Nigeria’s national and state elections are approaching (now March 28 and April 11). Many journalists and commentators have depicted them largely – sometimes exclusively – in terms of security and the violence by the Boko Haram sect. That perspective misses a great deal of the picture. For example, the campaign has sparked important debates about the state of Nigeria’s economy – debates that have particular resonance in the context of falling oil prices, which have hurt government revenues and weakened the naira.
The economic debates going on in Nigeria are sophisticated, and they involve real issues. The debates challenge the often-heard narrative that African elections are about personalities and networks, not issues. I’m not saying personalities won’t matter; I am saying that the campaign is not issue-free.
To get a sense of the economic debates, I’d recommend two pieces – or rather, one piece and one conversation.
First is former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu‘s “Slum[p] in Oil Prices: A Progressive Way Out.” Tinubu is a key leader in the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC), which has nominated former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari as its candidate. In this piece, Tinubu articulates his opposition to austerity. He argues for decoupling the naira from the dollar and running a deficit into to fund projects (especially infrastructure) that will put large numbers of people to work.
Second is former Central Bank Governor Charles Soludo’s debate with Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (h/t Zainab Usman). Soludo served from 2004 to 2009 (under Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua, but not under incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan).
In his first piece, “Buhari vs. Jonathan” Soludo stated that he was an undecided voter and wrote, “The two main parties talk around the major development challenges—corruption, insecurity, economy (unemployment/poverty, power, infrastructure, etc) health, education, etc. However, it is my considered view that none of them has any credible agenda to deal with the issues, especially within the context of the evolving global economy and Nigeria’s broken public finance.” Soludo directed attention to what he called historically unprecedented poverty and unemployment rates (71% and 24%).
Soludo’s essay provoked a response from Okonjo-Iweala, which in turn drew a reply from Soludo. Beyond the personal invective, there is a deadly serious struggle over statistics – whose are accurate, and even whose are genuine. The APC’s Kayode Fayemi (who was voted out as governor of Ekiti State in the southwest in an off-cycle election last June) also joined the debate. The full exchange is worth reading.
With over six weeks left in the campaign (due to the postponement of the elections), it will be worth watching how these debates continue to play out. It is also worth noting the role of the Finance Minister as a participant, but even more importantly as a symbol, in these debates – opponents and critics of Jonathan’s regime have focused on her and her credibility as they make the case that Jonathan’s administration, despite having an internationally-known economist as a core part of the team, has failed to make the economy work for ordinary Nigerians. We’ll see, then, what kind of economic arguments the Jonathan team puts forward in this final stretch of the campaign.