BusinessDay

Presidents and their legacies

Like his predecessors, the legacy of President Muhammadu Buhari is in the spotlight as his administration winds down.

Every President in history is always conscious of the legacy he wants to leave behind, a development that is always framed around how well they deliver on their campaign promises.

For most political leaders, legacy is about life and living. It is about learning from the past, living in the present, and building for the future.

Although numbers have not only been on their sides, most of Nigeria’s democratic presidents from 1999 till date campaigned on the premise of either being an anti-corruption hero or the one who finally diversifies an ailing oil economy or as an economic messiah who paved the way for the majority of households and businesses.

Unlike Nigerian presidents, most forward-thinking leaders believe legacy is about living a relic, which is arguably the most powerful thing leaders have to influence the future even if they are out of the picture.

For instance, the late Nelson Mandela will always be remembered for his unwavering devotion towards racial equality and devotion to democracy. Adolf Hitler will always be remembered as the Nazis German leader who plunged the world into chaos.

Americans remember James Buchanan mostly for his administration’s corruption and his failures to solve the country’s crisis over slavery, and Italy, in more recent times, remembers Silvio Berlusconi for little more than bribing public officials, using legislative power for personal benefit, and driving the economy into murky waters.

For Nigerian leaders, it is a case of different strokes for different folks.

Buhari’s legacy

President Buhari came into office under the blaze of tremendous goodwill in May 2015 after three failed attempts.

He hinged his campaign on ‘Change’ with a promised legacy for jobs and inclusive growth, which will be driven by investment in infrastructure and agriculture.

“If we fix infrastructure and agriculture, Nigerians will mind their businesses,” the president often says.

Since elected, Buhari has earned the nickname “Baba Go Slow” for his deliberative approach. He took nearly six months to name his first cabinet, and it was years before his government began paying lip services, economists argue, essential structural reforms such as removing subsidies and raising power tariffs.

Instead, his focus has generally been on investing in agriculture and infrastructure, fighting corruption, improving national security and alleviating poverty. On those measures, his record is mixed.

For instance, history would be kind to the president for his work to revive the railway, which was abandoned in the days of the military buccaneers that took over power in 1985.

The country has record lots of railway expansion in Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna, Kano, and Maradi in the Niger Republic, while other railway lines linking Lagos with Abeokuta, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Calabar, Uyo, etc, are also at different stages of development.

Other wins include the establishment of InfraCo Plc, a world-class infrastructure development vehicle, with combined debt and equity take-off capital; establishment of Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund (PIDF), investing over a billion dollars in three flagship projects: Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, Second Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano Expressway; more than N360 billion worth of Sukuk Bonds raised since 2017 for dozens of critical road projects across all six geopolitical zones; ground-breaking on 614km Ajaokuta-Kaduna-Kano Gas Project ($2.8bn) and signing of the PIB.

On the downside, Buhari’s home state of Katsina has also witnessed an escalation in violence, with several villages raided by armed bandits, while the Boko Haram armed group continues to operate in the northeast of the country.

Nigeria’s unemployment rate has more than doubled to 33.3 percent since Buhari assumed office in 2015, while 90 million Nigerians are living in extreme poverty, more than any other country, according to findings based on a projection by the World Poverty Clock and compiled by the Brookings Institution.

Buhari has also struggled to weed out corruption, which has hurt the economy and the ease of doing business in the country.

According to Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, Nigeria failed to improve its ranking of 144th out of 180 countries from the previous year, despite “a number of positive steps” taken by the Buhari government.

However, the opposition has criticised Buhari’s record in the fight against corruption, a promise he ran on in his initial 2015 campaign.

“The fight against corruption has been an abysmal failure, to put it mildly. It turned from prosecution to persecution of perceived political foes,” Anthony Ehilebo, head of digital media for the PDP’s presidential campaign team, told Al Jazeera.

Read also: 2023: Leave choice of successor to voters, Nigerians tell Buhari, governors

Jonathan’s legacy

Before the presidential elections of March 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s reputation was not a strong one. He ascended to lead his country when his predecessor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, passed away in 2010.

In 2011, Jonathan surprised many observers in and out of Nigeria by securing the ruling party’s support for another term and ultimately winning the general election.

His administration’s major legacy project includes the construction of Abuja Kaduna railway system and the refurbishment of Lagos to Kano railway line; although the minister of transportation Rotimi Amaechi claims the Buhari-led administration put finishing touches to the project.

The ex-president also established 12 universities in states that had no Federal university. These states include Kogi (Lokoja), Nasarawa (Lafia), Gombe (Kashere), Taraba (Wukari), Jigawa (Dutse), Katsina (Dutsin-ma), Ebonyi (Ndufu-Alike), Bayelsa (Otuoke), Ekiti (Oye Ekiti), Yobe (Gashua), Kebbi (Birnin Kebbi) and Zamfara (Gusau).

“The ex-president did not build the universities from scratch, rather he established them. That is converting existing structures like technical institutions, secondary schools into higher institutions,” DUBAWA, Nigeria’s first indigenous independent verification, and fact-checking project, said.

Beyond projects, his tenure was characterised by soaring unemployment, increased instability in northern Nigeria as Boko Haram gained strength and territory, and a widespread perception that public funds were pocketed by the influential and well-placed with impunity.

To this day, senior members of his cabinets are dogged by various corruption scandals winding their way through the courts.

But as the votes were counted in March 2015, Jonathan conceded electoral defeat to Muhammadu Buhari, famously asserting that “nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian.”

Most analysts claimed the move was an unprecedented and courageous act in Nigerian politics because it caught many Nigerians and Nigeria-watchers by surprise.

Obasanjo’s legacy

With the country in political and economic turmoil following the sudden end of General Sani Abacha’s heavy-handed regime, former President Olusegun Obasanjo raised hopes that the oil-producing giant would become a beacon of democracy in West Africa, a region scarred by coups, wars, and coercive states.

But his autocratic style prompted many to question his adherence to democracy, and their fears were compounded when his allies mounted a powerful campaign to change the Constitution and let him stay for a third term.

He has restored Nigeria’s status as a major African power after years of isolation under Abacha.

He brought in economic reformers whose budget discipline enabled Nigeria to build over $40 billion in foreign reserves and persuaded creditors to write off $18 billion in debts.

He also launched a war on corruption, but critics say the crackdown was aimed mainly at his opponents.

Despite unprecedented oil earnings, power blackouts and fuel shortages were common, and standards in schools and hospitals were among the world’s lowest under him.

Privatisations, a key part of the reforms, have benefited a small business clique with ties to Obasanjo and his party. Obasanjo also failed to curb ethnic, religious, and regional tensions that led to the deaths of an estimated 15,000 Nigerians under his watch.

He left his successor with an unresolved crisis in the Niger Delta, where oil production had been severely disrupted by kidnappings and violence.

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