Posted on Monday, 23 November 2015 10:00

Nigeria Country Profile 2015: Harnessing optimism against despair

By The Africa Report

altNotwithstanding the country's extraordinary challenges, a general wave of optimism seems to hold sway among
Nigerians at home and abroad.

Economic growth is continuing at a fast pace, and the government impressed many with its efforts to contain the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus. Unless a fresh outbreak manages to slip past the authorities, the sectors of the economy worst hit by the panic – hospitality and aviation – are expected to return quickly to normality.

In the crucial election year of 2015, the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency will cast an especially gruesome shadow. Now in its seventh year, the crisis has displaced more than half a million people and disrupted the latest farming season in an important livestock and food-growing area.

Apart from the fact that the legitimacy of the presidential election will be in doubt if no voting takes place in the three most affected states, the insurgency will continue to be the biggest theme during the remaining weeks of campaigning.

The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) will capitalise on it to argue that President Goodluck Jonathan does not deserve a second term and will be seeking to draw on support from other parts of the north where Boko Haram has already staged spectacular attacks.

Federal might

On the other hand, Jonathan can earn sympathy from southerners who view the crisis as a deliberate ploy by northern power brokers to undermine a southern president. Boko Haram and the government signed a tentative ceasefire in October to allow for the release of the girls kidnapped in Chibok, but it quickly fell apart.

In seeking a second and final term in Aso Rock, Jonathan will be banking on the power of incumbency or "federal might" as Nigerians like to call it. The most powerful elements in his People's Democratic Party (PDP) have publicly endorsed his candidacy.

The party faced a round of defections in 2014, and Jonathan will have very little opposition within the PDP. His main obstacle will be the newly confident APC but only after a hotly contested race for the ticket between long-standing aspirants, the former military head of state Muhammadu Buhari and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will dominate the headlines the way the central bank and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation did in the past year at the height of a public squabble over claims of missing oil monies.

Several state governorship elections conducted in recent months suggest an improvement in INEC's capacity to manage vital logistics. Critics have been quick to point out that the nationwide polls, due in February, will be a much bigger test.

Polling unit suspicions

INEC plans to improve the transparency of the elections with the issue of chip-based permanent voters cards to replace the slips of paper that were the norm four years ago.

Distribution so far has been far from hitch-free. INEC's problems have been compounded by a controversial decision to allocate the bulk of the 30,000 newly created polling units to the country's north, which has awakened age-old suspicions that northern Nigeria is bent on political domination.

Ethnic, geographical and religious divisions still define Nigerian politics. The 'zoning' debates that occur at the national level – with the overall aim being to ensure an equitable rotation of power among the key ethnic interests – also play out with similar passion across the 36 states.

Unwritten rules stipulate that opportunities for governorships should rotate among each state's senatorial districts. Much of the scheming for 2015 will proceed along those lines.

In Lagos, the economic capital, the APC will be looking to maintain its 16-year grip on the governorship of a state that according to ratings agency Fitch accounts for up to 25% of Nigeria's GDP, 10% of its population and more than half of the tax revenues generated by all the 36 states combined.

Another key battleground is the oil and gas hub of Rivers State, which since 1999 had been solid ground for the PDP until the defection of its governor, Rotimi Amaechi, to the APC left pundits guessing on the outcome in 2015.

The APC is confident of expanding beyond its heartlands in the south-west and north-west, while the PDP is counting on maintaining support in of the oil-rich states and the south-east. In most of the north and the Middle Belt, loyalties are harder than usual to predict.

Jonathan hopes to reap the goodwill arising from reports of improved electricity supply across Nigeria. To a population long used to lengthy daily power cuts, even modest gains would be quickly noticeable. More than a dozen state-owned power plants have been handed over to private investors, but there is a risk of the reforms losing momentum.

In September 2014, the government announced a $1.3bn bailout to help the power companies cover revenue shortfalls.

Alongside security and infrastructure, the APC is seeking to make federal corruption a major issue. It will point to a continuing lack of transparency in the management of crude oil revenue after the hounding out, in early 2014, of the whistle-blowing former central bank governor Lamido Sanusi.

But the latent cynicism in an environment where politicians are generally seen as corrupt means that an anti-corruption agenda on the soapbox could have limited impact.

Tight monetary policy

The central bank will have to contend with the inflationary impulse of election-year spending, but Godwin Emefiele, the bank's low-key governor who took office in June, is expected to maintain the tight monetary policy of his predecessor.

Emefiele will struggle to shake off perceptions that he will be a pliable governor, beholden, unlike Sanusi, to powerful banks and political pressure. The controversial bill to revise the fiscal terms of the oil industry will not be passed into law by the current parliament before its tenure expires in 2015.

The resulting uncertainty is likely to affect the take-off of much-awaited projects like a $9bn refining and petrochemical plant in Lagos and Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas's seventh production train.

The oil industry has seen a spate of divestments by oil majors. ConocoPhillips completed the sale of its upstream business to Oando, a local player, and Shell was finalising plans for the $5bn sale of four oil blocks in late 2014. Oil production in 2014 averaged about 2m barrels per day, well under the government's target of 2.4m.

There has been a return of initial public offerings to the Nigerian Stock Exchange. The listing by oil company Seplat on the London and Lagos exchanges in April 2014 was the first since the mar- ket crashed six years ago. Conglomerate Transcorp followed suit with an offer that opened in September, as did Stanbic IBTC.

E-commerce is thriving, at the behest of venture capital firms like Kinnevik, Rocket Internet and Tiger Global Management, which have invested tens of millions of dollars in internet-based startups peddling everything from discount deals to movie streaming.

In 2014, PayPal extended its services to Nigeria, a move analysts see as game-changing in its ability to connect the country to the global marketplace. A national broadband policy launched in 2013 could catalyse the ongoing revolution.

Nigeria has struggled to meet many Millennium Development Goals and will not meet the one on poverty by the end of 2015, though it is set to meet some health goals. Universal primary education has been strong in places but national statistics mask vast regional differences. Talk of bringing more development to the north has not led to big improvements.

The man who tamed the chaos of Lagos

When former Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu picked Babatunde fashola as his chief of staff in 2003, it was a shock to the system for the lawyer.

When Tinubu chose him as successor in 2007, fashola learned quickly on the job and in the last seven years has attracted admiration for his style.

he never uses a siren on his car – the trademark of nigerian big men – and insists he has kept the same mobile phone number and made it publicly available to citizens.

He is best known for his efforts at taming the chaos of a city that swells by an estimated 2,000 migrants daily.

His government put up street signs, traffic lights and zebra crossings, fixed roads, seeded gardens amid the concrete sprawl and introduced a dedicated-lane bus system.

In 2014, the state launched a successful scheme to provide mortgages at single-digit interest rates, in a country where the average commercial bank rates are 15-20%.

Fashola will step down in may 2015 and has not anointed a successor. Frontrunners are Akinwunmi Ambode,
a member of Fashola's All Progressives Congress and a former accountant-general; Obafemi Hamzat, currently a commissioner; Jimi Agbaje, a pharmacist and member of the People's Democratic Party; and Musiliu Obanikoro, deputy national defence minister.

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