Five hurdles awaiting Nigeria’s new President

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By Nduka Orjinmo (BBC News, Abuja)

Nigeria is often referred to as the “giant of Africa”, given its huge population and economic potential, but it has some gigantic problems too – and these will confront Bola Tinubu as he has taken over as President from former President Muhammadu Buhari. The 71 year-old is unlikely to be fazed by the challenges. As a two-time governor of Lagos state, he revitalized Nigeria’s commercial hub. It was no easy task. And so, he is well aware of the issues. But Nigerians, even those who did not vote for him, would want to see early results from Mr Tinubu. Here are some of the major hurdles that will face him. How does he tackle them?

Ending fuel subsidy

This challenge has been kicked down the road by successive governments since its introduction in the 1970s. Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria is unable to refine enough crude to meet local demands. So, it imports petroleum products, which are then sold at a government-set price. As this is usually lower than the import price, the government pays the difference. Cheap fuel is seen by many Nigerians as a right not a privilege, given the country’s enormous oil wealth.

The fact, however, is that subsidy is taking a huge toll on dwindling public finances. Last year it guzzled 4.3 trillion naira ($9.3bn; £7.5bn) and for the first half of this year, 3.36trn naira was budgeted.

These payments come at the expense of development goals such as building and equipping schools or hospitals with modern facilities. But removing the subsidy is not going to be easy as it will lead to an increase in fuel and subsequently transportation and other prices. In fact, the last attempt to do so in 2012 ended in widespread protests. Many struggling Nigerians, used to seeing politicians mismanaging the country’s oil wealth, believe cheap petrol is their only fare share of what has been described as the “national cake”.

But Mr Tinubu has firmly repeated that the subsidy has to go, and his associates insist he has the political will to do it.

Dispensing petrol at a station in Nigeria

“He has a capacity to listen and to consult widely before making tough decisions,” Housing Minister Babatunde Fashola, a close colleague who succeeded Mr Tinubu as Lagos governor in 2007, told the BBC.

One area he could explore to lessen the impact is to subsidize and improve public transportation. This is something he has experience in, after implementing a massive public transportation scheme in Lagos that put in place fast bus links.

The outgoing government has also managed to secure an $800m World Bank loan, intended to beef up its welfare scheme for vulnerable Nigerians who will be most affected by the loss of the subsidy. However, lawmakers still have to approve the package – so it is not a done deal yet.

Lack of popular support

Only 37% of voters backed Mr Tinubu’s presidential bid. That made him the Nigerian president elected with the least vote-share since 1999. He won a tightly contested election that was not only rancorous, but one that exposed ethnic and religious divisions that have lingered even in Nigeria’s most cosmopolitan cities. He will have to perform a balancing act when it comes to choosing his government to build bridges across these divides.

There are signs that he is already doing so, reportedly meeting two opposition politicians since winning February’s vote. One is Musa Kwankwaso, a powerful rival from the north, who was third runner-up and the other is Nyesom Wike, the influential and outgoing governor of Rivers state. Both deny that Tinubu has offered them any position in his government. Wike specifically said to the BBC that if Tinubu offered him a place in his government, he would not feel “too big” to serve his country but he would seek advice from his wife and close friends and check himself out, if he had the stamina to continue working.

As governor of Lagos state, Mr Tinubu probably had the most ethnically diverse cabinet in Nigeria, appointing non-Lagosians into key positions, which is still a rarity in Nigerian political life. “He is more interested in technocrats who are thinkers and researchers,” his friend, Seye Oyetade told the BBC.

But politicians, often with common interests, may be easier to placate than the millions of young Nigerians who did not vote for him – especially those who supported Peter Obi of the Labour Party. Many of them consider the election as flawed, though the electoral commission denies this and an election challenge is still pending in the Court of Appeal. Close allies say by making jobs available and getting young people involved in governance, Mr Tinubu could win over some of them. “You will see a government that will embrace new ideas and technology and by extension, you will see a lot of young people around him,” Mr Fashola explained.

Fixing the economy

Most Nigerians agree that as a professional accountant, this is Mr Tinubu’s area of expertise – but things have never looked worse for Nigeria:

  • About 34% or one in every three is unemployed
  • Inflation is at a record 22%
  • 96 million live below the poverty line of $1.90 or N878 per day
  • GDP per head (the economic output produced in a year by the average person) was $2,065 for 2021 (compared to $70,248 for the US and $46,510 for the UK)
  • Low revenues from declining oil sales.

Mr Oyetade bats away such statistics: “These are not too dissimilar to what he met in Lagos in 1999.” This may be hyperbole, but Mr Tinubu’s use of technology to improve tax collection in Lagos was remarkable, increasing revenue by more than 400% in eight years.

It can be hard to get hold of foreign currency, which has led to a widening gap between the official and black market rates. He has spoken several times of his ambition to widen the tax net, but this might be harder to replicate at a national level given high inflation, rising poverty and widespread insecurity that often stops people from working. Mr Tinubu also favours a more private sector-led approach, in contrast to his predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari, who aimed to bolster national welfare safety nets. 

However, it is his relationship with Godwin Emefiele, the central bank governor that will be key. The new President has criticized the bank’s policy of using multiple exchange rates.

This keeps the naira artificially high – the official exchange rate is 460 naira: $1, available to different categories of people who have to apply and wait till it is available. Everyone else who wants forex must use the parallel rate – currently 760 naira: $1, meaning there is a widening gap between the official and dark market rates.

Families of kidnap victims

For any review to happen, Mr Tinubu will need to work with Mr Emefiele, who has another year left to serve as governor. The two have a fractious relationship following the Central Bank’s move to redesign the local currency – leading to huge cash shortages – just before the election. This was seen by some as a ploy to scupper the ruling party’s chances of winning the election – allegations Mr Emefiele denies.

Kidnapping and insecurity

Mr Tinubu would want to get a grip quickly on the incessant kidnappings across all the states of the federation, given the scale of the problem. His administration would be confronting armed criminals on motorcycles in the north-west, countrywide kidnapping and a persistent secessionist group in the south-east. Deadly clashes between farmers and herders also continue in the central states. During the election campaign, Mr Tinubu’s deputy, Vice-President Kashim Shettima, said this would be his remit – touting his experience as governor of north-eastern Borno state, home to many Islamist militant groups and the Boko Haram insurgency.

Relatives of those kidnapped have been left distraught and desperate to raise money for ransoms. But Nigeria’s security challenges have evolved since he left office in 2019 and President Buhari, a former army general, failed dismally to find an answer during his eight years in power – instead insecurity escalated nationwide. 

The Tinubu-Shettima plan includes using anti-terrorist battalions with Special Forces to go after the kidnappers and extremist groups.

Tinubu & Shettima

More importantly, they have proposed freeing police personnel from VIP security and guard duties, which could see more officers on the streets fighting crime.

Staying fit – and other distractions

Opponents of the new President say he has lost the vitality he used to forcefully modernize Lagos. Since the election, he has travelled abroad twice, raising questions about his health. In 2021 he spent months in London being treated for an undisclosed illness. He has also been to France for medical reasons in recent times. However, he brushed off the criticism, saying the job does not require the fitness of an Olympic athlete and his associates are quick to remind everyone that US President Joe Biden is older, at 80.

Still, Nigerians are weary of seeing their Presidents spend considerable time in hospitals abroad, leading to government in-fighting for control. This happened under both Mr Buhari and Umaru Yar’Adua, who died in office in 2010. Nigerians are also worried about potential controversies. 

Before the election, Mr Tinubu denied various allegations of links to narcotics and corruption. Since his victory, it has been revealed that he was once issued with a Guinean diplomatic passport – which is not illegal but was not previously disclosed. A Bloomberg investigation said his son owns an £11m mansion in London. Neither Mr Tinubu, his son nor his allies have commented on the report, and it has not been confirmed that Mr Tinubu was involved in the purchase.

Allies of Mr Tinubu will be concerned that any further allegations could distract him from the massive job he is about to undertake.

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