One Year into Tinubu’s Presidency: Nigeria Struggles Amid Economic Woes

It’s a familiar request for tips in a city of omnipresent hustle, but residents say the requests have intensified over the past year as people grapple with Nigeria’s underperforming economy

Lagos, Nigeria — For visitors to Lagos, the gentle plea begins with immigration officials at the airport and echoes across the streets of Africa’s most populous city: “Show me love.”

It’s a familiar request for tips in a city of omnipresent hustle, but residents say the requests have intensified over the past year as people grapple with Nigeria’s underperforming economy.

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Wednesday marked the completion of the first year in office of President Bola Tinubu, following the disputed election of February 2023.

It was also the 25th anniversary of Nigeria’s return to democracy, a promising milestone in a region where six out of eight coup attempts since 2020 have been successful.

Official ceremonies were restrained, and on the eve of the landmark date, the national mood in the capital, Abuja, was far from celebratory.

Overall economic progress since 1999 has been challenging to measure due to many periods of growth and decline, said Bongo Adi, a professor of economics and data analytics at Lagos Business School.

“The economy has moved in different directions over this period,” he noted. The best era of economic welfare and sustained employment, however, was in the early 2000s under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, he added.

In the past year, Nigeria lost its position as Africa’s largest economy, dropping behind South Africa. The International Monetary Fund has already projected a further decline to fourth place behind Egypt and Algeria.

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Data from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics indicates that the economy grew slightly by 2.98% in the first quarter of 2024. Yet, unemployment remains high in a country where more than 2 million people join the workforce annually.

In 2019, the monthly minimum wage was increased from N19,000 (£10) to N30,000 (£16), but many argue that amount is insufficient.

Workers nationwide report that their living expenses have surged as food inflation – already in double digits – continues to rise. Electricity tariffs have increased by at least a hundredfold in the last year.

In just 18 months, the price of bottled water has gone from N50 (3p) to N100 and now to N200. In some markets outside the big cities, yams are sold in huge slices for those who cannot afford the whole vegetable.

The cost of making the staple dish jollof rice has tripled in the last three years. Analysts say young people increasingly turn to sex work and cybercrime in small towns, especially in the south, as a coping mechanism.

“The cost of living wants to kill the living,” one Nigerian lamented during a call-in show on national television.

On 29 May 1999, as Nigeria transitioned from military rule to civilian leadership, Tinubu, now president, was taking the oath of office to be the third elected governor of Lagos.

His supporters claim he laid the groundwork for transforming the city’s economy and infrastructure during his two four-year tenures. Today, his aides insist he remains passionate about resolving Nigeria’s economic challenges.

The number of poor Nigerians “is totally unacceptable to the president … that is why it is perhaps his No 1 priority to tackle poverty, and he has a programme to stabilise and grow the economy in general,” Finance Minister Wale Edun said last October at the launch of a welfare programme to give N75,000 (£42) across three months to each of the country’s 15 million low-income households.

From his first day in office, Tinubu began announcing textbook reforms that economists and policymakers had suggested for years: currency devaluation and cutting off a fuel subsidy that had fostered corruption for decades.

However, the changes have squeezed the economy – the naira is still fluttering and the subsidy cut tripled petrol prices – and have not been implemented without controversy.

“Economy does not obey orders, not even military orders,” said Obasanjo, the president from 1999 to 2007, in Abuja last week, adding that the reforms were necessary but had been wrongly executed.

In January, Betta Edu, the humanitarian affairs minister, was suspended while an investigation was launched into the alleged diversion of N585 million (£329,000) in funds related to the welfare scheme.

Edu has denied any wrongdoing. A group of oil dealers and a prominent ruling party member have also claimed that the subsidy cuts have been reversed, although the junior petroleum minister, Heineken Lokpobiri, has denied this.

Tinubu’s critics have also pointed out that he has yet to appoint ambassadors but has named advisers for mundane matters like national values and a personal assistant for teleprompter usage.

Sources within the presidency suggest a cabinet shuffle could be announced in the coming days, interpreted as a sign of his dissatisfaction with the current cast’s performance.

On Monday, Tinubu visited Lagos to open a controversial coastal highway stretching to Calabar, a port city in the oil-rich Niger Delta near the border with Cameroon.

A few miles from where he stood promising that the project would boost 30 million businesses, traders in the Oniru market went about their day, unexcited about the present and their future.

Chidi Obi, a 40-year-old owner of an electrical shop in the market who remembers being thrilled as a teenager in 1999, said he was “not feeling the democracy of Nigeria today” and accused unions of not doing enough to challenge the government.

“Look at fuel prices today, nobody is talking … people are dying,” he said. “The money you make in a day, one plate of food collects it all and you’re still going home to your wife and children and family. Everything is really hard.”

Across West Africa, there have been raging debates about whether democracy has lifted living standards as support for coups surges in Nigeria’s neighbors such as Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

Oge Onubogu, director of the Africa Program at the Washington DC-based think tank Wilson Center, said citizen frustrations with democracy can strengthen the democratic system as long as leaders respond by pushing for more inclusive governance.

“For the first time in a long time, we are seeing citizens question the status quo, the state-society relationship,” she said.

“People are saying it can no longer be business as usual. Citizens are rising up and questioning the way things are being done,” she added. “Isn’t that democracy itself? So maybe this provides that opportunity for us to even begin to think about how we reset.”

For many years, Nigeria was seen as the police officer of West Africa, given its outsized financial and military contributions to enforcing rule of law and fostering democracy within the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Tinubu, the current chair of Ecowas, has been pushing for a return to civilian administration in Niger where a 30 July 2023 coup ignited a split within the bloc. Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, argues that democracy offers better outcomes for everyday people.

“We’re not saying that everybody has to adopt our own style of democracy or another country’s style of democracy, but at least let’s have constitutional governance,” he said on Tuesday in Abuja.

“The reason why we’re emphasizing constitutional governance is it’s easier to have policy predictability, property rights, effectiveness of contracts when your system is predicated on some sort of constitution … it’s easier to tackle some of the challenges that we’re facing like terrorism.”

Despite these arguments, within Nigeria, people like Obi, the electrical shop owner, remain skeptical that democracy fulfills its promise.

“Military should just take over and fix the economy. We are tired.”

As Nigeria navigates its economic challenges and questions about the efficacy of its democracy, the nation stands at a crossroads.

With a president determined to implement reforms, albeit controversially, and a populace increasingly vocal about their hardships, the future of Nigeria’s democratic journey remains uncertain.

 

This article was created using automation technology and was thoroughly edited and fact-checked by one of our editorial staff members

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