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Nigeria’s high-tension vote

Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith
Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Thursday, 5 March 2015 15:57

The difference between serious concern and panic mongering is getting blurred as Nigeria’s political climate swings from jubilation at the prospect of a credible election and political competition to doom-laden forecasts of drawn-out disputes and regional clashes.

If the new government were to privatise the state oil corporation, it could raise well in excess of $100bn

The reality of a bloody insurgency in the north-east spilling over national borders and the shock waves caused by crashing oil prices further jangle the nerves.
Political tensions are evidently rising after the postponement of the elections to 28 March.

In Abuja these days, politicians on all sides preface their remarks with a reference to a ‘dangerous time’ for the country.

A banker and strong supporter of President Goodluck Jonathan laments that neither the ruling People’s Democratic Party nor the opposition All Progressives Congress have shown a will to accept defeat at all, let alone gracefully.

“We don’t have a good record of managing close election results,” he says.

Nigeria’s most threatening crises have been resolved by the political, military and business elites stitching together backroom deals.

There seems little scope for compromise between backers of Jonathan – the first president from the Niger Delta, who started out with a serious agenda to reform power and agriculture – and his challenger Muhammadu Buhari, a tough former military leader whose anti-corruption record has made him wildly popular in the north and parts of the south-west.

Yet following claims last year by Lamido Sanusi, the former central bank governor, that the state oil company had failed to transfer more than $20bn to the government’s accounts, it is the determination of Buhari – himself a former oil minister – to promote accountability that boosts his poll ratings.

Now, his message to worried politicians and businesspeople is that he will focus on the future and not spend government time on probes into Nigeria’s multitudinous historic scandals.

The big risks will not stop on election day or even at the presidential inauguration due on 29 May.

Reforms in the power and oil and gas sectors have nearly ground to a halt and are slowing efforts to diversify the economy.

Most of all, the money tree is bare.

That is prompting some bold thinking among some business leaders and politicians.

If the new government were to privatise the state oil corporation, it could raise well in excess of $100bn – the funds so badly needed to fix the power sector and finance a network of gas pipelines across the country.

This would slash energy prices and improve provision.

Such a radical move could help to fight the political patronage and commercial corruption that has undermined the industry and distorted Nigerian politics.

For now, such radicalism may look problematic – cutting across vested interests as it raises billions of much-needed cash for government.

But for whoever holds the government reins on 1 June, high-tension politics and empty state coffers could hold by far the bigger risk. ●

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