It is hard to overstate the importance of Nigeria’s February elections. The country’s security, social, economic and business environments are in a parlous state. The army has lost control of northern and north-eastern borders to Islamist extremists, including Boko Haram, its allies and its rivals. In the southern oil-producing Niger Delta, organised oil theft and illegal petrol refining go unchecked and coastal pirates plague international shipping. Inland, groups of armed bandits kidnap schoolchildren and hold their parents, state governors and government to ransom.
Everywhere, banditry makes life harder. Since 2016, the number of people living in extreme poverty has increased from 70-million to 88-million of Nigeria’s estimated 200-million population. The country has barely benefited from soaring oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because oil production has fallen to real output of 900 000 barrels a day – and not the 1.1-million barrels a day on which government forecasts are based. Falling oil production has pushed Nigeria’s production into second place in Africa behind Angola. Annualised inflation shot to 20% in December, and food inflation of about 23% eats into ordinary Nigerians’ earnings. Africa Confidential succinctly summarised the shameful legacy of President Muhammadu Buhari’s two terms in office: “Millions of Nigerians are unwell, uneducated, hungry, angry, emotionally exhausted and desperate for change.”
Fortunately, since the country’s transition to democracy from military rule in 1999, over 100-million registered voters will take that anger and exhaustion to the polls in general elections on February 25 to end Buhari’s political inertia, policy drift, and government in the Presidency by a tiny cabal. That vote brings some hope of recovery. Though vastly shrunken, Nigeria’s gross domestic product is $110-billion. It is a tethered giant. Even small reforms can bring major improvements to the investment environment.
Of the three main contenders to succeed Buhari – Bola Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi – former Lagos state governor Tinubu is most likely to win. Founder, funder and kingmaker of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Tinubu brings a substantial war chest, all the power of incumbency, control of the ruling party and of State security. Tinubu was the first opposition governor of Lagos state. The then federal government starved Tinubu’s Lagos of funds. In the words of a former government official, “in order to have money to steal, Tinubu set about creating money”. He did this by reforming Lagos state’s tax collection, awarding collection to a private company, which a 2021 court case alleged Tinubu secretly controlled. The company took a 10% commission on all taxes collected, which soared from $24-million in 2002 to $720- million in 2021. What people recall is that Tinubu used that tax revenue to clean up Lagos state – from which he allegedly benefited through the award of contracts to improve infrastructure. His successors followed his example and Lagos state – which is also Nigeria’s commercial capital – is now perceived to be the country’s best run, most functioning state.
Former head-of-customs-turned- businessperson Abubakar is the opposition People’s Democratic Party’s candidate. Though he served as former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Vice President from 1999 to 2007, voters have rejected his bid to become President five times and observers say they are likely to do so a sixth time.
While both Tinubu and Abubakar have money, election wild card Obi does not. A senior banker and businessperson-turned-politician, Obi is the new generation of professional class politicians – neither ex-military nor former civil servant nor part of the revolving political elite. Obi has served as governor of Anambra state. Though his tenure was repeatedly contested in the courts, he managed to improve state finances, health and education, which has marked him as one able to deliver. He has a loyal and significant following among Nigeria’s young, Internet- and social-media-savvy youth as well as professionals . Obi’s backers hope he will secure enough votes to become a potential kingmaker or to sway new government appointments. His candidacy will almost certainly place him in pole position for the next general election. At 62, he is the young man of Nigerian politics. Remaining an influencer this time is perhaps the most Obi can hope for, as his Labour Party has no formal national infrastructure and he does not have funds to secure a victory. However, the power of youth and social media activism has surprised Nigeria’s ruling elite before: in October 2020, antipolice protests organised and funded by social media resulted in #EndSars protests across half the country.
Money is the essential ingredient in Nigeria’s elections. While the election process is widely regarded as credible – an extraordinary feat in a generally disorderly environment, party political machinations are less so. Establishing nationwide party infrastructure to ‘secure’ every election post requires $200-million, according to a veteran election watcher. Tinubu reportedly has tight control on elections and electioneering, having learned from previous campaigns – notably Goodluck Johnathan’s failed campaign in 2015, where campaign managers pocketed large sums of money and left the result to chance. Corrupting voters is on a grand scale. Previously, vote-buying was a cash transaction – now it is digital. To counter social media campaigns that urge voters to take the money and still vote as you wish, this time parties offer funds via smartphone redeemable only with a photo of a voting card. Organisers are now seeking to ban cellphones from voting booths. A new rule came into effect in the last elections that party funds are held at the central bank, while a more recent rule that bans drawing cash deposits from government department accounts comes too late: siphoning of government funds to election campaigns has steadily taken place over the last 18 months.
Much is at stake and much depends on what Tinubu will do if he wins. He has already presented a credible Cabinet team to deliver his ambitions to deliver growth of 7%, reduce unemployment, double the size of the army and the police and double the size of the economy in ten years. Investment banker Wale Edun, Tinubu’s former state commissioner of finance, is tipped as federal Finance Minister. Several fear that Tinubu, now elderly, infirm and tired, will follow the Buhari model, sit out two terms, appoint a cabal and disintegration will continue. Cynical Nigerian observers say Tinubu inherits a country with no money. Their best hope is that he will again “create the money to steal”, but this time, nationwide.