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Without a Correction, Economic Instability and Rising Insecurity May Derail the Coming Election

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Nigeria is beset by a torrent of security and economic issues threatening the upcoming election. Decisive action is needed to correct the situation and ensure a successful election.

By Chudi Okoye

Will the coming election in Nigeria be derailed by ongoing crises in other spheres of Nigerian life? This question demands an urgent answer as we observe the gale of confounding catastrophes clobbering the country.

As it is now, the gears of the electoral process are cranking up, seemingly unhindered, as we tread toward the presidential election in 2023. And yet, the fabrics of our economic and social order are cracking up in a dizzying spate. In the electoral sphere, we observe hopeful milestones of democratic progress, creating even an odd frenzy of rising expectations in some innocent corners. And yet in the real world, we witness only millstones of despair dragging the nation down a spiral of social declension. A semblance of Yeats’ ‘ceremony of innocence’ is unfolding as the electoral machine grinds on, unperturbed; yet, ‘anarchy is loosed upon [our land]’, marked by a toxic mix of rising insecurity, economic distress and social disorder. As ‘things fall apart’ all around us, one wonders if the election will hold at all, just as one ponders what, if it does, would be the manner of country bequeathed to the next administration. An absolute chaos awaits, after President Muhammadu Buhari’s annis horribilis.

We are in a season of both great and grating expectations. While we pray for the miracle of democratic renewal tomorrow, what are we to do about our present sorrows?

Everywhere one looks there is stark evidence of systemic upheaval. There is in fact a dark premonition of imminent collapse. Things have been sliding in the country for a while, but they appear now to have reached a snapping point. Of course there has always been some presentiment about Nigeria, with predictions in the past of imminent collapse posited by pundits frustrated with theorizing an inexplicable country. But things never quite managed to tip over. Now, however, there is near-universal consensus that Nigeria has become a failed state teetering on the brink of possible collapse. With a little bit of imagination, we can easily catastrophize aspects of the present crises to see how they might impact the impending election.

A Crumbling Economy
Let us begin with the economy. When economists talk of economic collapse or meltdown, they imply the presence of some specific adverse conditions. These include: prolonged depression, hyperinflation, high unemployment, currency crash, public finance crisis, debt default, and so on. All of these are present in Nigeria today, at different levels of severity.

The country’s economy is in absolute tatters. The Naira has plunged in value, the official rate dropping from $1=₦199 on May 29, 2015, the day Buhari bounded into office, to $1=₦416 currently, with the parallel market rate at $1=₦715.

The country is nearly broke, its sovereign funds depleted; and it is heavily indebted. The external debt stock stood at $40 billion as of Q1 2022, up 288% from $10.3 billion at the start of Buhari’s presidency, according to DMO (Debt Management Office) figures. The domestic debt profile is also daunting, rising nearly 140% from ₦8.4 trillion to ₦20 trillion. The country’s total public debt portfolio, domestic and external, stood at $100.1 billion (₦41.6 trillion at the official rate or ₦71.6 trillion by parallel market rate) as of Q1, pushing the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio to 36%. Nigeria spends as much as 86% of its revenue on debt servicing, compared to just 20% for South Africa which has about 2.5x Nigeria’s debt stock and over 2x the debt-to-GDP ratio. Clearly Nigeria’s is considered a higher risk than South Africa. One expert, Prof Ebenezer Obadare of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently warned that “Nigeria is staring down the barrel of financial bankruptcy.”

Economic Crisis in Nigeria (Dreamstime)

Other economic indices are equally glaring. Unemployment is running at 33.3% and under-employment at 22.8%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Food and commodity prices, including pump price, are sky high, leading to a Consumer Price Index (equivalent of inflation rate) of 18.6% as of June, the highest it has been since Jan 2017, according to NBS. Meanwhile, under Buhari’s watch, Nigeria might well have become the poverty capital of the world. With only about 16% of India’s population, Nigeria in 2018 overtook that country “as home to the world’s greatest concentration of extreme poverty,” as the London Guardian reported. Latest data from the World Poverty Clock shows that Nigeria and India now each has about 83m people living in extreme poverty, which represents a penetration of only 6% for India but a whopping 39% for Nigeria.

Meanwhile, the country’s economy is crippled by an acute shortage of fuel as well as frequent power outages on which Awka Times recently reported.

Amid the economic stress, there’s occupational unrest. The Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) has been on strike since February 14. The Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) recently embarked on a two-day solidarity strike to support the ASUU action. And a strike is threatened by the Premium Breadmakers Association of Nigeria (PBAN).

Clearly, from the above, Nigeria is at an advanced stage towards economic meltdown. It could get worse if the Naira plunges further; if unemployment and inflation rates further increase; and if the crisis of public finance deepens, making it even more difficult to pay public sector salaries or maintain other recurrent obligations. Government bonds could become worthless. Nigeria could actually slide into debt default. We are already nudging the 40% limit in debt-to-GDP ratio set last year when it was increased from the previous 25% cap.

Economic meltdown often comes with its own intrinsic pain, but it is also often accompanied by social chaos, civil unrest and a breakdown of law and order. All of these tend to induce authoritarian responses from a state, an outcome that is antithetical to democratic praxis. This is one sense in which worsening economic conditions could derail the impending Nigerian election, if there’s no correction.

One could argue of course that the incidence of economic meltdown need not necessarily deter the conduct of a democratic election. A financial crisis that nearly crippled the global economy did not obstruct the US presidential election of 2008, though it forced the candidates at some point to suspend their campaigns. The UK government still went ahead with the conduct of several by-elections in the immediate aftermath of Black Wednesday – the Sterling Crash of Sept. 16, 1992. Long before that, Germany still held federal elections on Sept. 14, 1930, in the thick of the Great Depression that had started the year before. The US held a presidential election on Nov. 8, 1864 amid an economically devastating civil war. There are several such cases of political systems defying the cataclysms of their economic sector.

Despite these examples, the issue insists in a Nigeria with a nascent democratic culture and limited political institutionalization. As we have seen repeatedly in our history, the Nigerian state often betrays an instinct to authoritarianism at the slightest manifestation of restiveness in civil society, especially when there is a nexus to economic distress.

Rising Insecurity
It is not just economic crises that could impact the 2023 election in Nigeria. There’s also rising insecurity around the country, driven to some extent by secessionist and other forms of agitation but primarily by Islamic terrorism. Before Buhari assumed office, the Global Terrorism Index already ranked Nigeria among the countries most severely impacted by terrorism. Nigeria has remained in that cohort through the Buhari years, even with huge budget allocations ostensibly dedicated to fighting terrorism. If anything, under the watch of Maj.-Gen. Buhari Islamic terrorism has turned into an audacious insurgency, sacking federal prisons, overrunning security forces, and even threatening to abduct the president himself, presumably intending thereby to capture the Nigerian state. Outlying areas of the nation’s capital have been under siege. The capital itself is the unmistakable target. The insurgency seems intent on capturing the Nigerian state, some have argued, as a strategic part of transnational Islamic expansion. On this thinking, what we see unfolding is not mere banditry. It has territorial and strategic ambition. Not only that. Nigeria seems to be under attack by a bold and well-armed insurgency which may well have infiltrated the Nigerian security architecture and compromised the upper reaches of the security hierarchy.

Islamic insurgency has territorial ambition in Nigeria

As Islamic insurgency has escalated, Buhari has shown a weird insouciance about it. Foreign-traveling while the nation burns or simply ensconced in the capital, Buhari has seemed farcical and aloof in his response, creating wild conspiracies about his complicity. His government has displayed great reluctance and amazing cack-handedness in combating the menace. As the Nigerian Guardian reported on July 31st, experts say there is “no discernible strategy to wage war against terrorists,” and that “President Buhari has not only failed Nigerians but has also allowed insurgents to gradually make inroads and shut down governance.” This has made the Islamic insurgents even more brazen, and Buhari now commonly ridiculed as a ‘defeated general’. Recently, after the insurgents breached the Kuje Prison near Abuja, Buba Galadima, a former ally of President Buhari, told BBC Hausa service that he would not be surprised if the bandits kidnapped the president. “These bandits are disdainful to Buhari administration,” he said. “At the beginning of the government, everybody was scared of him (Buhari); expected him to be brave before he was now exposed to be toothless. Buhari knows nothing; he can’t do anything.”

Though Buhari has never seemed energetic or particularly warm in his public disposition, he has become more enervated lately in dispensing the duties of his office. He appears to be sick and insentient, as if he has succumbed to some form of mental retardation. The president, approaching 80, seems depleted, bewildered and out of his depth. He doesn’t seem to be able to work long hours, or able to cope with critical decision-making. “Currently, he won’t attend to files till 10am,” a recent report claimed, “and the moment it’s 5pm, he goes off duty. Even if Nigeria is on fire, he won’t make any decision. Nobody can see him again except members of the (Presidency) cabal and close family members.”

This is why some stakeholders have suggested that President Buhari should step aside and allow his vice-president, who is far better educated and 15 years younger, to take over the reins. The Northern Elders Forum has asked Buhari to throw in the towel. Buhari himself says that it has been tough for him governing Nigeria and that he is eager to go. But he seems determined to stick around until the end of his tenure.

There was some noise last week, an uncertain babble emanating from the ‘nattering nabobs’ in the National Assembly proclaiming their dissatisfaction with President Buhari’s handling of Nigeria’s security challenges. Finally awoken, it seems, from their privileged slumber in the chamber, the legislative members mumbled a half-hearted chant that ‘Buhari Must Go‘ and muttered some incomprehensible threat about impeaching the president if he doesn’t address Nigeria’s security problems in six to eight weeks. I won’t waste space on this, merely to mention it, because it isn’t going anywhere. The impeachment intent, even if serious, is unenforceable. The legislative math is implausible. And the logistics are, simply, impossible.

In spite of the legislative chicanery, the potential political impact of rising insecurity is widely recognized, by domestic and foreign observers alike. Not long ago, the British government cautioned that insecurity could likely derail the 2023 general elections. “Nigeria faces significant peace and security challenges,” the Director of UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, Chris Beecroft, told Governors’ Forum in Abuja. “There is an active insurgency in the North East; farmer-herder conflicts are extending across the country; resource conflicts in the Delta; tension in the South-East; and banditry in the North West. The rise in conflict risks destabilizing Nigeria’s democracy in the run-up to the 2023 elections.”

He went further: “Conflict destroys lives, destroys livelihoods, [and it] destroys hope and ambition for the future. Conflict represents an existential threat to Nigeria’s unity and its development.”

This is precisely the point where growing insecurity could intrude into the 2023 electoral process. Without meaning to seem alarmist, it is easy to imagine how an escalation of insurgent threat to the Nigerian state, and a tepid response by the civilian regime, could provoke a direct intervention by an institution charged with defending Nigeria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Perhaps this is why there has been some (admittedly fringe) talk about likely military intervention in the face of swelling insecurity. The idea isn’t raised necessarily as a welcome corrective. A few days ago, the presidential candidate of the African Action Congress and founder of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, tweeted that “President Muhammadu Buhari #mbuhari is preparing Nigeria for a military coup d’état, everything he’s doing points to it!” Incidentally, a couple of days before Sowore’s intervention Buhari himself, speaking in Liberia, had also invoked the issue of military intervention, declaring that the only antidote is good government. Buhari was speaking ostensibly in reference to the recent military coups in Africa but he also adverted to the impending election in Nigeria, stating that the country is “working towards a free, fair, transparent, credible and acceptable outcome of elections and their results.” Buhari argued that “the deepening of democracy and good governance are essential antidotes to check-mate unconstitutional change of governments.”

We should not, of course, lightly presume the possibility of a military corrective to the present Nigerian crises. But this is not necessarily, as some may imagine, because the Nigerian state has finally shed such habit and has settled into a neo-Hegelian, end-of-history, liberal democratic order. We are unarguably in a far worse condition today than had prompted previous military intrusions into the country’s politics. Rather it is simply that the Nigerian military may be too vitiated as a force and too discredited as an institution to intervene at this particular point in Nigerian politics.

However, whilst cautioning against any lazy expectation of military intervention, we cannot casually dismiss the logic of it if insecurity escalates around the country, if the Nigerian state itself becomes more directly threatened, and if the civilian authorities continue with their ham-fisted response to the security crises. If it ever materializes, a military usurpation of power will put paid to the impending presidential election, especially if the military becomes convinced that neither the incumbent president nor any of those jostling to succeed him, would be effective as wartime commander-in-chief if the worst happens. Indeed, the clumsiness and ineptitude of Nigeria’s security forces in confronting what is but a ragtag insurgency, with seemingly easy inroads made by the latter, might prove tempting to any military adventurers out there lusting for power. Of course the sheer complexity of Nigeria’s governance problems might prove a deterrent to any such adventurism, but the calculus could change if things get much worse.

While the 2023 electoral process appears to be unfolding as planned, unimpeded by ambient cataclysms, the political risk of economic instability and rising insecurity cannot be discounted in any serious political arbitrage. The odds are only marginally higher than lower that the 2023 election will actually hold as planned. The odds will much improve if the current administration takes more serious steps, in the balance of Buhari’s tenure, to prevent an economic collapse or the fall of Abuja to Islamic insurgency.

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