With this election, Nigeria arrives at a tricky fork in the road on its democratic journey

Unless a miracle of biblical proportions takes place, and if the poll is fair, he will lose - Goodluck's luck has run out.

NIGERIA votes on Saturday, and while still beset by the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, it is also a moment of self-evaluation.

No doubt the country has made progress since 1999 when it returned to democratic rule, but most of it was in spite of its government and because the world itself was advancing too. 

 The fact that a Nigerian can now use a mobile phone from the farm and the remotest of villages is credit to the Olusegun Obasanjo government (1999-2007) but I doubt if there is any African country out there without the same opportunity; the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Burundi and the likes have also made progress.

The world is generally richer today than it was in 1999. Most countries have higher human development indices (HDI) in 2015 than they did in 1999. 

So one must admit, while looking at how far we have come since the advent of our latest democratic journey, we must not fail to see the part of our progress that came about simply because we are part of a moving global community, but credit to government where it is due.

The digital saviour

It is hard to imagine Nigeria without the opportunities brought about by the liberalisation of the telecommunications sector. It is a sector that has since produced more jobs than our petroleum sector. 

While the petroleum sector helps to rake in the foreign exchange, it has not been a sector where Nigerians have in themselves found opportunities. The bar of entry into the telecommunication sector is far lower than the petroleum sector. With $200, one can get started with selling phone recharge cards. 

Many have found their way out of poverty via this route. Moving from a nation of just about 400,000 phone lines in 1999 to a country of some 120 million phone lines in 2015 is phenomenal.

A film market in Nigeria. (Photo AFP).

Nollywood, Nigeria’s movie industry and the music industry have both combined to make the entertainment sector one Nigeria can be proud of. This is one sector that advanced mostly in spite of government. But one should ask, how much of government’s decisions to have quotas on music content on radio according to whether they are local (African) or foreign helped this cause? A lot of this progress certainly came out of the fact that, we ended up listening to our own music more.

Nigerianisation of Africa

Eventually, night clubs that were dominated by American hip-hop content have now almost completely given way to Nigerian and, in many cases, African hip-hop. It is a multi-billion naira industry today. Nollywood on its part is probably Nigeria’s biggest intellectual export. The Nigerianisation of Africa, and Kenya is a good witness to this, started with the continent’s seeming obsession with Nigerian movie content. 

Brand Nigeria, which was mostly about 419 and drug trafficking even as recent as the late 1990s and early 2000s, has now been replaced by the coolness factor of the Nigerian brand. That is not to say Boko Haram militants have not introduced a new dimension into what “Brand Nigeria” is perceived as abroad.

The Obasanjo years helped place Nigeria back on the world map after being much of a pariah nation in the previous years. The former General unburdened Nigeria from debts, he sought and got debt forgiveness but that was not before paying a lump sum of that debt mostly owed to the Paris Club. Nigeria’s debt had kept rising since 1970 when it was just about $570 million. By 1979 when head of state Obasanjo handed over to the first executive president, this had increased to $3.2 billion. 

Debt cycles

By 1995, during the Sani Abacha years, the debt profile had risen to $34.1 billion. This rose to $39.9 billion by 2002. It was a burden on Nigeria’s development. Most of the rise in debt had been due to interests and penalties. Nigeria was relieved of 60% of its debt while it paid off 40%. That was 2005, but Chief Obasanjo left, with debt relief being one of the major legacies of his second coming. 

In June 2014, Nigeria was back to $9.4 billion in foreign debt and $47.6 billion in domestic debt. The Jonathan administration has been characterised by repeated borrowings but we will come to that government later.

President Musa Yar’Adua who succeeded Obasanjo was too ill to get his government started before his death. Not building on the Obasanjo years denied Nigeria incremental progress. Stopping the power projects for instance and treating the Obasanjo years as one to cut off from, rather than one to continue from, meant that we practically started afresh. 

By the time Yar’Adua died in May 2010, it was obvious his government was much more interested in finding its own identity rather than being built on “continuity” as promised by his campaign.

Enter Goodluck

Goodluck Jonathan became president on a tidal wave of goodwill.

President Yar’ Adua was extremely ill. He made yet another medical trip to Saudi Arabia in November of 2009 without formally handing over to Vice-President Jonathan to act as president in his absence. The impasse that ensued between November 2009 and February 2010 almost ended Nigeria’s democracy altogether. 

Boko Haram militants. (Photo AFP).

President Yar’Adua was clinically dead but somehow the 2010 budget was signed, not on his behalf but with his signature. Till today, no one knows exactly who signed that budget into law. The Cabal held sway. Jonathan was at the mercy of the then Yar’Adua ruling bloc but no one could do anything about his being named president when Yar’Adua died in the first week of May.

Jonathan contested for a fresh mandate in 2011 and beat his major challenger General Muhammadu Buhari, a former head of state. The General was contesting in his third consecutive presidential election and had lost just as many.

The Jonathan years

The Jonathan years of 2010 to date have been dominated by Boko Haram and corruption. By November 2012, The PUNCH newspaper reported, some N5 trillion (about $30 billion at the time) had already either been stolen or missing under the Jonathan government. The fuel subsidy scam of 2011 was the single biggest heist in a year in Nigeria. No major culprit has been brought to book over that. 

The then Central Bank Governor and now Emir of Kano, Mohammed Sanusi, said some $20billion of national income had been unaccounted for. That allegation led to his own removal. The man Sanusi succeeded, Chukwuma Soludo, said Nigeria had lost N33 trillion under the Jonathan administration.

Nigeria’s budget for a year is just under N5 trillion. The Jonathan administration lived from one controversy to another.

The government failed in its responsibility to provide security, especially to the people of Nigeria’s northeast but that failure did not account for as much anger as that generated by president Jonathan dancing in Kano just a day after about 200 Nigerians were killed in a terrorist attack on the outskirts of Abuja. That was to be a trend.

Formidable opposition

President Jonathan faces an election in hours. He is up against what is easily the most formidable opposition party in Nigeria’s independent history, the All Progressives Congress (APC). 

Unless a miracle of biblical proportions takes place, and if there is no election fiddling, he will lose. 

That the man who has the best chance to beat the incumbent president at the polls is the same man who had lost to him in 2011, and had also lost two elections, says one thing about the March 28 poll; it is a referendum on the Jonathan years.

From all indications, this election is as much about voting “NO” to Jonathan as it is about voting “YES” to Buhari, a former dictator.

The election was postponed from February 14, ostensibly because of Boko Haram’s rampage in the northeast, but in reality it was to save Jonathan from losing. 

The president used the past six weeks to do a lot of things he could have done over the years; compensate victims of a national examination tragedy, visit or send representatives to visit victims of terror attacks in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa; but the most controversial of his attempt to win more votes has to be the alleged dollar bribe to religious and traditional rulers.

Not many expect these to save the president his job. If he loses on Saturday, it would be the first time ever an incumbent Nigerian president lost at the polls. That has to be the toughest test yet for Nigeria’s democracy. 

Whether Nigeria passes that test or not could be Jonathan’s biggest legacy in office.   

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