ABUJA, Nigeria — The first week of April opened with a bang for Nigeria, the fourth largest democracy in the world, with the election of the long disappointed opposition party. General Muhammadu Buhari could bring a different leadership for Nigeria, unlike one that has been in power since the country’s first civilian election 12 years ago.
Nigeria has had a lot to face in the 55 years since its independence from British rule in 1960. Coup after coup ousted military presidents from their posts, a bloody civil war killed around a million people, riots due to tribal and religious tensions followed and its economy attached at the hip to this rich natural resource fluctuated wildly.
Since 1999, when military regimes ran its first election, the People’s Democratic Party has actually succeeded in putting Nigeria on the map as a thriving economy. GDP growth rate increased from 2.9 percent annually in 1999 to 5.4 percent in 2014. Yet 33 percent of the population still lives in poverty and Nigeria is ranked as the 39th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. Corruption and bureaucracy was leaching away the population’s patience.
Each election that Nigeria has witnessed has been accompanied with allegations of rigging and this one was no different, but the victory of the opposition party and the pleasant concession of defeat by President Goodluck Jonathan are seen as major breakthroughs for Nigerian democracy.
General Muhammadu Buhari’s leadership is not a new one. In 1983, he came to power after a bloodless coup for a little less than two years until he himself was overthrown in another coup in 1985. That period was a very telling one of the General’s rule. His iron fist meted out consequences for any indiscipline from lack of punctuality to traffic rule violations and corruption with equal severity. Officers perceived as corrupt were jailed without a due trial and appeal process. Many political activists were imprisoned including internationally acclaimed musician Fela Kuti.
Despite this, Nigerians have pinned their hopes on him. This may not be without reason. The growing insurgency by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria has everybody across the world worried. The ruling government so far has not been able to gain control over the terrorized regions. This same iron fist of the General might be exactly what is needed to quell the insurgency and return safety and security to these areas. The president-elect pledged to tackle Boko Haram in particular as well as the “evil of corruption” in his acceptance speech.
These two problems might well occupy the presidency for several years but the falling oil prices and an economy declining with it also needs urgent attention. The government relies on oil and gas for 70 percent of its revenue. According to the Financial Times, the falling naira is making imports more expensive and pushing up inflation, which is hovering at around 9.5 percent. This makes life very hard for people who are already struggling to make ends meet. The article quotes Renaissance Capital as predicting the need for austerity measures to boost the economy. General Buhari had imposed austerity measures during his previous reign and it did not go well. The stringent economic measures led to high unemployment, business closure and protests. Perhaps this does not need to be the only approach.
Nigeria has so much potential. It has a growing agriculture and service sector, a burgeoning middle class, a successful film industry that brings in much revenue, and a wealth of minerals in its central plateau region. These can all be developed and supported so that the economy is no longer so heavily dependent on the whims of oil. This could lead to generation of employment opportunities in diverse sectors and a beneficial trickle-down effect for poverty reduction.
Nigeria is waiting with bated breath to see if their new symbol of hope, General Muhammadu Buhari, will deliver on all the improvements they wished to see over President Goodluck Jonathan’s lackluster governance. It is going to be interesting to see how over 30 years has impacted General Buhari’s approach to leading Africa’ most populous nation.
– Mithila Rajagopal