By Ejeviome Eloho Otobo and Oseloka H. Obaze*
Ever before the first ballot in the 2019 presidential elections was cast, some members of Nigeria’s leadership elite, across the political spectrum, were already signaling their intention to run for the presidency in 2023. It seemed as if the President’s term, when re-elected, would be for 48 weeks rather than 48 months. Today marks one full year since the re-elected President Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in for a second term.
This article outlines some of the major issues, which will preoccupy public policy making and other likely developments in Nigeria in next 36 months. This includes the qualities that Nigeria’s attentive public will demand of the next president, bearing in mind Nigeria’s pressing need for adaptive and turnaround leadership. Most likely, Nigeria might witness a deterioration of her fiscal, foreign exchange and debt situation; growing incidence of poverty; heightened criminality linked to unemployment and impunity; and probable fiscal insolvency of some states. Other key developments will include electing a new president; with luck and assertive military valour, the overcoming of Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province insurgency; and growing public awareness of, and insistence on, strict adherence to constitutional norms on protection of life.
Nigeria’s deep-seated economic challenges have been simmering for a while; but the dramatic fall in global oil prices triggered by a confluence of factors including COVID-19 pandemic, has laid bare the vulnerability of Nigeria’s dependence on oil. While Nigeria’s economy is nominally diversified with oil now accounting for less than 10 percent of gross domestic product; oil, nonetheless, still accounts for nearly 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings and 60 percent of government revenue. Hence, the overarching challenge is that even if the Federal government were to ramp up its domestic revenue generation level to the African average of 17-20 percent of GDP; Nigeria has no immediate substitute for oil as a major foreign exchange earner. Diaspora remittances to Nigeria, though huge, remain largely informal and quite mercurial.
Since the end of the civil war in 1970 – some fifty years ago – successive Nigerian governments have relied on two major resources or tools for governance: military force in the political realm, and oil in the economic realm. The use of the military to address public policy issues, even as their structural causes are political or economic in nature, has become the default feature of public policy making. Think of the challenges of herdsmen-farmers clashes which, at its core, are nominally issues of climatic distress and economic adaptation by the former group. Ponder also the realities of the Niger Delta crisis, which at its core, revolves around issues of environmental degradation, developmental neglect, and lack of political elite consensus on resources sharing and derivation entitlements.
In reality, none of these challenges are resolvable strictly by the use of coercive force. As if these were not enough, the military has been routinely drafted to provide security for elections –a task performed by, and eminently suited for, community policing. This has led to overstretching the capacity of the military in domestic operations. Of the various security threats confronting Nigeria presently, the lone crisis that required military force is combating the terrorism of Boko Haram and Islamic States West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Meanwhile, after adopting several plans and policy frameworks for its economic transformation, with a few that had 2020 as the year of inflection, Nigeria is today more reliant on oil as a source of government revenue and foreign exchange than it was in 1974, when the country made the transition from an agro-based and led economy to an oil-dominated economy, in the aftermath of the October 1973 Middle East War. Thus, Nigeria now seems to be suffering from the law of diminishing marginal utility in its reliance on military force and dependence on oil.
At the same time, Nigeria has engaged in three historically unprecedented experiments: predicating its economic transformation efforts on reliance on foreign technical expertise in critical sectors of the economy; growing its economy by relying on electric generators rather than a well functioning national electricity grid; and seeking to achieve inclusive development, while a huge swathe of the country is mired in conflicts resulting in high death toll and internal displacement. Data from two recent reports– “Advancing Social Protection in Dynamic Nigeria” by the World Bank, and “Nigeria Living Standards Survey for 2018-2019″ by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics– have shown the implausibility of the third experiment by highlighting a strong correlation between high poverty levels and conflict-afflicted states in Nigeria.
As we approach 2023, a trenchant debate is unfolding as to which geopolitical zone should produce the next president. On one side are those who argue that the next president must come from the same part of the country as the current incumbent, insisting that the principle of rotation is not in the 1999 Constitution. On the other side are those who argue that there is no clause or principle in the 1999 Constitution, which stipulates that the same region or geopolitical zone is entitled to produce the next president. These two equally valid assertions could drive the country in a wrong acrimonious direction, emitting more heat than light. The cast of probable presidential aspirants may be classified into three categories: the plausible, the pretenders, and the perspirants. Given Nigeria’s long unfulfilled national aspirations, Nigeria’s attentive public has growing expectations concerning the attributes of the next president. These include broad national outlook; ability to communicate frequently and honestly with the public; willingness to be accountable to the people, parliament, and the press; abjuring patriomonial claims to leadership and crass partisanship; upholding constitutionalism and rule of law; and commitment to free, fair and credible elections.
On the last point, it bears emphasis that the 2023 presidential elections will transcend just electing a candidate to occupy Nigeria’s highest political office: lt will be more of a referendum on democracy in Nigeria. The report of European Union Observer Mission cast a harsh spotlight on several shortcomings of the 2019 general elections, which INEC has promised to remedy. Equally important, all presidential aspirants must refrain from any form of conduct that undermines the integrity of the electoral outcome. Given that the presidential elections are scheduled first in every election year, how the presidential elections are conducted in 2023 will determine whether Nigeria’s electorate will have the confidence and enthusiasm to vote in the follow-on elections in 2023. The frequent resort to the Supreme Court to adjudicate electoral disputes does not only burden the Court unduly, but has unwittingly converted the apex court into an electorate college, thus diminishing the value of the popular vote.
Electoral legitimacy is a core value and pillar of good governance. Yet much else rides on performance legitimacy. Action will be needed in three critical areas. First, is reforming the machinery of government. This goes beyond the implemention of the rather limited number of recommendations in the White Paper on the Oronsaye Report. Precisely because the presidency is at the “central nervous system of the government”; reforming it will be an important component of improving the functioning, efficiency and effectiveness of the government.
As we have both argued in our joint Op-Ed on “Reducing the Cost of Governance in Nigeria” published on 29 May, 2019, other cost-cutting measures would include reviewing the size of the cabinet; reducing the salary of the legislatures; and streamlining the public bureaucracy to reduce the overlaps and duplication of functions. Dwindling fiscal resources are an additional impetus for undertaking wide ranging public sector reforms. Meanwhile, Nigerians are hopeful that the recent ranking appointment in the presidency might yet bring the desired reforms within the presidency and signal the resolve for broader and deeper public sector reforms.
Second, in Nigeria’s emerging post-oil-economy, three major drivers of prosperity will include: respect for property rights which is the fulcrum of any market economy; science and technology capacity which is essential to participating in and penetrating a variety of, international supply chains, including promoting value addition; and effective governance, which ensures stability. While the killings by pastoral herdsmen have grabbed the headlines, their forcible seizure and occupation of farmlands in various parts of the country is having a corrosive effect on the protection of property rights, sending unambiguous wrong signals both to foreign and domestic investors, especially in the agricultural sector. Ending and reversing this insidious practice of forcible seizure and occupation deserves priority action. During the 2019 presidential elections, only one candidate underlined the importance of protection of property rights. This should become a shared priority among all political leaders.
Third, in so far as the wealth of nations depends critically on the creativity and ingenuity of its people, the responsibility to protect the life of every citizen matters a great deal. Sadly, citizens’ lives are being lost due to state actors’ over-reach. Last April, the National Human Rights Commission announced that it had “eight documented incidents of extrajudicial killings leading to 18 deaths” between March 30 and April 13– the first two weeks of the COVID-19 related lockdown. These killings involved military, police and the correctional services personnel. Since there were only 10 deaths by COVID-19 in Nigeria during the same period, Nigeria earned the dubious distinction, in the world, of having more deaths by security agents than COVID-19 at any point in the fight against COVID-19. This reality underlines why Nigeria’s law enforcement and security agents should be re-oriented, through an enhanced security sector governance reforms programmes to further emphasize that the protection of the citizens is their most sacred duty. Closely related to ongoing geopolitical-based security sector restructuring, the demands for national restructuring will need to be addressed, perhaps in the context of the 2014 National Confab report.
In looking forward to the election of the next president in 2023, Nigerians may do well to remember what President Umaru Yar’Adua said in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States: “Obama’s election has finally broken the greatest barrier of prejudice in human history.” This raises the heady question: Can Nigeria overcome her regional, religious, and ethnic barriers in choosing its next president?
* Otobo, a retired Assistant Secretary –General (ASG) at the United Nations is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Global Governance lnstitute, Brussels, Belgium, and member of the Advisory Board of The New Diplomat.
*Obaze, Managing Director/CEO, Selonnes Consult, is a retired seasoned United Nations Official, author, and former Secretary to the Anambra State Government. He is a member of the Advisory Board of The New Diplomat.