There is more than a year to go until Nigeria’s presidential and legislative elections, not that you would know it by the election frenzy already gripping the west African nation of 200mn people. Potential candidates from the two main parties are jostling to succeed Muhammadu Buhari as president of Africa’s biggest economy. For those disenchanted with the past seven uninspiring years, a transition cannot come soon enough.
Who wins is a matter for Nigerians only. The outcome, however, should be of interest to everyone. Nigeria’s population is set to double over the next 30 years to 400mn, by which time it will surpass the US as the world’s third most populous country. A nation of enormous talent and a democracy (of sorts) since 1999, it ought to be an economic powerhouse. Instead, it’s a deep trouble. About 90mn Nigerians live in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. Nearly two-thirds are under 25, but too many lack jobs. Life expectancy is a lowly 55.
All this is a recipe for instability. In the north-east, the government has made some progress against Boko Haram, the Islamist group, though while that threat has receded the danger posed by another Jihadist movement, Islamic State West Africa Province, has risen. In some regions farmers, terrified of armed herders and common bandits, are scared to go to their fields. Kidnapping has become a major moneymaking enterprise. Absence of economic prospects has pushed more people into crime.
Nor do economic trends offer much solace. Growth has flatlined since the 2015 crash in oil prices and has barely flickered as commodity prices have strengthened. The government is still addicted to oil revenue to keep itself going and to pay off mounting debt.
For the so-called “giant of Africa”, choosing the wrong route ahead could turn its troubles into catastrophe. Above all, Nigeria needs fresh ideas. Economic distortions – around the exchange rate, subsidies and red tape – favor arbitrage over production, and rent extraction over genuine wealth creation. It is no coincidence that the truly dynamic parts of the economy, in technology and the creative arts, are those that lie mostly outside government purview.
The next administration needs to do less, but do it better. It should turn its attention away from maximizing revenue from oil – something it has not done well anyway – to maximizing people’s opportunities. That means removing obstacles to doing business, and providing the public goods, from basic education and health to reliable power and well-functioning courts, on which any successful nation must be built. Only with better economic prospects will Nigeria’s serious security problems begin to fade.
The shoots of a new kind of politics are visible. The #EndSars movement, which started out against police brutality but morphed into a broader call for better governance, was viciously suppressed in 2020. Nigeria more than ever needs a third political force that, in #EndSars, seemed to be flickering into life.
The two main parties that have dominated power in the democratic era are machines lubricated by cash. Left to their own devices they are unlikely to field a candidate willing to take on vested interests. So unappealing was the choice in 2019 that only 35 per cent of Nigerians bothered to vote. This time it is vital that candidates emerge with a coherent strategy. Ordinary Nigerians must get involved. Politics in Nigeria is far too serious to be left to politicians alone.