• Saturday, June 15, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Nigeria: An uncommon power struggle ignites

Jonathan, investors open talks with A/Ibom on gas utilisation

The billboards bearing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign slogan — “continuity” — are plastered everywhere, from ramshackle stores to shopping malls.
For members of the business community who have placed big bets on Jonathan’s administration in the five years since his accidental rise to power, continuity must have a reassuring ring. Otherwise, it seems an odd choice of word for the times.

Elections in Africa’s most populous nation have never been for the faint-hearted. They almost always trigger violence. Pitting two strongly contrasting candidates — the incumbent, a southern Christian and former zoology lecturer from the restive, oil producing Niger delta, against Muhammadu Buhari, an ascetic former military ruler and a Muslim from the north — these are gearing up to be especially rough.

Originally scheduled for last Saturday but now postponed by six weeks, the campaign has played out against the backdrop of an escalating, Islamist insurgency, financial turmoil resulting from the falling price of oil — on which the state depends for around 70 per cent of revenues — and now fears of an impending constitutional crisis.
Boko Haram extremists have massacred several thousand people since the start of the year, extending their control over a swath of territory in the impoverished northeast and threatening the regional capital, Maiduguri.

It is a uniquely ominous set of circumstances that is partly self-inflicted and partly beyond Jonathan’s control. But it is hard to find many Nigerians who would enthusiastically endorse more of the same.

“If you wanted to create a perfect storm in Nigeria, this is how you would set it up,” says a senior government official, speaking privately. “We are facing an existential national crisis and yet we are not able to mobilise and come together,” he adds, lamenting the lack of a united front to address the jihadi threat and tackle the consequences of the oil price shock.
At stake is the continued transformation of Africa’s leading economy — among the fastest growing in the world over the past 15 years — and in the most extreme scenario, Nigeria’s ability to hold together as one nation.

General Buhari is a throwback to a different era. He joined the army in the 1960s when Nigeria was descending into civil war and imposed a “war on indiscipline” after taking power in a coup and serving briefly as military head of state in the 1980s. Now 72, he is attempting for the fourth time to return to the presidency via the ballot box, with the firm backing from the north at a time when the predominately Muslim region is determined to reclaim power.

“Northerners have seen so many of their own leaders who have become extremely rich. Gen Buhari stands out as the one who remained frugal, who is not about self-enrichment. They see him now as a messiah,” says Kadaria Ahmed, who hosts a Nigerian current affairs programme.

When banks and consumer industries were booming in the more prosperous south, his sober, authoritarian style went down badly. It has greater appeal now that the falling oil price has exposed the extent to which the proceeds of the oil boom have been squandered. Nigerians are feeling the effects directly through the depreciating naira.
Restoring spirit

Gen Buhari’s allies believe he is among the few politicians with the stature capable of stopping the rot, resetting Nigeria on a less iniquitous path, and restoring fighting spirit to the debilitated army in the war against Boko Haram.

“He is a moral authority who can put the country back on track,” says Kayode Fayemi, a former state governor and civil rights activist, and now policy chief for Gen Buhari’s opposition All Progressives Congress.

With the backing of influential coalition allies he appears this time to be making significant inroads into the southern, Christian vote, attracting huge crowds at rallies. But he remains a polarising figure, whose austere image rattles sections of the elite and business community, and who is still deeply resented in parts of the south for human rights abuses committed during his time as military ruler.

Despite his age and history, he has emerged as the candidate of “change”. His campaign to unseat Jonathan was gaining what supporters and some neutral observers sensed was unstoppable momentum when, suddenly, the Independent National Electoral Commission delayed elections until March 28.

“He got a boost from the way we managed the primaries. But since then it has become as much an ‘anything but Jonathan’ movement as it is a pro-Buhari one,” says Fayemi.
Jonathan’s challenge

Jonathan won comfortably against Gen Buhari in 2011 elections, after rising to the job on the death of his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua in office. He was perceived as a breath of fresh air — the first president to come from a minority group in the Niger Delta region which produces the oil wealth.

Read also: FCMB deepens SMEs’ growth, cashless policy with MPoS

His government took some bold reform steps, privatising the electricity sector in an attempt to tackle chronic deficits, tackling fraud in the distribution of fertiliser and, in 2011, attempting but failing in the face of protests, to eliminate the fuel subsidy — another source of multibillion-dollar fraud.

He has lost much of the goodwill since, and is perceived now even by some allies as lacking authority, clumsy in his handling of the insurgency and unfazed by alarming levels of profligacy within government circles.

Facing a growing protest vote, he has had some embarrassing moments on the campaign trail. At some rallies he was booed and heckled. In some northern states his convoy was stoned.
According to one younger official, there were the beginnings of panic in the ruling party. Some senior officials were contemplating exile. Funds meant for the PDP election campaign were finding their way offshore. Some members of Jonathan’s administration have reason to be afraid that a government led by Gen Buhari would come after them and their money.

Attahiru Jega, the electoral commission chairman, postponed the polls under strong pressure from security chiefs, who told him they were unable to guarantee safety while simultaneously launching a fresh military campaign against Boko Haram.

The delay should allow for the distribution of biometric voter cards to millions of voters who were at risk of being disenfranchised. But in part because of the antecedents — the military regime in 1993 annulled the vote when the “wrong” candidate won — many Nigerians see these legitimate concerns as pretexts conjured up by the administration to forestall defeat.
Now, there are growing fears among opposition and civil society activists that the government may seek to extend its mandate beyond a four-year term ending on May 29, or risk plunging the country back into the hands of the military rather than allow the retired general to win.

“Having used [the security forces] to shift the election, what’s to stop them saying there will be no election?” Femi Falana, a campaigning lawyer, wrote last week, drawing parallels with 1993.
Jonathan pledged last Wednesday to preside over a fair vote and to step down should he lose. “There is no way I will not hand over,” he said.

Financial weakness
Uncertainty has nevertheless tipped Nigeria’s financial markets into renewed turmoil. Investors have been jittery for months as a result of the impact on state finances of the falling oil price, which has exposed how few savings were put away when prices soared.
The naira slid to record lows last week trading on the interbank market for the first time at below 200 to the dollar. The stock market, the world’s second worst performer this year after Ukraine, also extended months of losses.

Risk and investment analysts in financial centres around the world have struggled to read the runes. But on one thing they are clear: Nigeria has played an essential part in the revival of broader optimism about Africa over the past 15 years.

Given the size of its economy — which after a revision of data overtook South Africa’s last year as the continent’s largest — a major democratic reversal, or sustained outbreak of violence along regional or religious lines would have far-reaching repercussions.

“So much of the ‘Africa rising’ narrative is tied up in the idea that better governance allowed for improved economic outcomes,” says Razia Khan, chief economist for Africa at Standard Chartered. “Of course, from the 1990s, we did see that perhaps most meaningfully in Nigeria’s own emergence from its military past. A more severe threat to the elections in Nigeria would shake the foundations on which the belief that Africa will continue to pull ahead rests,” she adds.

The next six weeks will be nerve-racking. The extra time allows the president’s party an opportunity to regroup. Officials are studying the electoral map and readying an infusion of cash and muscle to smooth relations in key states.

But with the ruling party facing a strong, national opposition with growing momentum, it is unclear whether it can turn the tide. Indeed, many Buhari supporters in the north believe they have already won.

Meanwhile in the Niger delta, many of Jonathan’s supporters feel strongly that he is entitled to a second term. Former warlords from the days when the oil producing region was in conflict have threatened openly to take up arms again should he lose.

No outcome is likely to be entirely smooth. But the potential for unrest in the north, where millions feel they have yet to feel the dividends of civilian rule, is probably greater, and more dangerous, given the opportunity that would provide for the insurgents of Boko Haram. Since the dawn of black majority rule in 1994 South Africa, there has rarely been so much hanging on an African election.

Constitution: Rivals must appeal to all regions and ethnicities
Winning a Nigerian election requires more than a simple lead. The successful candidate must also garner 25 per cent of the vote in two-thirds of the 36 states in the federation.
This constitutional provision was introduced to safeguard against a presidency held with only narrow regional or ethnic support. But it is only in 2015 that it has become such a critical factor. In the past three polls, the ruling People’s Democratic Party had the machinery to muscle support from across the multi-ethnic federation. This time there are reasons to doubt whether either main candidate can win the required numbers nationwide to avoid a run-off.

This is partly because of the unique way in which Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian who rose to power from the position of vice-president on the death of Umaru Yar’Adua, his northern, Muslim predecessor. His incumbency has upset an unwritten rule within the PDP that the presidency should rotate between north and south. As a result, he and the ruling party have lost support among northern Muslims.

Meanwhile, the defection to the opposition All Progressives Congress of several state governors has evened control of patronage at state level.
Jonathan’s strongest base is in the southeast and south-south, but the 11 states in those regions do not have the numbers to win a presidential vote. His challenge is to secure enough support among Muslims and minority Christians in the north and centre to fulfil the constitutional requirement, while also taking chunks from opposition strongholds in the populous Yoruba-speaking southwest.

The challenge for the main challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, is the reverse. He is forecast to win a landslide in his home northwest and take a big slice of the southwest. But he still needs 25 per cent of votes in some other southern states where hostility to him is strongest.

Islamist insurgents potentially hold the balance. They could prevent more than a million of Gen Buhari’s supporters from voting in the northeast, their stronghold. For Boko Haram, a southern Christian unpopular in the north is a more convenient enemy than a former general, popular among Muslims, whose main mission is to rebuild the army.
William Wallis

Wallis is the Financial Times Africa Editor