ABUJA, Nigeria — Muhammadu Buhari won an upset victory over Nigeria president Goodluck Jonathan this week using a catchphrase that’s familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to American politics over the past eight years: “change.”
Buhari leveraged the same slogan used to much success by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign to unseat Jonathan and his ruling People's Democratic Party, which has had its candidates occupy the presidency since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999.
The change Buhari promised was an end to the Boko Haram insurgency that has killed thousands of Nigerians and forced over a million to flee. He campaigned on a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, and made populist pledges such as stipends for poor people and health care for all.
Jonathan campaigned on the motto of continuity for his “Transformation Agenda,” saying the growth Nigeria enjoyed during his first elected term — during which the country recalculated its GDP to become the largest economy in Africa — would continue if he could have another four years. But voters weren’t convinced, and sent Jonathan packing, with about 2.5 million fewer votes than Buhari.
But when the former military general and coup leader Buhari takes office at the end of May, he’ll inherit a treasury depleted by the global drop in the price of oil, Nigeria’s biggest export. He will be responsible for figuring out how to put Boko Haram down for good, and what to do about the legions of people that have fled across Nigeria and over its borders. And he’ll be up against an entrenched political culture in Nigeria that’s allowed corruption to flourish for years. Fulfilling an election promise of change, in short, will be a lot harder than making one.
“He’s going to struggle with all of the programs he’d like to deliver, honestly, in the current economic climate,” said Dawn Dimowo, a Nigeria-based analyst for Africa Practice consultancy. “And I think Buhari himself recognizes this.”
This was Buhari’s fourth shot at the presidency, and he won by building a coalition of his hardcore supporters in Nigeria’s north, where he’s from, while winning states he’d previously failed to in the country’s southwest and central belt. Jonathan, in turn, only won his home state and its neighbors in the Niger Delta, along with states in the southeast and a few in the middle.
“They built a political machine that spanned the length and breadth of most of the country,” political commentator Chris Ngwodo said of Buhari’s campaign. “That was probably the game changer in all of this.”
On the campaign trail, Buhari promised universal health care and monthly $25 payments to vulnerable people. His party erected billboards with a simple message: “we will defeat Boko Haram,” and said he’d never let the group overrun territory in the country’s northeast again, as it was able to do on Jonathan’s watch.
But when Buhari moves to the capital Abuja in May, he’ll be inheriting a budget ravaged by the global slide in crude prices. The price of oil, which makes up 70 percent of Nigeria’s government revenue, is now fetching a paltry price of around $50 per barrel. “He’s going to be inheriting a very depleted account,” said Chuba Ezekwesili, research analyst at the Nigerian Economic Summit Group.
“Tax collection,” which would insulate the state and federal government from oil price shocks “is down and it’s going to remain down for a long time. That’s not going to change in the near future,” he added.
Similarly battered is Nigeria’s currency, which has lost ground against the dollar thanks to oil, thus hurting Nigeria’s foreign reserves. “Nigerians will have to exhibit a bit of patience and not expect immediate relief from the government,” said Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development West Africa. “There might have to be structural adjustment, there might have to be austerity.”
Big social spending programs, such as universal health care, may have to wait, Ezekwesili said.
Nigeria’s struggling finances makes Buhari’s task of rebuilding the northeast — crucial to making sure Boko Haram goes away for good — even harder, Dimowo said.
The group started taking over territory last year, eventually overrunning an area about the size of Belgium. Earlier this year, Nigeria joined with armies from neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon to rout Boko Haram from its hideouts, along with the help of foreign mercenaries.
Meanwhile, a million displaced people are spread across the country, with some living in camps in the northeast, relying on handouts from Nigeria’s emergency agencies or from local philanthropists. Hundreds of thousands of others are in camps in neighboring countries. Their hometowns, as Nigeria’s military has discovered as they’ve retaken them, have been burned and looted by the insurgents.
Boko Haram is on its back foot now thanks to the multinational offensive against it. But experts believe making it go away completely will require an approach that goes beyond force. “You need to address some of the issues … socioeconomic factors that would allow that to happen,” Dimowo said of Boko Haram’s conquest of towns in the northeastern Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states last year. “And that, honestly, is easier said than done. It’s anybody’s guess what specific steps he will take to do that.”
And the needed steps will likely be expensive. Northeastern Nigeria was overwhelmingly poor long before Boko Haram emerged.
Analysts agree that one way Buhari can help stabilize Nigeria’s finances is to cut down on the corruption that keeps the wealth of Africa’s largest economy from being spread equitably through the population. The 72-year-old campaigned on cutting down corruption, bolstered by his reputation as a no-nonsense military ruler from 1983 to 1985.
How he plans to do that remains to be seen. Ngwodo said he expected Buhari to grant prosecutorial autonomy to Nigeria’s corruption watchdog, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, while Hassan said a constitutional clause that grants prosecutorial immunity to sitting presidents, governors and their deputies should be done away with to spur accountability.
But many of the top leaders of the APC are former PDP members who defected when the party formed as a union of Nigeria’s main opposition groups in 2013. How truly different his government will be from the PDP will only be known after the May 29 inauguration.