Buhari’s first 100 days: Does Nigerian president mean business?

Editor’s Note: Zainab Usman is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Her research assesses political institutions, the oil economy and economic reform in Nigeria since the transition to democracy in 1999. Usman is also the co-convener of the Oxford University China-Africa Network. Her research interests are in governance, natural resources management, economic development, political institutions, gender and security in sub-Saharan Africa. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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September 5 marks Muhammadu Buhari's first 100 days in office

Nigeria's new president seems to have had a "slow and steady" start, writes Zainab Usman

CNN  — 

As I stood on a queue at the immigration desk at the arrivals section of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja in May 2015, a well-dressed couple who had just arrived skipped the queue and headed straight to the desk. People murmured in exasperation and a woman right in front of me said with indignation: “It’s OK, now that Buhari is president, all these things will stop.”

Her statement reflected the general mood of optimism I witnessed around the country – on the streets and days later, at the Eagle Square, where Muhammadu Buhari took the oath of office – that Nigeria’s new president would solve the country’s numerous problems.

Zainab Usman

High expectations on Buhari’s leadership credentials swept him to victory with almost 54% of the vote in a historic defeat of an incumbent president in Nigerian elections. Buhari’s ascetic demeanour, quite atypical of the venality often associated with Nigeria’s political elite, endeared him as the candidate to tackle the violent insurgency in the North, the predatory corruption and the looming economic crisis after the collapse of global oil prices in July 2014.

Since his victory, the pressure on Buhari and his ruling party, the All Progressives’ Congress (APC), to deliver on campaign promises has been immense. Growing demands for political accountability, enabled by a vibrant media culture, have led to unprecedented scrutiny over every appointment, every speech and every decision by the new government.

So how is Muhammadu Buhari’s performance so far stacking up against his campaign promises in his first 100 days in office?

Security focus

Shortly after his inauguration, it was evident that tackling the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s north-east was a major priority. Buhari’s trips to West African neighbours, the G7 in Germany, the African Union summit in South Africa and the United States on invitation from president Obama aimed to restore confidence in Nigeria’s leadership of the multinational joint task force, to secure support for the war against Boko Haram, and to restore Nigeria’s ties with allies which had frayed under his predecessor.

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As widely expected, Buhari replaced the military chiefs who had superintended over the largest security budget of up to $5.8 billion per year and yet the most hollowed-out army in the country’s history.

Although Buhari’s government is ostensibly taking the right steps to tackle a six-year insurgency, Boko Haram remains very much active, killing over 1,000 people since his inauguration.

Tackling corruption

With Buhari’s towering personal integrity, anti-corruption is a key area in which many Nigerians eagerly await decisive action on cases of mismanaged and stolen public funds. Although no high profile corruption conviction has been secured, certain indicators point to considerable progress.

The anti-corruption agency – the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission – dormant for years under former president Goodluck Jonathan is awake from its death-sleep, suddenly acting on old petitions, arraigning former governors, and inviting the Senate President’s wife and other high profile personalities for questioning.

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Although many eagerly await the trials of notorious former ministers – some of whom individually have been accused of stealing up to $6 billion of public money – the most useful anti-corruption reforms are likely to be the less-publicised ones such as the recent harmonization of government revenue and receipts in a Treasury Single Account to block avenues for mismanagement. Relatedly, Nigeria’s foreign reserves rose from $28.6 billion in May to $31.2 billion in July, two months after Buhari’s inauguration despite the low oil prices.

Lack of economic direction

Quite conspicuously, the APC government is yet to articulate a clear economic policy direction after three months in office. Perhaps in a bid to calm growing disquiet among Nigerians, investors and international partners, Buhari attributed, in an op-ed, this delay to the challenge of rebuilding damaged institutions first before appointing competent and credible individuals to form his cabinet.

Silent reforms could slowly start bearing fruit with, for instance, improvement in electricity supply due to an increase in power generation and the rehabilitation of the country’s refineries now operating at 60-80% capacity. This could enable Nigeria ease out of expensive fuel subsidies when a cabinet is finally appointed in the next few weeks.

Yet, the absence of a clear economic agenda remains unsettling.

Slow and steady headway

There is reason to expect a largely technocratic cabinet of credible individuals, if the appointments made so far in strategic revenue generating agencies are anything to go by. The selection of an ExxonMobil vice president and general counsel, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, to head the notoriously opaque state oil corporation, the NNPC, hopefully indicates a refreshing break from Nigeria’s penchant for recycling veteran politicians across several regimes and sustaining the personality cults around them.

Despite these laudable strides in laying the foundation for effective governance within Buhari’s first 100 days in power, two critical challenges could effectively undermine even the most well-intentioned efforts.

First, although Buhari and his party have acknowledged the challenge of managing the public’s huge expectations, their communications and public relations strategy to temper expectations has been weak at best. Needless controversies over the president’s perceived reluctance in declaring his assets – which has now been resolved with a full public declaration – and the circulation of unauthorized documents outlining targets for the government’s first 100 days were unmitigated PR blunders.

To make things worse, Buhari’s selection of mostly “northern” (but not entirely Muslim) presidential aides has raised concerns over the regional inclusiveness of his government in a society polarized by the divisive rhetoric of the elections campaigns.

Second, there is a limit to how much impact Buhari’s best efforts at effective governance can have on ordinary Nigerians without transformative leadership at the sub-national tiers of government. As a federation, Nigeria’s 36 states have significant fiscal and political autonomy and therefore their policies have a direct bearing on grassroots human development.

The dynamic government of Nasir el-Rufai in the northern state of Kaduna stands out among its peers in appointing a young, inclusive and technocratic cabinet, in crowdsourcing ideas for the state development agenda and other innovative approaches to governance within these three months. As the heart of the North, Kaduna’s success would position it as a beacon for a northern economic revival to address the decades-long economic decline responsible for the widespread deprivation in the region that incubated violent extremist groups like Boko Haram.

In his first 100 days in office, Nigeria’s president seems to have had a slow start. Yet some of the preliminary results suggest clear-sighted efforts to target the institutional roots of decay and corruption.

Supporting this “slow and steady” approach with a clear economic policy direction, dynamic public relations and effective state-level leadership might just be the formula for the “change” from the familiar ways of doing things that millions of Nigerians are hoping for.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.