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Vol 60 No 24

Published 5th December 2019


Hard economics meets political pageantry

Closing borders, President Buhari wants to boost local producers and stop the smugglers while most politicians look to the next election

Listening to the political class in Abuja, Lagos or Port Harcourt, you might be unaware that the country is locked in an epic battle over the direction of the national economy, still bumping along at its lowest growth rate for two decades.

This battle is the highest-stakes politics. President Muhammadu Buhari and his team insist they are facing down the vested interests that smuggle in cheap Asian rice and sneak out Nigeria's subsidised petrol to neighbouring states (AC Vol 60 No 20, Protectionism and patronage).

Closing down the contraband economy means, for now, routing all official trade through Nigeria's congested seaports and airports. It also flies in the face of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which Nigeria was one of the last countries to sign this year. It's due to come into force in July 2020.

Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama and Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed are trying to smooth things over with the neighbouring states, badly hit by the shutdown, but there is no sign of a U-turn.

The next target of the campaign is the 'diesel mafia', which has grown rich by  sabotaging the national power companies and importing over-priced generators and the fuel oil on which to run them. Success here, Abuja policy-makers say, will push capital from lucrative trading plays, based on access to cheap forex, to productive investment. But the smugglers are fighting back as they squeeze out higher profits from their wares; food prices are rising and market traders fear shortages ahead of the Christmas season.

In Abuja, the government – confident after two election victories for the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) last month – is unmoved by the mounting political risks its strategy presents (AC Vol 60 No 6, Election credibility on trial).

Central Bank governor Godwin Emefiele, the man who runs the economy, told bankers in Lagos on 29 November that the government's nationalist policies were just getting going (AC Vol 60 No 13, The rise of Godwin Emefiele). That means Nigeria's closure of all its land borders may continue well into 2020, while its multi-tier exchange rate system and block on forex allocations for non-essential imports would continue much longer (AC Vol 60 No 22, Command economics on trial).

Plotting ahead
Most of the top politicians keep away from difficult arguments about economic strategy, trying to avoid blame for calamitous consequences. For them, the main event is the presidential succession in 2023. On this they have been plotting ever since Buhari's second term began.  

A day is a long time in Nigerian politics, so plenty is likely to happen in the next 42 months before Buhari heads for retirement in his country home in Katsina. Knives are sharpening and political formations are realigning. The working assumption is that Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo wants to run for the top job in 2023 and his opponents want to stop him early. That band is said to include Buhari's chief of staff Abba Kyari and the former governor of Lagos State Bola Tinubu, who masterminded Buhari's ascent to the presidency in 2015 and proposed that Osinbajo should be his running mate.  

Political gossips imagine some grand plot between Kyari and Tinubu but given their sharp differences in style and substance, it seems unlikely that they could coalesce backing for a common candidate. For years, Tinubu, who doubles as the APC national leader, has harboured dreams of the presidency. That has dimmed his enthusiasm for Osinbajo, his erstwhile protégé. Former secretary to the government Babachir Lawal is said to favour Tinubu's plan. Pushed out of office after a scandal in Buhari's first term, Lawal retains the ear of the President and his inner caucus (AC Vol 59 No 3, Flying blind).

In the wings, people are talking about the governor of Ekiti State and chair of the Nigeria Governors' Forum, Kayode Fayemi. A former Tinubu ally, Fayemi espouses progressive and modernising politics after stints in academia and activism. He is also well-liked on both sides of the political divide. Party insiders say he was considered as a running mate to Buhari in the February elections. This was after Osinbajo had angered Buhari and Kyari by firing the head of the secret police last August while they were out of the country (AC Vol 59 No 16, Barbarians at the gate). Eventually, matters were smoothed over and Osinbajo stayed on the ticket. 

According to precedent, but not a constitutional rule, the presidency will probably revert to the south in 2023. The south-west has produced every southern president, save for five years (2010-15) of Goodluck Jonathan from the south-south. Igbo politicians, from the south-east, lack a powerful block in the ruling APC. 

Supporters of Fayemi say he may have to contend with another Buhari favourite, Tunde Bakare, in the south-west. A Lagos-based clergyman, Bakare is a fierce critic of politicians and unafraid to oppose some of the government's moves. Buhari (whose nickname is Mai Gaskiya – the honest one) likes Bakare's bluntness, appointing him as his running mate in the 2011 elections. 

Bakare has already prophesied that he will be Nigeria's next president and criticises Tinubu in sermons. One warns that 'Since democracy began some people have been living larger than life, having jets here and there, a house in Bourdillon [an exclusive part of Lagos] and places at the expense of the public… you will not go without vomiting what you have stolen. Wait, and see.' 


Opposition implodes

The opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) has been boxed into a corner, its influence shrinking. Despite having won 13 of the 29 state elections in 2015, it lost the gubernatorial elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states in one weekend last month.

While First Lady Aisha Buhari and key All Progressives Congress (APC) figures such as Kaduna governor Nasir el Rufai were campaigning for incumbent governor Yahaya Bello to get a second term in Kogi, the PDP threw in Seyi Makinde, the neophyte Oyo governor and chair of the party's campaign council, to rally support for its candidate, Musa Wada. Despite a positive first six months in office, newcomer Makinde has little name recognition outside the south-west (AC Vol 60 No 4, Governors get set). Aminu Tambuwal and Nyesom Wike, PDP governors of Sokoto and Rivers states respectively who have an eye on their party's ticket in 2023, didn't help the campaign in Bayelsa.

Also missing was former Vice-President and PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, silent since losing his petition challenging Muhammadu Buhari's re-election at the Supreme Court in October (AC Vol 60 No 8, Atiku takes his beef to DC).

Atiku, a perennial presidential contender, was sidelined in party primaries by then President Olusegun Obasanjo ahead of the 2003 elections. Atiku had stepped down in the Social Democratic Party primaries for the 1993 elections to eventual winner Moshood Abiola. If he stands in 2023, it will be three decades of contesting for the top job.

In Bayelsa, former president Goodluck Jonathan junked his PDP membership loyalties and threw his weight behind the ruling APC in the 16 November elections.

The PDP's outgoing Bayelsa governor Henry Seriake Dickson, lambasted for appointing so many relatives to government and nominating his cousin Senator Douye Diri as gubernatorial candidate, had to endure a storm of resignations just before the elections (AC Vol 60 no 18, The oil clean-up that didn't?).

Diri lost heavily. The winner, junior petroleum minister David Lyon, a political godson of Petroleum Minister and former Bayelsa governor Timipre Sylva, braved eleventh-hour legal hurdles and a heavyweight challenger in ex-senator and minister Heineken Lokpobiri to snatch victory in the primaries.

The APC rookie organised a political marriage of convenience by winning
the endorsement of ex-first lady Patience Jonathan. A key influence on her husband, Patience got the former president to side with Sylva and Lyon. While the jury is still out on whether Lyon and his new crew will improve on the performance of both his predecessor and his political godfather, local hostility towards Dickson is running high. 

At federal level, the PDP's strength continues to dwindle. The National Assembly, now headed by two Buhari acolytes, seems keen on legally keeping any opposition from political parties, civil society and the general public to the barest minimum.  

Under debate are two controversial bills that could muzzle dissent and endanger free speech, giving the security forces the power to shut down the internet without recourse to parliament.

One bill seeks to criminalise what it calls 'hate speech'. The other targets social media comments deemed 'likely to be prejudicial to national security' and 'those which may diminish public confidence'. Officially called the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, it reminds older Nigerians of the draconian Decree 4, which muzzled the press in 1984 when General Buhari headed a military government.

At least three journalists remain in police custody. New York-based Omoyele Sowore, mercurial publisher of the website Sahara Reporters and presidential aspirant in 2019, has been held since August on charges of treason, cyber-stalking and money-laundering, despite being granted bail twice.

Abiri Jones, publisher of the Weekly Source, was arrested in May on charges of terrorism and leading a Niger Delta militia. He was previously detained in 2016 for two years. In Cross River, run by a PDP governor sympathetic to Buhari, the publisher of the Cross River Watch, Agba Jalingo, was detained in August on similar charges. A number of domestic and foreign human rights groups have urged parliamentarians not to pass the social media bill into law, fearing even wider censorship.

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