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Vol 62 No 1

Published 7th January 2021


Ready to rumble

As President Buhari looks to his legacy, the jostling for succession will begin in earnest

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2021

In May, President Muhammadu Buhari will reach the halfway point of his second and final four-year term. It is that point in Nigeria's political calendar, when the main players' focus shifts from public administration and towards the succession.

For the hopeful, it is a chance for the outgoing administration to get things done, free from aspiring candidates preoccupied with campaigning. Cynics see it as a time for a lame duck presidency: fin-de-règne pressures to win contracts and prepare for the next era. 

Buhari's second-term agenda has been buffeted by the Covid-19 pandemic and rising violence. The weakness of the security forces was laid open by the December kidnapping of over 300 students from a boys' boarding school in Katsina, in the north-west, and a deadly attack on over 50 rice farmers in the north-eastern state of Borno a month earlier. When the Islamist insurgents Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, it raised the possibility that insurgents are expanding across the north from their bases in the north-east, southern Niger and north-west Chad (AC Vol 61 No 4, Generals on the run). 

For two years, Buhari has resisted pressure to change the services chiefs, whom he has kept on beyond their normal retirement age, and despite criticisms of their competence and probity. 

The latest attacks show how widespread the threat of violence has become in Nigeria. It also challenges the arguments of those evangelicals in Europe and the United States who say Christians are targets of state-sponsored violence. Most of the victims have been Muslim. 

As a former military leader, Buhari will face growing pressure to stop the rot in the security services, where the senior officers are behaving increasingly assertively towards politicians. Advisors say he also wants to make a concerted defence of diversity and religious tolerance. 

The death from complications arising from coronavirus in April of Abba Kyari, the President's chief of staff, created a vacuum that has been filled slowly and inconsistently. Kyari's replacement, veteran diplomat Ibrahim Gambari, 76, has a less close personal relationship with the President and is more cautious, particularly on internal party issues and national security. The pace of government has slowed further, with decisions delayed or diluted. 

Boss Mustapha, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, and General Babagana Monguno, National Security Advisor, previously marginalised, are trying to pick up the slack, along with an informal network of aides, advisers and relatives. 

In more defensive mode will be Bola Tinubu, former Governor of Lagos State, founding father of the ruling All Progressives' Congress and billionaire businessman (AC Vol 61 No 17, All power to the governors). Tinubu has no official position in the party but is angling for the succession in 2023. His control over the party weakened in 2020, with the departure of both Adams Oshiomhole as chairman of the APC and Ibrahim Magu as acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, thought by Tinubu's rivals to support his cause. 

Tinubu's supporters have launched his campaign under the title South-West Agenda 2023, with the fitting acronym SWAGA. There are plenty of other contenders from across the country but south-western candidates are ahead for now. 

Mamman Daura, a nephew and political ally of Buhari's, caused a storm last year when he suggested that the principle of rotating the presidency between the country's six regions was not necessarily a recipe for better governance. 

As Tinubu tries to recover ground, the technocratic Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, a former protégé of Tinubu's like most politicians from the south-west, is also a contender but may have to mend some fences in the party and with Buhari if he is to consolidate his claim. 

Kayode Fayemi, Governor of Ekiti State and Chairman of the Nigerian Governors' Forum, is a popular contender; politically astute and trusted by Buhari. In October, Fayemi's speech in Kaduna, the spiritual heart of northern Nigeria, on inclusion and diversity in a polarised land went down well. A devout Catholic, Fayemi also has plenty of friends in the Niger Delta and the east. 

Any contender from the east will have to navigate the divisions among the few APC leaders in a region that shunned Buhari in elections last year and in 2015. The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) campaign, will continue its calls for the south-east to secede, coordinated by US lobbyists Mercury Public Affairs (close to the outgoing Trump administration), and brand President Buhari as a genocidal Islamist in the US media. Officials in the Buhari government hope they may be able to work better with a Biden administration. 

The opposition People's Democratic Party faces a similarly crowded field of contenders for 2023. One lobby is pushing for a return of former President Goodluck Jonathan. And former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar has once more thrown his hat in the ring. 

Competition for nominations for the Senate and state governorships will be equally vigorous, some drawing campaign funds from state treasuries. If party hierarchies fail to manage internal tensions, a 'third force' could emerge, fuelled by dissidents from the main parties.

Buhari's core priorities – improving security, tackling corruption and diversifying the economy – have remained stubbornly elusive. He also faces a growing youthful opposition, outside mainstream parties, in the form of the #EndSARS coalition that campaigned against police brutality. 

After a wave of peaceful demonstrators were disrupted, firstly by sponsored fifth columnists and then by confrontations with well-armed soldiers in Lagos, this opposition has gone underground. But it is unlikely to stay there. 

Stung by criticism of his handling of the protests against police brutality – in particular a documented report by CNN on the shooting of protestors at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos – the President has accused international media of being misled by social media. In turn, the protestors say military intelligence was running a comprehensive and sophisticated disinformation campaign, as well as carrying out highly-targeted arrests and detentions. However, the #EndSARS protest won popular support very quickly and disrupted the national economy, on top of the pandemic, for most of October (AC Vol 61 No 24, Protest, what protest?). 

Abuja officials say the government wants to revive a police reform bill. That will be complicated by other factors encouraging crime, such as extreme poverty and the weakness of the criminal justice system. 

Three key reforms will show the government's direction in 2021 (see Box, Economy's fragile opportunities): whether it ends fuel and electric power subsidies, and its ability to push through the Petroleum Industry Bill (AC Vol 61 No 20, How to make oil pay). Mele Kyari, Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, is to manage the bill's complex implementation. 

Environmental protection, part of the new PIB, will come up in 2021 as Buhari pushes the need for mitigation against desertification, coastal erosion and pressures on land use. He sees these not just as an ecological challenge but as an immediate security issue, given the clashes over land use in the Middle Belt. Nigeria is to work with other countries in the region on the issue, ahead of the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in November. 

The government scored a major victory when an English judge agreed in July that there was prima facie evidence of corruption in a 2010 contract awarded to Process and Industrial Development, a British Virgin Islands company, that secured a US$10 billion arbitration award against Nigeria, apparently with the complicity of government officials at the time (AC Vol 61 No 15, Fight in the last chance saloon). Attorney-General Abubakar Malami will lead efforts to build on that success, and try to have the award overturned for good. But P&ID and its backers may try to spin out the process or negotiate for an out-of-court settlement. 

A separate high-profile case, in which Italian prosecutors claim oil companies Shell and ENI worked with a criminal network including senior government officials to acquire a lucrative oil block, is also set to reach a conclusion in 2021. 

Official data, albeit patchy, suggests the federal and most state governments have responded effectively to the pandemic. However, officials say recent increases in infections could prove a dangerous harbinger for 2021, and the government has reintroduced tough restrictions on all retail trade. Both the coordinator of the Covid-19 task force, Sani Aliyu, and the director of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Chikwe Ihekweazu, have been highly effective in managing the risk where hospital capacity and critical care are extremely limited. 

A much bigger task still will be to access enough vaccines, and manage the roll-out to allow Nigeria to speedily rejoin the international economy (AC Vol 61 No 25, Unbalancing the books).



The combined effect of the coronavirus pandemic, the latest lockdowns in the 36 states and the oil price crash will keep up the pressure on Nigeria's economy in 2021. Any recovery will depend on an upswing in international trade, and at home there will be have to be a boost in farm production and manufacturing, as well as some key policy reforms.

Abuja's policymakers forecast real GDP growth of 2% or more while Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor Godwin Emefiele predicts the country will be out of recession by the first quarter (AC Vol 61 No 25, Unbalancing the books).

For local and foreign business that looks way too optimistic. A coronavirus-driven downside case, according to the World Bank, could see a worse contraction than last year if policy reforms are held up. There could also be another spike in inflation, already in double-digits.

Living standards are under huge pressure, with close to 30% unemployment, food shortages, and the service sector hit by a pandemic-driven slowdown. Some industries such as telecommunications and technology will continue to thrive, directly benefiting the urban middle class.

Should the government balk at further reforms to forex policy, cutting subsidies on fuel and electricity, the fiscal pressures will intensify and could trigger a wider payments crisis. The federal government's reluctance to push through the foreign exchange market unification pressed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank will lead to a further drawdown of foreign exchange reserves.

In consonance with its naira policy, the CBN's monetary policy committee will have little space to reduce interest rates. Although President Muhammadu Buhari is re-opening the land borders to trade, he and CBN governor Emefiele are unlikely to roll back the numerous foreign exchange restrictions, designed to shore up the currency and help domestic producers. Yet market conditions could force further, CBN-backed, downwards adjustment of official Naira/US dollar exchange rates.

Relaxation of land border controls, encouraged by the January launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), should improve Nigeria's trading relationship with its neighbours.

It will be another lacklustre year for oil exports although average oil prices in 2021 will probably exceed the sub-US$41/barrel average last year. The bright spots will be that the Petroleum Industry Bill will finally be passed this year, and the Dangote Group's petrochemicals plant and oil refinery is due to start operations by the end of 2021. However, banks will remain vulnerable to oil sector exposure and a spike in non-performing loans, and downwards pressure on earnings and capital. The outcome of Nigeria's legal battle to throw out the $10 billion Process and Industrial Development claim against it will be critical for its financial standing (AC Vol 61 No 15, Fight in the last chance saloon).

The government will have to borrow heavily to fund the Naira 13.6 trillion ($35.6bn) federal budget, signed on 31 December by Buhari, with its ambitious capital expenditure plans. It may float another Eurobond as yields on Nigeria's outstanding bonds are below early 2020 levels. Certainly, Nigeria's debt and debt service costs are on an upward path.

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