Nigeria: Buhari missing in action while security and economic woes persist

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Wednesday, 2 June 2021 16:36, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:52

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari Nigeria February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

While Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari travelled to Ghana over the weekend for a summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that discussed the political crisis in Mali, at least 24 persons including Ahmed Gulak, a former presidential aide, were killed while two courts and police stations were razed in various states in the south-east. Yet, the growing insecurity is just one of the many challenges the president is struggling with - and many believe he has lost control of his administration.

In addition to spiralling violence by non-state actors carrying out attacks across the country, the Nigerian economy has been on a downward slope, forcing millions of citizens out of jobs and depriving them of livelihoods.

“Things have never been this bad in Nigeria, especially when you now play the insecurity against the background of poverty and unemployment,” says Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based policy advocacy and research organisation.

Increasing security challenges have destabilised the country in the face of an emboldened Boko Haram (an insurgent group locally referred to as bandits, that is behind kidnappings in the northwestern region in exchange for ransom) as well as growing insurrections in the south-east and south-west.

“It is as if the government has closed up for the year and they are waiting for 2023 to come so they can exit and usher in a new administration,” Hassan says.

What is the value of a Nigerian life?

Since 1 January (when Buhari last addressed Nigerians via the customary presidential broadcast) to 30 April, at least 2,000 Nigerians have been killed in mass atrocities, according to Global Rights, an international human rights organisation; that’s compared to about 4,000 killed in 2020.

Funke Adeoye, a programmes manager at the NGO tells The Africa Report that “things have gotten really bad” in terms of security under the Buhari administration especially because “we have not seen any corresponding action from the government.”

A group of powerful individuals commonly referred to as the cabal, has dominated Buhari’s government amid accusations – even by Aisha, the president’s wife – that they have built a wall around the president to keep him aloof from happenings.

Global Rights staged a nationwide demonstration on Friday 28 May to protest rising insecurity in the country. Two days later, assailants shot dead a top APC chieftain in the southeastern Imo state and about 200 schoolchildren were kidnapped in Niger State, where dozens had earlier been taken hostage from a school in February.

“What we have is just the government issuing out statements, [and] we are not sure where they are coming from,” says Adeoye. “We are asking for steps to show that the government indeed values the lives of every Nigerian but we’ve not seen the kind of action that we need to see happen.”

Worrisome economy

After aiding coups and eyeing the presidency during three election campaigns, Buhari was finally elected to lead the world’s most populous black country six years ago. But things have grown from bad to worse under his watch, with no signs of any improvement in sight.

Since Buhari was elected in 2015:

  • The unemployment rate has grown from 8.19% to 33.28%
  • Food inflation shot up to 22.7% from 9.78%
  • The country’s public debt profile rose from N12.6trn ($30.8bn) to N32.9trn ($80.4bn)
  • GDP growth rate has slowed down to -1.92% compared to its previous level of 2.35%

There is little help that has come from the president’s economic handlers and key institutions such as the Central Bank of Nigeria, which has increasingly become dependent on the government since President Buhari came to power.

In 2019, for example, Buhari told the CBN to stop providing foreign exchange for food imports, raising eyebrows and criticisms, including from Kingsley Moghalu. The 2019 presidential candidate and former CBN deputy governor said the act that regulates the CBN “makes it clear that the bank is independent [and] not supposed to be taking direct instructions from politicians.”

“The current performance of this administration has been terrible on all fronts since 2016. Economic growth has been below population growth rate and the implication is that since 2016, the real per capita income of the country has been falling,” says Adedayo Bakare, a Lagos-based financial expert.

“It’s been terrible in terms of managing fiscal finances and even though the president was a victim of the past in terms of the economy’s struggle, needed economic reforms is perhaps the biggest failure of the Buhari administration,” says Bakare.

Growing regional tensions

Beyond the economic and security fronts, agitations for secession in Nigeria have continued to grow — including, for the first time in a long while, from the south-west — amid increasing cries of marginalisation and neglect, not just from the southerners but even from the northern part of the country where Buhari is from.

Although the president has favoured the north more in terms of political appointments, northerners feel neglected by the former army general who had promised to protect them, especially from Boko Haram insurgents who are now present in other states, beyond the north-east where they had been restricted for a decade.

In the north-west and north-central, armed gangs have continued to prey on schoolchildren, kidnapping more than 700 of them since December 2020, while the agitation for Biafra in the south-east has morphed into what some have described as an insurgency: police stations and government facilities including offices of the national electoral commission are now being razed on almost a daily basis.

What’s more, Nigeria continues to grapple with a slow vaccination process: nearly 1% of the population has been vaccinated against Covid-19 while attempts to resolve the pastoral conflict has pitched governors of the southern states against the presidency.

“Nigeria has long teetered on the precipice of failure. But now, unable to keep its citizens safe and secure, Nigeria has become a fully failed state of critical geopolitical concern,” say Robert I. Rotberg and John Campbell, president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and former United States ambassador to Nigeria respectively.

 Who then runs the show in Buhari’s government?

Challenges aside, President Buhari’s style of governance has been punctuated with long bouts of absences from the country, such as his most recent trip to Ghana to help seek an end to the Mali crisis as well as his 170-day medical trip to the United Kingdom since he became president.

When he is not out of the country, he is accused of abandoning leadership to his aides, who resort to television interviews and statements to relay the president’s actions and views, with him never being seen or heard.

Not even the death of the Chief of Army Staff Ibrahim Attahiru and ten other officers of the Nigerian Army in a jet crash, nor the spread of Boko Haram to other states beyond the north-east, could get the president to get past the statements.

“It is very pathetic, but our president is not available. All we hear is, ‘presidency says’. We didn’t vote for Garba Shehu or Femi Adesina,” says Dino Melaye, a former senator and known critic of the Buhari government, referring to the president’s spokespersons.

“All our security challenges boils down to leadership failure, the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is grossly incompetent, not capable […] this man has shown more than enough evidence that he has no capacity to run this country.”

Neither Adesina nor Shehu were available for comments, but the president’s silence has often been defended by his party and aides, who argue that he prefers to let his appointees do their work “without any interference.”

“Would you prefer him speaking to Nigerians every day on the outcome of his regular meetings with the security agencies even if that would jeopardise the government’s efforts,” one source at the presidential villa asked.

Fault of the powerful cabal?

A group of powerful individuals commonly referred to as the cabal, has dominated Buhari’s government amid accusations – even by Aisha, the president’s wife – that they have built a wall around the president to keep him aloof from happenings while they dictate all that plays out at Aso Rock, Nigeria’s seat of power.

The late Chief of Staff Abba Kyari was a key player in that group, likewise Mamman Daura, a journalist and the president’s nephew. Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, former secretary to the Government of the Federation; and the late Isa Funtua, Buhari’s in-law, also belonged to the league.

With only Daura and Kingibe still alive in the famous group, insiders said the arrival of Ibrahim Gambari as Kyari’s successor would change the dynamics and decentralise power to a number of the president’s aides, including top ministers such as Rotimi Amaechi (transportation), Babatunde Fashola (works and housing), Sadiya Farouq (humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development) and Isa Pantami (communications and digital economy).

“Power no longer resides with a few individuals and, believe it or not, what has informed the president’s decision to stay away from the media and regular broadcast since he was elected president has not changed,” says a government official at Aso Rock.

“You can judge him by his performance but the outcry is not going to make him address Nigerians if he does not want to.”

Bottom line

With the president’s attention currently on Mali amid talks with other West African leaders to help restore democracy in the troubled country, Hassan says he must look at his own country and take responsibility, prove that he is still in charge of his administration.

“What Nigerians are asking for the president is actions that suggest there is still hope in Nigeria and that he is in charge of this country; that suggests that the endless killings and insecurity in different parts of the country will be summarily addressed,” she says.

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