NGR190121AA002Abuja, Nigeria – Since Alejo Fred lost his job as an engineer two years ago, he’s been earning a living by salvaging sellable items from trash.

“There was a robust, private sector-driven construction industry,” he said. “But this is all gone in a cloud of economic uncertainty.’’

As Nigeria approaches a general election on February 16, Fred and other voters in the most populous country in Africa are disappointed with President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired military general running for reelection.

Buhari rode to power in 2015 promising to turn around the country’s moribund economy, tackle corruption and defeat militants like Boko Haram, the Islamic State-affiliated militants wreaking havoc in the northeast.

But low oil prices sparked a recession in 2016, arguably dashing Buhari’s hopes of fulfilling his campaign pledges. Almost 10 million people have lost jobs since the recessions struck, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, or NBS. Today, unemployment stands at more than 23 percent. Half the population of 180 million live in extreme poverty. Gross domestic product is expected to hit 1.5 percent in the current quarter, nearly a quarter lower than a year ago.

Leading opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party is pledging to sell off the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, a hotbed of corruption, if elected in the February vote. Abubakar recently called on Buhari to resign after the president confessed to regional governors that the economy was in bad shape.

“The economy has collapsed under his [Buhari’s] watch,” said Abubakar, a former vice president under ex-President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. “He has no idea on how to fix it.”

Supporters of Buhari saw his tenure differently, arguing that Buhari has been making reforms but Nigeria’s economy won’t change overnight.

‘’President Buhari is confronting the effect of gross mismanagement of the country under the previous regimes,’’ said Abdulkarim Muhammad Abdullahi, a leader of the APC Big League, a pro-Buhari advocacy group. “Buhari has done well to rejig the country’s economy.’’

Critics also charge Buhari of falling short in the fight against terrorism. Soon after his election, he launched an all-out assault on Boko Haram, resulting in a lull in their rampages. Many militants were pushed into a narrow region on Nigeria’s border with Chad.

But as the country inches towards the general election, the terrorists are resurfacing to carry out their deadly activities.

Recently a faction of the Boko Haram renamed themselves the Islamic State's West Africa Province and launched brazen assaults in the Northeast, overrunning military bases and rural communities, fueling fears that the fight against terrorism is not yet over. Armed bandits are now wreaking havoc in communities in lawless Northwestern Nigeria, too.

“The impact of recent fighting on innocent civilians is devastating,” said Samantha Newport, the UN’s spokesperson Nigeria. ‘’It has created a humanitarian tragedy.’’

Newport estimated that the Islamic State's West Africa Province has displaced around 30,000 people. The UN recently withdrew 260 aid workers from Borno State in Northeastern Nigeria, the largest pullout in three years, she added.

The violence ironically could help Buhari at the ballot box. Many residents of the northeast would vote against the president if they had a chance. It’s not clear if voting will occur in regions where the militants are active, however.

“Our people are made to flee back to Maiduguri [the regional capital] and probably consigned to IDP camps,” said Mohammed Imam, who is running for the Borno State governorship with the opposition Peoples Democratic Party.

A spokesman for the government, Lai Mohammed, said officials were taking measures to ensure that free, fair and credible elections were held throughout the country.

Buhari has also been embroiled in corruption scandals.

Nigeria improved on the Transparency International corruption perception index last year, moving from the 148th to 144th most corrupt states in the world. But the country didn’t improve its score in the index compared to 2017. Rather, other countries did worse.

The president recently, for example, suspended the country’s chief justice, Walter Onnoghen, over allegations of corruption, but the opposition accused him of seeking to eliminate an independent authority who might challenge his efforts to fix the coming election.

“It means that the next election is nothing more than a ritualistic outing,’’ said Mike Ozekhome, a Nigerian constitutional lawyer, referring to the suspension.

American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria issued concerns about the suspension, too, warning the move could "cast a pall over the electoral process.”

Onnoghen allegedly failed to list his personal assets before taking his job. He refused to step down, forcing Buhari to suspend him, the president’s spokesman said recently. Officials are now examining the allegations.

Many ordinary Nigerians feel as if they can’t do much about high-level corruption. But they have strong opinions about their fortunes under Buhari, who assumed office on a wave of hope. His ascension marked the first peaceful democratic transition of power in the country.

“I’m running out of business because of the harsh economy,” Yazidu Harisu, 15, an itinerant tailor who was sitting under a tree with his mobile sewing machine in One Man Village, a suburb of Abuja, on a recent evening waiting for customers.

‘’I don’t want Buhari to be re-elected,’’ said Harisu. “It’s not that we don’t like him. But the people are suffering under his watch.’’
Photo: January 21, 2019 - Damaturu, Yobe, North-eastern Nigeria - Supporters of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari display the double-hand symbol representing two four-year tenures.
Credit: Ali Abare Abubakar/ARA Network Inc. (01/21/19)

Story/photo publish date: 02/05/2019
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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