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Nigeria: President Muhammadu Buhari's questionable legacy

Philipp Sandner
February 23, 2023

High hopes for change carried Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari into office. Eight years later, as his two-term period comes to an end, the West African nation is in tatters.

A group of people sitting in white chairs at a ceremony
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's (center) record is mixedImage: Afolabi Sotunde/REUTERS

In 2015, when he was elected president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari made history in more than one sense.

It was the first time an opposition candidate assumed the helm peacefully.

And to top it, the former general — who had taken power by force a good 30 years earlier only to be replaced in a another coup two years after that — embraced the democratic system, vowing to change Nigeria for the better.

Indeed, the country was in desperate need of change.

Buhari came to power at a time when abductions and severe bombings were being reported daily, most often attributed to Boko Haram, the Islamist group that controlled large parts of northeast Nigeria.

Suicide attacks were a new phenomenon in Nigeria. One such attack, in July 2014 in the northern city of Kaduna, targeted Buhari when he was an opposition leader, killing dozens of people.

In an interview with DW, political analyst Kamilu Sani Fage pointed out that at the time, the violence had reached a new level. Buhari wanted to abolish this brutality.

The crisis after Boko Haram

As Buhari's presidency draws to a close, Nigeria is yet again in a time of multiple crises.

If we are to judge Buhari on his achievements as a president, Tukur Abdulkadir, a professor at Kaduna State University, suggests examing the three fundamental issues Buhari vowed to address: Insecurity, the economy and corruption.

In terms of security, there were some achievements to speak of, Tukur told DW.

"In 2015, substantial parts of the northeast, especially Adamawa, Yobe and Borno States, were under the control of Boko Haram insurgents," said Tukur. "Millions of people were displaced."

"Today, in 2023, tens of thousands of them are returning to their villages and local governments. Boko Haram are actually on the run in most parts of northern Nigeria."

People walk at the Government Science secondary school in Nigeria's northwestern Katsina state
Boko Haram insurgents were notorious for abducting pupils but now banditry is a bigger threatImage: Abdullahi Inuwa/REUTERS

But even when people were celebrating Buhari's achievements, a new, more destructive phenomenon of banditry emerged in the northwest, said Tukur.

Insurgents now controlled villages, he said, and again, tens of thousands have fled the violence.

"On that score, Buhari has failed woefully," Tukur added.

"If they could deal decisively with Boko Haram, people are still perplexed and bewildered as to why it has become so difficult for the Nigerian security agencies and the government of Muhammadu Buhari to tackle the problem of banditry in the northwestern part of Nigeria."

Reforms gone sour

To further exacerbate the situation, more and more young Nigerians are left without a chance after finishing their studies. Creating jobs and boosting the economy was another one of Buhari's promises back in 2015.

Just how much did he achieve? Statistics could provide an indication, Lagos-based financial consultant Shuaibu Idris told DW.

"When President Buhari took over, our inflation rate was somewhere around 12% to 13%. Today we are talking about 21% to 22%," Idris said. "Can we say he has done well? Clearly the answer is no."

Similarly, he pointed out that exchange rates for the naira as well as the national debt load had gone up significantly, while unemployment figures were also increasing.

What did the Buhari administration do to counter these developments? Conditional cash transfers and loans to farmers were among the policies. But they often turned sour, not helping to create jobs, Shuaibu Idris pointed out.

"There are quite a number of policies that Buhari implemented, but the implementation was poor. And therefore, like they say in IT parlance: Garbage in, garbage out," said Idris.

Corruption and new banknotes …

The third in Buhari's catalog of election promises was curbing corruption. This was not to be.

"We have seen high-level corruption involving government officials that were hand-picked and appointed by either President Muhammadu Buhari or people that are believed to be in his kitchen cabinet, the inner circle of his government," Kaduna political analyst Tukur said.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (R) and Godwin Emefiele, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, present the re-designed banknotes
Nigeria's new banknotes were launched in NovemberImage: Sodiq Adelakun/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

A central bank strategy to roll out new naira banknotes has done nothing to better the situation.

"One of the cardinal objectives of currency redesign is to fight corruption so that stolen money will become useless," said financial expert Shuaibu Idris. "So, in itself it is an admittance that in my efforts to fight corruption, I have failed, that I want to do medicine after death."

… and no going back

It is this very currency redesign in combination with a cashless policy that has caused an uproar throughout Nigeria. This was not about the policy itself, but rather the way it was handled, and its timing to coincide with the election, said Idris.

Inefficient infrastructure has led to hundreds of people queuing up in front of ATMs, and mobile banking services have crashed, causing people to go hungry with their money tucked safely in their bank accounts.

People queue early in the day to withdraw money from cash dispensers that is crippled by cash shortages at a bank in Kano, northwest Nigeria
Getting cash is a tiresome exercise for Nigerians in these daysImage: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

Nigerian newspaper Punch on Wednesday stated that a total of 13 people had died protesting against the new policy.

Even after an intervention by the Supreme Court to delay the rollout, President Buhari held on to his position.

Shuaibu Idris pointed out that it was a good thing for presidents to revise their positions and that it happened everywhere else.

"Why wouldn't Buhari revise his position?" said Idris. "To worsen the situation, he's just a few months to the end of his presidency. Should he allow Nigerians to remember him in this way?"

Mr 'I've done my best'

Despite the chaos, political analyst Tukur Abdulkadir is fast to admit that there are things that Muhammadu Buhari got right.

"In terms of infrastructure, he has performed better than the record that the main opposition party, for instance, achieved for 16 years," Tukur said. "Road infrastructure, rail sector, aviation sector: He has performed very well."

"There are many projects that have been abandoned for decades in Nigeria that he has either succeeded in completing all his or he is on the verge of completing. Like the prominent Second Niger Bridge that links Northern Nigeria and South and eastern Nigeria."

What do Nigerians want from the presidential election?

Whatever the score, the octogenarian president doesn't seem to care what people say about him.

"He feels 'I've done my best'," said DW correspondent Uwaisu Idris in Nigeria's capital city Abuja.

"And he's said it several times in several places. He will talk about Boko Haram and not about the banditry. He will still insist he has done his best."

On Saturday, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect Muhammadu Buhari's successor. Eighteen names are on the ballot papers. Whoever takes the lead, there's widespread optimism that there will be a departure from Buhari's style of governance.

This article was originally published in German.