Nigeria’s 2019 general election is taking place against the backdrop of the country’s gradual exit from an economic recession. Yet, questions about economic recovery and growth have not been seriously addressed in the political debates and public discourse in the run-up to the elections. This is a worrisome trend given the fragile state of the economy and economic indicators that suggest the country is not entirely out of the woods yet.
Nigeria continues to remain dependent on oil. The country receives ninety percent of foreign exchange earnings from crude oil exports and seventy percent of federal income from the same source, although the oil sector accounts for less than ten percent of GDP. Despite Nigeria’s exit from economic recession, the average annual growth rate of the economy over the last three years has remained below one percent according to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics. This is a cause for concern in a country with an estimated annual population growth rate of 2.6 percent. According to recent figures from the Central Bank of Nigeria, foreign debt has more than doubled to twenty-one billion dollars in three years—getting dangerously close to the thirty-one billion dollars of foreign debt Nigeria had before the debt relief program of 2005.
The economic situation is dire. The federal government currently spends sixty percent of its income financing debt repayments, according to the IMF. Personnel costs are growing, and the national currency has lost sixty percent of its value in the last three years. Moreover, the inflation and unemployment rates are rising. The federal government borrowed about half of its total expenditure for the first nine months of 2018 according to an analysis by BudgIT, an independent civic organization that promotes transparency and government accountability. Across many states and local governments, civil servants are owed between three to twelve months of salary arrears according to the Nigerian Labor Congress.
A review of the campaign documents of the two leading candidates, Muhammadu Buhari’s Next Level and Abubakar Atiku’s Let’s Get Nigeria Working Again, reveals that both are high on promises but short on specifics. Buhari, of the All Peoples Congress (APC), plans to increase social intervention spending for the poor, create more government jobs, and increase deficit-financing infrastructural investments. These appear unattainable due to mounting public debt, ballooning budget deficits, and low tax revenues. Atiku, of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), plans to double Nigeria’s GDP to nine hundred billion dollars in four years, spend ninety billion dollars annually on infrastructure over the next four years, and privatize government assets in the oil, gas, and transportation sectors. These also appear to be unattainable goals because doubling the GDP in four years requires a twelve percent annual income growth rate, which is unlikely given the structure of the economy.
However, two other presidential candidates of marginal political parties have shown a firm grasp of Nigeria’s economic challenges and how to tackle them. Kingsley Moghalu, an economist and former deputy governor of the central bank, is running on the platform of the Young Progressive Party (YPP). Oby Ezekwesili, a former federal minister and vice-president of the World Bank, who, until recently announcing her withdrawal, was running on the platform of Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN).
So, why are economic issues not at the forefront of the 2019 election campaigns? There are many possible explanations. First, many Nigerians have bought into the government’s narrative that the main challenge facing the country is corruption and that the economy will thrive once it is eradicated. Second, the various factions of the political class pay a lot more attention to power-sharing and political calculations about which of Nigeria’s geopolitical zones will have the next shot at presidential power, including the sharing of the spoils of office. More importantly, perhaps, is the weak culture of political debates as most of the electorate tends to be swayed by the politicization of identities, party loyalty, and the personality-based nature of electoral contests. Although solutions to the economic challenges facing Nigeria should feature prominently in the 2019 election campaigns, they have unfortunately taken a backseat in the ongoing political conversation.