Voters in Nigeria need to elect the candidate that prioritises welfare programs
Nigeria’s next president will either be an aging underwhelming incumbent or a former Vice-President (VP) tainted by an international bribery scandal. It is difficult to reconcile how a country with 190 million people keeps serving itself the short end of the stick with regards its leadership options. Nigeria boasts the only African nobel laureate in an intellectual field, the richest black person in the world and a diaspora that is the best-achieving black minority in the USA. Nigeria’s political culture rewards its most vicious citizens who are able to horse-trade their way into its presidency. This is why it ends up having to choose between the sea and the devil every election year.
Nigeria’s intellectual class is politically naive. On the other hand, its political elite are grand masters of power. Nigeria’s intellectuals mostly avoid seeking elective office and those who do, seem to more intent on self-promotion than changing the status-quo. On the other hand, its politicians are more interested in enriching themselves and their cronies in perpetuity rather than practice enlightened governance. As a result, because its best citizens refuse to lead while its worst seek leadership only to enrich themselves, more Nigerians continue to join the ranks of the global destitute. Despite its immense wealth and potential, Nigeria currently has the most number of desperately poor people in the world.
Of the fourteen aspirants contesting for Nigeria’s presidency, only two have any serious national party structure to win the election. These two are the incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC ) and his main challenger, Former VP Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). In Nigeria’s sixty years of independence, only nine elections have ever been conducted. No candidate has ever won the presidential election contesting on a non-national mainstream party platform. This is because the Nigerian constitution mandates that a candidate must win a minimum of 25% of all votes cast in at least two-thirds of its thirty-six federating states and its one capital territory. A daunting task even for those with a national party structure.
Although there are other interesting candidates besides Buhari and Atiku such as Kingsley Moghalu-a former professor who wants to prioritise the private sector and Omoyele Sowore a social activist who wants reduce inequality, none of them will win.
As a result, Nigeria’s 2019 election is essentially a two way race between Muhammadu Buhari (APC) and his challenger Atiku Abubakar (PDP). The challenger is positioning himself as the business-friendly candidate. He berates the incumbent for Nigeria’s GDP decline. The country’s GDP has contracted by 34% since the incumbent became president 4 years ago. Atiku claims that the government’s anti-business policies and obtuse economic guidance are to blame. On the other hand, the incumbent blames the challenger’s party for looting over $61B before handing over in 2015. As a result, Buhari claims that he was unable to defend the country’s currency and support the economy when oil prices halved to $50 per barrel when he became president. He also accuses the former ruling party of not diversifying the economy and investing in critical infrastructure which would have helped cushion the recession.
President Buhari was elected on the promise of defeating Boko Haram and ending corruption in government. He has succeeded in rolling back Boko Haram but has not defeated them. There have also been widespread clashes over access to land between herdsmen and farmers in the country’s middle belt region- a vast agrarian valley that is the food basket of Nigeria.
Amnesty International stated that more than 3,600 people have died as a result of these clashes between 2016 to 2018. Buhari has been accused of not curbing the killings because the herdsmen like him and Atiku, belong to the powerful Fulani minority. No one has won Nigeria’s presidential elections without winning the country’s middle belt. Buhari has made his re-election difficult by alienating the people of this region. Also although he has led a highly visible campaign against corruption, many Nigerians still see the government as corrupt although less so than they did before he became president. According to the Gallup Polls, 84% of Nigerians see the government as corrupt vs 95% just before Buhari became president in 2015.
To Buhari’s credit though, he has taken the most serious effort of any President in Nigeria’s history to reduce corruption in government. He has harmonised the treasury into a Single-Account reducing the ease with which Nigerian politicians and bureaucrats pilfer the public purse. However, his most significant achievement is his welfare program transferring cash and other public benefits to Nigeria’s poorest. Nigeria’s previous governments have been effective at growing the country’s GDP and enriching its business and political elite.
However asides from the Western regional government from 1956-1966, this is the first time that the Nigerian Federal government has conducted welfare programs for its poorest citizens. Buhari’s school feeding program has fed 7M+ children in a country where 2.5M children suffer malnutrition. President Buhari also launched the NPower and YES programs that provide training, stipends, grants and jobs to young Nigerians. So far the programs have provided 300K+ jobs to young Nigerians. Unemployment among young Nigerians aged 18-35 years is especially acute at 36% vs a national average of 23%. However, his most transformative social program is a scheme called TraderMoni that gives non-collateral interest-free loans from $25 to $250 to petty traders. In a country where the wholesale/retail sector accounts for 17% of the economy (NBS) and employs ~12M people (14% of its labour force), the potential social impact is far reaching. It may be said that the social programs have been impactful as they have helped reduce income inequality by ~5% even in a period of low GDP growth (see chart above).
President Cesar Gaviria emphasised to Adebayo Alonge (Founder, blogAA) that his social programs giving subsidies to the poorest citizens in Columbia from 1990 to 2004 reduced poverty from 50% to ~30% today. During this time, GDP grew 3% annually showing that public social schemes can work alongside economic liberalisation policies that focus on protecting the most vulnerable. He insists that welfare programs work. His assertions are backed by research. President Cesar credits welfare schemes in Columbia for helping to reduce crime and the hold that Narco gangs had over its poorest citizens. This track record may indicate that Buhari is heading in the right direction. He needs to however also focus on enabling the private sector and improving overall GDP growth. Colombia’s case study shows that this is possible.
On the other hand, Atiku’s focus on privatisation and on business led growth represents more of the same and misses the point that Nigeria needs to focus on social development. All previous Nigerian governments especially led by the PDP have touted the business-led economic growth model. The Nigerians who benefited economically from this approach were the rich- Nigeria’s business and political elite. So Atiku’s proposed approach represents more of the same. Poor Nigerians will also not trust him. Many remember that as VP from 1999 to 2007, Atiku was in charge of privatisation of national assets as part of his government’s liberalisation drive. Many poor Nigerians believe the allegations that national assets were mostly privatised to Atiku’s cronies in exchange for bribes. There are some who question how his company- Intels won operating concessions to a large number of the Nigerian Port Authority’s (NPA) berths, and how it won the multi-million multi-year contracts to deliver 3rd party services to the Port Authority. A former Head of Nigeria’s Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) alleged in 2007 that Atiku attempted to influence the sale of public enterprises so that his friends won the bids. These allegations may be false but Atiku has not done enough to quash them and redeem his name. This puts his election chances in jeopardy even though he should handily beat the incumbent.
No nation can rise above its values. Its leaders need to embody the values that the nation is proud of. Atiku’s inability to quash corruption allegations, his rather poor track record in reducing poverty while in government and his manifesto focusing solely on business led growth does not position him as the leader required to improve Nigeria’s debilitating poverty level. What Nigeria needs is social and economic policy that provides and protects its poorest. It needs a new value system that puts community over self-enrichment. Atiku does not meet these criteria. Buhari does. He should therefore win Nigeria’s 2019 Presidential Elections.