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Pious socialist or brash liberal: Nigeria’s choice this week

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The long-awaited E-Day is finally here. I mean Election Day, of course. Nigerians will go to the pollsthis Saturday, 16 February, to elect the next president. There is a motley crowd of candidates, but the contest is a two-horse race between PresidentMuhammadu Buhari, of All Progressives Congress (APC), and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, of Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). It’s an election that gives Nigeriansa real choicebetween two very different personalities anddiametrically oppositevisions.

Unfortunately, as I told African Business magazine in an interview for its February edition, “It’s an election that isn’t going to be defined by issues but by perceptions of the individual candidates”. Yet, whosever wins,Atiku or Buhari, his ideological orientation and manifesto promiseswould define his government over the next four years. For instance, if Buhari wins, expect more of the same statist, interventionist and anti-business policies; and if Atiku wins, expect a lot of activities around economic, political and institutional reforms and a radical free market approach, but also a brash, laissez faire attitude!

I have previously discussed Buhari’s 28-page “Next Level” manifesto and Atiku’s 186-page “Let’s Get Nigeria Working Again” planin this column. Yahya Alfa Bakar, a teacher and business consultant,did an even more thorough analysis of the two manifestos in a paper entitled “Nigeria 2019: Analysis of Policy Document”, a copy of which he sent to me. Bakar argues that while Buhari iscommitted to large (debt-financed) investments in physical infrastructure, he, unlike Atiku, has “no concrete plans for human capital development, the private sector and reform of state institutions”.

Of course, a few days to an election is not the time to rehearsedetailed arguments about the candidates’ manifestos. So, this piece is not about the minutiaof Buhari’s and Atiku’s plans. Rather, it’s about their ideological orientation and behavioural traits and how these would shape the government either of them leads after the election. President Buhari is, of course, the incumbent and we already know his mindset. Truth is, if re-elected, he would not do anything differently; it would simply be more of the same. Atiku, by contrast, has never governed this country but, looking at his ideological and personality bents, one can conjecture what he would be like if he is in charge.

My proposition is that a re-elected Buhari would simply entrench his moralistic, didactic and personalist approach to governance, with strong socialistic inclinations, while Atiku looks likely to be, if elected, Babangida Mark II. Let’s start with Buhari.

President Buhari’s government is led by puritans and preachers. Buharihimself is puritanical, stoical and self-denying; his deputy, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, is a preacher, pastor and moralist. They areboth socialists or at least prefer socialist solutions to problems. For instance, socialists like to borrow heavily to build infrastructure; they love physical structures, white elephant projects, and would run huge deficits anddebts to build them. Socialists also believe that the solution to poverty is income distribution, through cash transfers to the poor. When it comes to corruption, socialists aresanctimonious, claiming the moral high ground. But they are alsohypocritical. They hardly ever see corruption in their camp; they protect their comrades. For Buhari and Osinbajo, tackling poverty and corruptionis a personal crusade, butbeing socialists, they focus on symptoms and ignore the underlying structuralcauses of poverty and corruption.

What’s more, like the medieval puritans and religionistswho hated merchants and traders, President Buhari has run a very anti-business government. His administration is noted forits intimidation and punitive action against businesses such as MTN and HSBC. This is a government that would not tolerate criticism from any business and that, as alleged, sentthe EFCC to snoop on the financial transactions of businesses suspected of supporting Atiku’s campaign. Let’s face it, a government whose key members could threaten foreigners with violence and death for allegedly intervening in Nigeria’s elections, as Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, arrogantlydid last week, is ruthless, and would put self-interestabove the country’s international image and investor-friendliness. Expect more of such illiberal and aggressive behaviourfrom a second Buhari government.

But what about Atiku? Well, first, he has excited local and international businesses with hiseconomic and political reform plans. Of course, most people believe that some of his promises, such as $90bn annual private-sector-driven infrastructure spending and doublingGDP to $900bn in four years, are too ambitious and can’t be fulfilled. However, many welcome his proposed direction of travel, especially his commitments to free market, privatisation and political restructuring. But as I studied Atiku’s programmes and his utterances,I couldn’thelp but see comparisons, positive and negative, between the administration he would run, if elected, and the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida.

I have recently reread a book entitled Voting for Reform, edited by Stephan Haggard and Steven Webb. In the book, Jeffrey Herbst and Adebayo Olukoshi wrote a chapter entitled “Nigeria: Economic and Political Reforms at Cross purposes”, in which they discussed reforms under the Shagari, Buhari and Babangida administrations. Buhari, of course, implemented closed and draconian political and economic policies. But when Babangida took over in 1985, he embraced the principle of dialogue and consultation. He rejected the recommendation of the Political Bureauthat Nigeria should adopt “socialist socio-economic system” in which the state held “the commanding heights of the economy”, as Buhari favouredthen, and still does.

Of course, Babangida’s flagship policy wasthe structural adjustment programme (SAP).At its heart were the floating of the naira; trade liberalisation; removal of petroleum subsidy; and privatisation. Babangida removed most obstacles to open market and investment liberalisation. And, as of December 1990, according to the World Bank, his regime had sold 55 state companies, and commercialised most of the rest.

Interestingly, Atiku’s economic plans bare remarkable similarities to Babangida’s. Atiku has promised to float the naira;liberalise trade and investment, e.g.by signing the AfCFTA agreement and possibly the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU;remove the petroleum subsidy; and privatise state-owned enterprises, including the NNPC.Atiku says he likes Margaret Thatcher, the pro-free market reformist British prime minister. Well, Thatcher hailed Babangida and his reforms is her book, The Downing Street Years! If elected, Atiku wouldbe, since Babangida, Nigeria’s Thatcherite free-market president!

But here’sthe twist to the Atiku/Babangida comparison: the negatives. According to Herbst and Olukoshi, to sustain his economic and political programmes, Babangida allowed side payments, bribes and patronage to flourish. In other words, the trade-off for Babangida’s reforms was corruption. Atiku has already said, unwisely,that, if elected, “I will enrich my friends”, suggesting a lax attitude to cronyism and patron-client networks. He has also floated the idea of corruption amnesty, which wouldcreating a moral hazard.

Of course, in fairness, Atiku also lays out an elaborate anti-graft strategy in his manifesto.Yet, it is difficult to escape the feeling that Atiku would, like Babangida, see some toleration of graft as an acceptable trade-off for pursuing his radical economic, political and institutional reform agenda.

The choice before Nigerians this week is between a pious socialist whose personal rule and dirigiste policies would scare off investors, trigger capital flight and allow the economy to run aground and a brash, laissez faire, even amoral, liberal, who would transform Nigeria’s economic and political landscapes but be a little relaxed about some slippages on the anti-graft front. If you ask me, Atiku is the lesser of two evils. But you have a choice!

 

Olu Fasan

 

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