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Buhari’s re-election: The oddity of Nigerians voting to be poorer


Nigerians have re-elected Muhammadu Buhari as president for the next four years. He defeated former vice president Atiku Abubakar, his main opponent, by 56% to 41%, securing 15,191,847 votes against Atiku’s 11,262,978. Atiku has rejected the result, describing the election as “a sham”. In truth, though, while there were huge irregularities in the election, they did not materially affect the result. So, Buhari won, Atiku lost!

That said, Buhari doesn’t deserve his re-election. In hardly any civilised country would an incumbent with President Buhari’s appalling record, especially on the economy, secure a second term. Under Buhari’s presidency, unemployment rose from 8.2% to 23%; youth unemployment skyrocketed from 3m to 13m (a 263% increase), Nigeria’s stock market became the worst performing in the world, FDI dropped from $8.9bn in 2011 to $2bn in 2018, and Nigeria became the world’s poverty capital, with 90m people living in extreme poverty, while the country ranked 8 out of 128 in the world’s misery index in 2018. How could a president with such awful failures claim entitlement to a second term?

So, Buhari’s re-election is not earned. The initial negative impact on the stock index, a barometer of market sentiment, proves this. As Bloomberg reported, “Bank stocks in Nigeria fall most since 2016 after Buhari victory”, showing that the anti-business president, whose economic record and grasp of economic fundamentals are miniscule, was not investors’ or the wider business community’s preference.

Yet, Buhari has won; albeit by default! Why by default? Well, as the American journalist Franklin Adams famously said, “Elections are won by men and women because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody”. Truth is, Buhari won because most Nigerians voted against Atiku rather than for him. They didn’t want Atiku and, by default, settled grudgingly for Buhari. As I predicted in this column, the election was fought on integrity, and Buhari’s perceived personal integrity, his reputation for incorruptibility, worked for him, while Atiku’s perceived lack of integrity, his reputation for graft, worked against him. It’s as simple as that; integrity trumped ideas and competence in the election!

Yet, each of the two candidates was a bundle of contradictions. Buhari was pro-poor, yet anti-business; Atiku was pro business but brash and amoral. A London Times journalist captured this contrast well when he wrote that “Atiku would enrich himself and Nigerians, but Buhari would do neither”. In other words, while Buhari would not enrich himself, his statist anti-growth policies wouldn’t enrich Nigerians either but rather impoverish them. In contrast, Atiku’s pro-business and pro-growth policies would enrich Nigerians, but, as part of that, he would enrich himself or at least his cronies. The trade-off was unpalatable, but, for me, Atiku was the lesser of two evils!

How could a leader be pro-poor and yet anti-business? It defies logic. As Sir John Major, a former British prime minister, said, “A society in which business is not successful is going to be a society which is poor”. This is because the greatest antidote to poverty is private sector-driven economic growth, not state interventions through government handouts. But an economy will not grow where the private sector is stifled or where markets can’t operate freely in a competitive environment. Recently, in an interview with the Financial Times, the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed said “My economic model is capitalism”, adding: “We need the private sector”. Is it any wonder that Ethiopia’s economy is growing at 8.5%, while Nigeria’s state-led economy is languishing under 2%?

The truth is that Nigeria lacks a supportive market-based policy environment to attract private financing and long-term domestic and foreign investment flows. The government doesn’t seem to understand the distinctions between drivers, enablers and barriers. For instance, some say the Buhari government’s main achievement is infrastructure spending. But physical infrastructure is not the driver of investment, that is, the direct reason someone would invest in a country. Lack of infrastructure will constitute a barrier, i.e. delay or prevent an investment, and having infrastructure would be an enabler, i.e. helping to overcome the barrier. But the drivers of investment are policies that increase, or guarantee, returns or profitability. These are macroeconomic stability and polices that allow markets, not government, to allocate or regulate resources such as foreign exchange, imports and prices. But Nigeria talks a lot about enablers, such as infrastructure, but ignores policy drivers, such as economic openness and market-based institutions.

In its Nigeria Biannual Economic Update (2018), the World Bank described the Central Bank’s development financing schemes and foreign exchange restrictions to support import substitution as “suboptimal policy measures” and called for “significant structural and fiscal reforms”. Buhari rejected structural reforms in his first term and, in his re-election acceptance speech, signalled a more-of-the-same approach, saying “We have laid the foundations and we are committed to seeing matters to the end”. In other words, he wants to build on the same foundations that made Nigeria and Nigerians poor in his first term. But such continuity will simply make Nigeria poorer, and increase the pauperisation of Nigerians. Which raises the questions: Why did Nigerians vote to be poorer by re-electing Buhari?

Indeed, there are many oddities about the presidential election. First is the low turnout. 73m people collected Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), but only 29m, about 36%, voted. Even 1.3m of the 29m votes were rejected. Given what was at stake, the future direction of Nigeria, and who to entrust it with over next four years, why did over 60% of Nigerians with PVCs refuse to vote? Of course, one can blame INEC’s incompetence, but it’s also true that Nigerians don’t take elections seriously. In the more affluent South, where most citizens were critical of Buhari, and should have preferred Atiku’s liberal policies, the turnout was well below 30%. They refused to come out in large numbers to vote for Atiku, perhaps unimpressed by his fabled integrity problem. But they are now stuck with Buhari!

The other oddity is the voting behaviour of the poor. Several people who are unemployed or can’t make ends meet voted massively for Buhari. A World Bank’s report says about 66% of Nigeria’s poor reside in the North. Yet, the poor in the North, who have suffered under Buhari’s first term and would be further immiserated under his second, if he continues his failed economic policies, preferred him to Atiku, whose policies could create jobs and reduce poverty. But for most of the poor, concerns about Atiku’s integrity trump consideration of how his proposed economic policies could improve their welfare.

Why would anyone act against his or her own economic interests? Well, evidence shows that the poor often do. For instance, during Britain’s EU referendum in 2016, poor people and regions, which would suffer most from the UK’s exit from the EU, voted for Brexit. So, there is a parallel between the voting behaviour of the poor in the UK and those in Nigeria. In the UK, poor people and regions put sovereignty and immigration issues above the economic benefits of remaining in the EU. In Nigeria, the poor preferred a pious Marxist, whose policies would make them poorer, to an amoral capitalist, who could improve their living standards.

Yet, all that said, the onus is now on President Buhari to show that, by voting massively for him, the poor in Nigeria did not vote to make themselves poorer. This means he must change direction and implement policies that generate economic prosperity for Nigerians. But don’t hold your breath. He has already said the next four years “will be tough”! Nigerians have got the leader they deserve!


Olu Fasan

  1. Sigma says

    To be fair to PMB….he cannot give what he does not have…. Expectations of him in my humble opinion are grossly unfair.
    He has nothing in his background or previous achievements to warrant such lofty expectations.
    So perhaps it’s serves a better purpose to spend the next four years preparing for his eventual exist and also develop the blueprint for a review of policies and practices that will ensure that never again is the country trapped in such a viscous cycle.

  2. Adaeze says

    The elections was a massive sham. It was rigged. Many local governments that support PDP had their elections cancelled.

    The success of the rigging was so profound, such that media outlets within and outside the country don’t even know that the election was rigged.

    So sad.

  3. Tony says

    Very biased post

  4. Richard Matthews says

    IThe writer Olu Fasan, either lives in total ignorance of what happened on the election day, or lives in denial or is doing a paid job for the ruling regime. Either of which is sad really and tells of the state of Nigeria’s journalism; compromised in reality, mediocre at best, bearing similar synonyms with Nigeria’s economy and institution under the current regime.

    First, the numbers Olu Fasan describes, as announced by INEC, must stand side-by-side the heavy rigging and army-enabled rape of democracy if the writer understands the place of objectivity. Doesn’t the deaths and maiming of Nigerians as caused by accidental discharge from the police and the army and the burning ballot papers mean anything to the writer? Apparently, it does not! One would have expected that this columnist, at the very least, consult the electoral guidelines to find out if military intervention is lawful- and then condemn it, if it isn’t. Sadly, and mournfully, he turns a blind eyes to it.

    Perhaps, the journalist, like many others not in the mould of a Dele Giwa is afraid of the DSS and has chosen to refuse a critique of the elections. Fair enough- life is precious. However, describing the elections as one “fought on integrity”, is humorous at best. What integrity does Buhari have or command? If we look at facts, did he publish his assets as he promised in 2015? Or did he explain where he got the money to buy a $400, 000 bike for his son after claiming that he was so poor and hence needed Nigerians to crowdfund for his 2015 APC tickets? Is raising up the hands of a governor who was seen collecting bribes in dollars integrity? Or partnering with known thieves in the likes of Tinubu, integrity? What has he done or is he doing that has passed even the most basic test of integrity?

    I will stop here. Hopefully, this journalist and the rest of them get it. If you want to write and put your name and picture, hence your professional integrity, in display, write with an understanding of your responsibility to the society.

  5. Shafik Ahmad MD says

    Olu, as I read through your well written article I am struck by the evidence of integrity trumping ammorality. I think you published enough evidence against your own argument. I know for a fact that nothing happens fast, and laying down infrastructure for good honest investors is the best way to reach the goal of a trully prosperous and healthy economy. As opposed to the “Fly by night, get-rich-quick” crowd of “foreign investors” who deceive us into believing that they are helping us until they take the Lion’s share leaving us with nothing more than entrails. The British legacy was to train clerical staff but never the engineers in order to serve the imported expatriate, a type of job security for the Foreigner!. I fully support Buhari’s long-term plan of devesting us from this “weak, co-dependancy” we have always had with our ex colonial Masters.

    On too many occasions over too many years I have witnessed the “grab as much as: as fast as; while you you can” policies of brilliant educated Nigerians. Taking what in the big picture amounts to pennies but to the individual it’s more money than he has ever dreamed possible for one person to own.

    Foreign investors have never been the answer in my opinion investors have to come from within the country i.e. internal investors and they must be able to trust that their money will not be wasted on corruption. And this, simply put is the best argument for the support of Buhari’s win. Is it not time my brother that we can say to ourselves: Nigeria has an honest leader?

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