Nigeria: oil privatisation call exposes election divide
The incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and his main rival agree on the pressing need for reform but differ on how to achieve it
Nigeria’s state-owned refinery in Kaduna, a rusted hulk set on about three square kilometres on the parched outskirts of the northern city, has capacity to process 110,000 barrels of oil a day. Last year it processed virtually nothing.
The other three state-owned refineries — in the oil-rich Niger delta region in the south of the country — did not do much better. In the year to October, the refineries operated at barely 11 per cent of their capacity of 445,000 barrels a day. In October itself, none of the refineries processed any crude, and they operated at a combined loss of $30m.
The decrepitude of the refineries in Africa’s largest crude producer is a reflection of the sorry state of an oil and gas sector starved of investment, but also a reminder of the country’s sluggish crude-driven economy. Oil still accounts for as much as 56 per cent of state revenues.The two main candidates vying to lead Africa’s most populous nation after elections this weekend offer very different choices for reforming this vital industry, between public or private sector-led development. It highlights a continuing debate in the country for which the term “kleptocracy” was coined in the 1960s over whether corruption is the price Nigeria must pay for growth.
For the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, the issue is personal. He built some of the state refineries as oil minister in the 1970s, and his approach reflects his past as a military dictator: his focus is state-led growth and his plan is to form public-private partnerships to revive the refineries.In stark contrast Atiku Abubakar, his main rival, plans to sell off the refineries. The 72-year-old made his fortune in the oil and gas business before leading the country’s patchy privatisation drive as vice-president in the 2000s — a push he promises to revive if he wins on Saturday. His principal target is the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the sprawling state-owned oil company and an epicentre of corruption.
Both want to diversify the oil-dependent economy and boost infrastructure spending, but differ on how to achieve it. For perhaps the first time Nigerian voters have a clear choice between the major candidates based on their polar-opposite approaches to the economy and business.
“[Mr Buhari] tends to be a bit more state interventionist, in the sense of trying to use the mechanisms of the state to create outcomes,” says Nonso Obikili, director at the Abuja-based Turgot Centre for Economics and Policy Research. “Atiku’s focus seems to be more market-driven . . . the focus seems to be, let’s create the policy environment and let the private individuals do what they want to do.”Discussions of economic stewardship in Nigeria are inextricable from those about public corruption. For much of the previous decade, Nigeria’s economy roared along at annual growth rate of about 7 per cent. But the number of Nigerians living in poverty also grew, suggesting that the growth was superficial and unproductive, partly fuelled by stolen money funding the lavish lifestyles of the politically connected.
Mr Buhari has campaigned explicitly against that era. He was elected in 2015 on an anti-corruption pledge and maintains an aura of incorruptibility even as his anti-graft drive has been harshly criticised as partisan, and lacking in high profile convictions after four years. The president has shared the stage this campaign with a number of politicians suspected by anti-graft campaigners of corruption. And according to a Gallup poll released in February 84 per cent of Nigerians believe government corruption is widespread — down just 2 points from 2014.
Mr Abubakar has also vowed to tackle corruption, but he was vice-president for some of those high-flying years in the 2000s — and graft allegations have trailed him ever since. A 2010 US Senate report into how named individuals “circumvent US anti-money laundering and anti-corruption safeguards” alleged that his American wife had helped him move $40m of “suspect” funds from offshore accounts to the US. The investigation’s findings “raise a host of questions about the nature and source” of Mr Abubakar’s wealth, according to the report. He denies any wrongdoing, but his reputation is cemented in the eyes of many voters, supporters and opponents.
At Makarfi Plaza in Kaduna, a few miles from the rusting refinery, Odebunmi Nurudeen, a university graduate who repairs mobile phones, argues with friends about politics.
“They say Atiku is an entrepreneur, but do we really need that?” he asks. “How did he make that money? He can privatise NNPC — but he should do it for normal people, not the politicians, not for himself or his friends.”
“Before we were living on stolen money — people accepted it because they would get some,” says Mr Nurudeen, referring to some of the corruption scandals that emerged during the 16 years Mr Abubakar’s People’s Democratic party ran the country. But, he says, Mr Buhari has turned off the tap.
“The whole thing about privatising NNPC, you have to look at it with some trepidation when it comes to Atiku,” says Ola Bello, Lagos-based executive director of Good Governance Africa. “The broad consensus is what he oversaw [when he led privatisation efforts as vice-president] was more consistent with the making of Russian oligarchs than [listing on] Wall Street or the London Stock Exchange.”Of the 73 candidates in the race to lead Africa’s largest economy only two have a chance of winning the election: Mr Buhari and Mr Abubakar, both backed by powerful political machines.
The All Progressives Congress, which backs Mr Buhari, and Mr Abubakar’s PDP don’t operate on a traditional ideological left-right continuum. Instead, the parties appear to function largely as vehicles for state capture, through which the country’s resources can be used to fund vast patronage networks. Their policy positions have tended to be broad and similar, centred on state-driven development. So fluid are the parties that Mr Abubakar has switched back and forth multiple times — in the last election, he part funded the Buhari campaign, allowing the former general to use his private jet.
But in January Mr Abubakar outlined the difference between him and the president. “He is anti-business, anti-private sector,” he told the Financial Times, “I am pro-business, pro-private sector.” Many executives in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial centre, broadly agree with his blunt assessment.
A senior politician close to Mr Buhari does not dispute the characterisation, adding ruefully that private business goes hand in hand with public corruption in Nigeria.Mr Abubakar wants to privatise state assets, lower corporate taxes and attract foreign direct investment. He also says he wants to float the naira, which the central bank has spent billions of dollars propping up at what critics call an artificially strong rate of N360 to the dollar for more than a year. He says one of his top priorities will be passing decades-in-the-making oil sector reforms that are widely seen as essential to spurring investment in the moribund industry. Mr Buhari has refused to sign a section of the reforms into law in part, critics say, because it would dilute the power of the executive branch.
The president is sticking to his state-led, bottom-up approach to development, focusing on agriculture, small business and infrastructure. He is campaigning as the candidate of the masses, in keeping with his almost cult-like following in the country’s populous north.
While their campaign promises differ widely, it is not clear whether a victory for either side will produce markedly different economic outcomes given the country’s immense structural challenges, says Adriaan du Toit, sub-Saharan Africa economist for AllianceBernstein. “The significant dependence on oil means that the next president’s [ability to enact] reforms will be very much aligned with what happens to oil prices in the next couple of years,” he adds.Even critics concede Mr Buhari was dealt a bad hand, taking office just as the oil price crashed. But many economists believe he exacerbated the recession that followed. At a meeting of business people in Lagos last weekend, he said his government had come into power in 2015 focused on three priorities: national security, tackling “rampant corruption” and improving the economy. He seemed to concede that progress had been slow.
‘‘These three priorities, if addressed, will completely transform Nigeria to a diversified, inclusive and competitive economy,” he was quoted as saying in local media. “But this is not an overnight transition. We are not only transforming systems and processes, but we are also changing hearts and minds.”
Hearts and minds are hard to measure. But a host of economic indicators paint a dismal picture of Mr Buhari’s stewardship. During his tenure unemployment has soared from 8.3 per cent to more than 23 per cent with another fifth of Nigerians underemployed; the stock market is the world’s worst performing, falling by more than half in dollar terms; and the country became home to the most people living in extreme poverty — defined as living on less than $1.90 per day — 87m, surpassing India, a country with six times its population.Mr Buhari’s economic woes have allowed his rival to argue that his success in business makes him perfectly qualified to, as his campaign slogan says, “get Nigeria working again”. But it is precisely his success that raises the suspicions of many Nigerians — and at times on the campaign trail, he has fed that mistrust.
At a business conference in Lagos in January, Mr Abubakar was pressed about allegations of crony capitalism during his time as vice-president raised in a recent Eurasia Group report.
“They didn’t say I will enrich myself, or the members of my family,” he said, to laughter and applause in the room. “But my friends, are my friends not entitled to be enriched? As long as there’s no element of corruption in there.”It was a sentiment that confirmed some Nigerians’ worst suspicions about Mr Abubakar, and his plans for the economy. It hinted at something broader, says Amaka Anku, Africa director for the Eurasia Group. “APC has a ton of corrupt people. They’re all hiding under Buhari’s halo, but the difference is the message they’re sending is [that] it’s not OK,” she says. “What I find fascinating is that Atiku and PDP are flirting with just saying it’s OK, [corruption is] OK as long as the economy is growing.”
Defending his comments, Mr Abubakar told the FT: “I am saying corruption is not OK, but neither is it OK to make the nation poorer via a partisan fight against it. My administration will grow the economy and fight corruption.”
At an Abubakar rally in Kaduna, Hadiza Mohammed Sani describes Nigeria as being “in a coma”, blaming Mr Buhari for the economic downturn.
She says that although Mr Abubakar, like many politicians, has benefited from his political position — taking his share of what Nigerians call “the national cake” — he has used it to employ thousands and would use his business acumen to benefit all Nigerians. “He might be a thief, but he never eats alone,” she adds.
This article was updated on February 14 to reflect the fact that Mr Buhari’s anti-graft campaign has secured low-level convictions but few high-profile ones
Polling day Incumbency favours Buhari amid rigging fears
The poll on Saturday is the largest exercise of democracy in African history. There are more than 84m registered voters, with 15m added to the rolls since 2015. Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable but observers generally give President Muhammadu Buhari the edge in what is a much closer race than had been expected.
Nigeria’s electoral maths is complicated. The victor must win the popular vote along with at least a quarter of votes in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. That ensures that the candidates must pull support from both the largely Christian south and the predominantly Muslim north.
Some analysts believe the main challenger Atiku Abubakar is leading, but even those who believe he would win in a truly free and fair election — which Mr Buhari has promised — concede that Nigeria’s vast powers of incumbency could push the president over the line. The party in power has control of the security services and the electoral commission, and historically has used them to influence the outcome of votes. Mr Abubakar is calling on supporters to be vigilant about the prospect of rigging.
Both sides accuse the other of stirring up trouble but the fact that the two candidates are northern Muslims in their 70s has led some to predict that there will be no repeat of the post-election violence that left more than 800 people dead in 2011.
Elections were largely peaceful four years ago, when Mr Buhari became the first opposition candidate to win the presidency since democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. His predecessor’s administration generated a host of multibillion dollar graft scandals and was unable to contain the spread of Boko Haram’s jihadist insurgency in the north-east, where voting for the roughly 2m people displaced by the violence is likely to be disrupted.