it is no-brainer that President Buhari has scored very high on his administration’s campaign on Boko Haram, which has seen the virtual degradation of the terrorist group and its ability to occupy large swathes of the North-East area of Nigeria and menace the rest of the country through targeted bombings in cities.

That the terrorists have been pushed out of the territories they had occupied, and virtually dislodged from their remaining Sambisa forest stronghold, testifies to this,” said Nigerian Sun columnist Iliyasu Gadu.

Gadu might be overstating his case, however – some of Buhari’s ardent critics remain unimpressed with the security response. Nnenna Ibeh, on Naij.com, wrote that the offensive had failed because it has yet to nab Boko Haram’s top leaders, or – more significantly – the group’s financiers, long rumoured to be northern politicians.

“Mr President had promised to bring those behind Boko Haram to book. This should have been one promise kept within the first six months. Not one year. But these characters are still free men. They walk the street, it will seem, as saints since no one has been unmasked as a sponsor,” said Ibeh.

Buhari has also earned plaudits for his tough stance on corruption. Under his watch, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has been energised, and has nabbed several key members of Jonathan’s administration amid allegations relating to the theft of several billion dollars.

He also condensed more than 40 government bank accounts into a single account to promote greater transparency in government spending.

Not everyone is happy, however. Leadership newspaper opinion writer Aniebo Nwamu said that while Buhari deserves some praise for his efforts, he has yet to go after targets within his own political party.

“A probe of PDP's campaign funds alone does not qualify as corruption fight; the ruling APC should also be probed. Exposure of a few thieving ex-military chiefs is not enough; all former military and civilian leaders, drug dealers and 419 fraudsters should show us the trees in their compounds that grow naira and dollar bills, or forfeit their assets,” he said.

As investigations circle closer to former president Jonathan himself, they risk stirring up another hornet’s nest as Jonathan’s supporters cry foul – and threaten to destabilise the country.

Most prominently, the head of the Ijaw Youth Council in the Niger Delta region recently promised to make Nigeria “ungovernable” if Jonathan were to be arrested.

It’s unclear to what extent the anti-corruption campaign’s targets are a factor in the increasingly violent spate of attacks on oil and gas facilities there, in an apparent resurgence of instability in the region.

Then there’s the economy. Through little fault of his own, Buhari’s tenure has coincided with a precipitous collapse in oil prices. As oil is Nigeria’s biggest export, and major source of government revenues, this has wreaked havoc on the economy. It doesn’t help that the violence in the Niger Delta has pushed oil production there to its lowest level in decades.

As International Crisis Group’s Nnamdi Obasi reported: “Faced with the precipitous decline in the price of oil, Nigeria’s most significant export, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) has not delivered on its many pre-election promises of early economic relief.

As of 30 April, 26 of the country’s 36 states owed some or all of their workers monthly salaries, some for up to eight months. In March and April, Nigerians suffered some of their worst automobile fuel shortages in recent memory and the government’s decision this month to address scarcity by ending price controls led to a jolting 67 per cent price hike.

Furthermore, the electricity sector is still hampered by poorly utilised generation capacity, high transmission losses and frequent outages, intermittently plunging the entire country into darkness. Recent pipeline sabotage by Niger Delta armed groups has further depressed the electricity situation.”

There’s no doubt that Buhari was dealt a tough hand on the economy. But, living up to his Baba Go Slow moniker, he has been criticised for failing to deal proactively with these multiple economic crises. For example, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in a statement, blamed “the absence of (a) well-structured, broad-based and synergised economic blueprint with clearly stated goals, plans, policies and strategies to drive the economy” for Nigeria’s poor performance.

A year on from his historic election to the helm of one of the most diverse and argumentative countries in the world, it’s hardly a surprise that Buhari continues to divide opinions among his countrymen.

The truth about the early days of his tenure, as always, lies somewhere in the middle ground between his zealous supporters (“In President Buhari we have Nigeria’s best President in our national history”) and equally zealous detractors (“In all my years of living in Nigeria, I can say along with the overwhelming majority of Nigerians that we have never had it so bad”).

Not that it matters. As the president himself said recently, like it or not, he’s still got three years to go.