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After eight dismal years, Nigeria prepares to replace Buhari

“SecondUhari has gave us great Vahalla (Trouble),” said Usama Sani, a student in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria. “There is insecurity and unemployment,” he complained, before shouting: “We are going to kick Buhari aside! ” President Muhammadu Buhari was once popular in Kano; he won overwhelming support in two presidential elections. Now, says another student, Umar Garba Umar, “We are desperate for change. ’ Even members of Mr Buhari’s own All Progressive Congress (armored personnel carrier) are disappointed with the outgoing president. Kashim Shettima armored personnel carrierAs a vice-presidential candidate, he acknowledged Mr Buhari’s performance as “average”.

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When Mr Buhari was first elected, in 2015, many hoped Nigeria was about to turn a corner. This newspaper cautiously endorsed him. However, he struggled on nearly every measure. Between 2015 and 2020, per capita annual income (adjusted for purchasing power) fell from $5,400 to $4,900. The percentage of Nigerians living on less than $1.90 a day has fallen from about 43% to 37% over the past five years, increasing to almost 40% in 2019, before the covid-19 outbreak.

Violence has spread. Last year, jihadists, bandits and separatists attacked at least 550 of the country’s 774 local government areas (see map). More than 3,000 people were kidnapped last year, a nearly 30-fold increase from 2016. Many of them are children. A wave of attacks on electoral offices could delay the general election, scheduled for Feb. 25.

Not all of this is Mr Buhari’s fault. Just as he took office, the price of oil, Nigeria’s only major export, plummeted, leaving the budget in trouble. The country he governs is weak and corrupt. The tax it collects (excluding oil royalties) is only 5% gross domestic product. Covid hit Nigeria in his second term, while war in Ukraine exacerbated food price hikes.

Even so, Mr Buhari failed to impress. He was indecisive: it took him 166 days to be sworn in as the first cabinet. He is reluctant to delegate, but due to his poor health he is often unable to make decisions for himself. He has spent more than 200 days in the UK, mainly for medical treatment, which has paralyzed his government.

His government failed to coordinate its decisions and to implement them effectively. Amaka Anku of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, said that to get the job done, Nigeria’s president had to “be both coach and referee”. The failure to coordinate, manage and seal deals was Mr Buhari’s biggest failure, she said.

Although that may be a mercy: many of his economic decisions made things worse. As a former general (military ruler in the 1980s), he likes to call the shots. But the market often disobeys them. He was supposed to devalue the currency after the oil price crash in 2014-15. Instead, he tried to back it up by banning many imports, from toothpicks to sardines. Investors flee; factories close. In 2019, he closed Nigeria’s land borders to imports, hoping to stimulate local production. Instead, he fueled inflation. Those areas of the economy that thrive – information technology, music and film production, all rely on Nigerian talent – do so largely by staying away from the country.

Mr Buhari has failed to provide the unified leadership Nigeria needs to ease the (sometimes violent) rifts between its many races and faiths. He rarely speaks in public, creating a vacuum that has been filled by more extreme voices. The separatist movement grew. Clashes between farmers and herders have become deadlier.

Mr Buhari has been divisive at times. After he won his first term in 2015, he said places where he got just 5 percent of the vote couldn’t expect the same treatment where he got 97 percent. In 2021, he alerted separatists in the southeast to Nigeria’s civil war in the late 1960s, which killed an estimated 1 million people. If they continued to “misbehave”, they would deal with it “in a language they understand”, he said.

His government appears unwilling to admit mistakes. It insists it improves security. In fact, the major jihadist group, Boko Haram, suffered a major reversal when he took office, and it did so for some time. But then other groups started causing chaos in more parts of the country. Last year, some 10,000 people were killed by jihadists, kidnappers, bandits or the army (see chart). That is on a par with the worst year of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2014-15.

In December, a news agency, Reuters, said the Nigerian army had run a forced abortion program in the northeast, terminating the pregnancies, often by rape, of at least 10,000 women believed to be jihadist pregnancies. The motive, Reuters said, was the unfounded belief that the children of rebels would inevitably become rebels too, so it was best to eliminate them before they were born. The military accused Reuters of being “diabolical news”.

Governments that minimize or deny problems often don’t solve them. Idayat Hassan of the Center for Democracy and Development, an Abuja think-tank, laments that incompetent officials are rarely held to account. In eight years, Mr Buhari has sacked just three ministers. “It doesn’t matter how poorly you perform as long as you are seen as personally loyal to him,” Cheta Nwanze said. SBM Intelligence, a consulting firm in Lagos.

His administration can point to some accomplishments. It worked with the Legislature to pass much-needed electoral reform and a sweeping overhaul of the oil and gas industry. It has completed major rail and road projects that it has been working on for decades (although it has struggled to make sure travelers use them safely).

pity the winner

Surveys show that Nigerians desire younger, more dynamic and better communicative leaders. A third-party candidate who fits that description, Peter Obi, has topped many opinion polls and was recently endorsed by the influential former president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Many experts still believe the eventual victor was Bola Tinubu, armored personnel carriercandidates. His campaign is well-funded and the ruling party holds many governorships, making it easier to stimulate and pay people to vote for his candidate. Like Mr Buhari, Mr Tinubu is advanced in age (70) and plagued by rumors of frailty. He has struggled to articulate a vision. His supporters point to his prolific run as Lagos governor from 1999 to 2007, which saw a nearly sixfold increase in state tax revenue.

The stakes are high. “There’s a lot of anger,” said Osita Chidoka, a former minister of the opposition People’s Democratic Party. “People are going to vote and express this anger.” Perhaps so, but Mr Tinnub has no formal role in Mr Buhari’s government, so he may be able to distance himself from it in the eyes of voters while still enjoying the influence of the ruling party . “Sadly” the opposition “Buhari is not on the ballot,” Mr Chidoka said.

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