One year on from the 2023 Elections

By Kofo Obasanjo-Blackshire

I was already galvanised by the suffering of Nigerians, refusing to become apathetic from the ‘insulation’ conferred by being in the diaspora and was determined to amplify their plight on every available platform.  Then a conversation with one contemporary whom I would consider to be materially, professionally and socially comfortable lit a spark inside and infused me with added passion to write this piece with extra fire in my bones and belly! 

Aware of the suffering of Nigerians, I have always felt that my writing must be meaningful, worthy of the audience and transformative (at least aim for those objectives).  I began to wonder that, if even the so-called ‘comfortable’ are despairing, what must the ordinary Nigerian be experiencing?

When reports of a teacher in Kano, making a three-hour commute to school on foot, no longer able to pay for a ride and stories of people being forced to eat to afafata rice meant for poultry not human consumption surface on the BBC news, this creates hope that the world will take notice.  Unfortunately, Nigerian suffering gets eclipsed by the din of the Israeli- Gaza war and the Russian attack on Ukraine. 

Not unless there is a substantive (‘they might be coming here!’), familiar (‘they look like us’) perhaps even existential (‘they will take our jobs and outnumber us!’) threat to the daily lives of western populations do media outlets pay much attention.  Credit, therefore, to the BBC for reporting the crisis in Nigeria on several of its platforms.

So how did we come to this?  The logistical shortcomings and technology failures of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, have been well documented, as have the violence, intimidation and attempts at voter suppression that marred those elections of February 2023.  Fuel and cash shortages completed the unholy triumvirate of the 3 horsemen of the election apocalypse. 

Nigerians went to the polls to elect President Buhari’s successor, but what they got was electoral malfeasance of the most blatant kind, rubber-stamped by the judiciary.  Talk about a ‘double whammy’!  And from two of the institutions that are supposed to uphold the decision of the people and the rule of law!!  A historically low voter turnout of just 27 per cent, combined with unprecedented division of votes between four leading candidates means that President Bola Tinubu’s mandate emanates from less than 10 per cent of Nigeria’s electorate. 

We must not allow ourselves to be victims of gaslighting.  INEC’s failures to deliver free, fair and credible elections and the judiciary’s negligence in upholding the electorate’s choice must not be allowed to falter in the narrative. Comments on social media highlight the pervasive tribalism that runs through the undercurrent of the nation like a malevolent subterranean entity. 

In some quarters there seems to be a view that the Yoruba are to blame for inflicting Tinubu on the nation, and thus are undeserving of sympathy.  The plague of religious, ethnic or tribal differences must not be allowed to overshadow a unifying social, economic and political cause.  ‘Ebi n’pa wa’ (we are hungry) is the desperate refrain from people in Lagos, Osun, Kano, Anambra and beyond; everyone is suffering and the political status quo does not reflect the people’s choice.  ‘Emi l’okan’ has been replaced by the despairing cries of millions in hardship. War-torn Ukraine has donated 25,000 tons of wheat to Nigeria, eliciting labels of a national disgrace and failed state among others.

Tinubu undoubtedly inherited a record amount of government debt, endemic corruption, high unemployment, rampant insecurity, power shortages and declining oil production that have contributed to years of economic slowdown.  A lack of investment in new wells, corruption, and oil theft are major contributors to the decline in Nigeria’s oil production.  Globally, increased efforts to transition to renewable energy sources, improvements in energy efficiency, changes in consumer behaviour, and the lingering economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to reduced travel and industrial activity have hit Nigeria’s oil production and exports hard.

Additionally, policies aimed at combating climate change have stimulated investments in alternative energy technologies, further dampening the long-term outlook for oil demand.  International Oil Companies (IOCs) are abandoning funding oil and gas exploration, divesting their Nigerian assets and redirecting investment into renewables. In addition to a noticeable shift and reduction in global oil demand in recent years, insecurity is another factor accelerating the exit of international investors. 

Where kidnapping has become an industry, no investor in their right minds will commit.  The irony is that government reforms to remove fuel subsidy, loosen financial controls and float the naira were initially greeted with enthusiasm by these same investors and international backers, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Short-term pain for long-term gain was one description proffered by an economist.

Now the initial fervour has cooled, replaced with scepticism, lack of confidence in the naira, policy uncertainty and lingering security issues which have converged to drive up inflation and the cost of imports.

 Life for many Nigerians has become unbearable. This is a nation already saddled with over 63 per cent of people identified as multidimensionally poor.  Meaning that they suffer deprivations across multiple areas: food, employment, security, education, energy, the list goes on.  Bearing the unenviable epithet of the second largest poor population in the world after India, Nigeria needed to be prepared for the introduction of these reforms with military precision and in phases. 

Addressing the inadequate and poor refinery capabilities was of vital importance before tampering with the subsidy. 

Importing over 90 per cent of its fuel exposes the Nigerian economy to fluctuating exchange rates and international oil prices.  Adjusting salaries to shield vulnerable members of society, the aforementioned multidimensionally poor, from the worst impact of the subsidy withdrawal required careful planning.  This could have provided some mitigation, cushioning the impact of the reform. Amassing foreign reserves to a level whereby the naira could be stabilised, able to withstand shocks from these financial reforms would have been a judicious three-pronged approach in preparation for the changes. 

Dependence on foreign investors and international backers was another error in planning.  Government mistrust due to lack of transparency and opaque dealings have eroded confidence.  The IMF and World Bank have tabled a proposal to remove electricity subsidy.  At this particular point in time this is analogous to withdrawing an epidural anaesthetic from a woman in labour during childbirth.  The nation is already traumatised and reeling from the fuel subsidy removal, to introduce another painful reform would be madness and would only deepen the wound of the current cost-of-living crisis.

Thankfully, lawmakers in the senate have rejected this proposal, urging the government to focus on distribution and circulation of electricity supply and not tariff increase.  In addition to the prevailing crises, Nigerians have also been sweltering under severe heatwaves triggered by extreme temperatures and worsened by power cuts that have persisted for weeks.  If the failure to provide reliable and affordable is not an argument against electricity subsidy removal, I don’t know what is.

Anyone can remove anything, but the most important thing is the implementation of even the most necessary actions. The ‘how’ matters; citizen-centred leadership does not subjugate the important to the urgent. External forces and the pressure of the ballot box often entices politicians to focus on short-term gains that may be detrimental to their citizens in the long run.  To paraphrase James Freeman Clarke ‘A politician thinks of the next election; a leader thinks of the next generation.’

 Nigerians are prepared to sacrifice to improve the lives of future generations and feel that if subsidy removal leads to improved education, health system, transport etc. then it would all be worth it in the end. The necessity of these reforms is not in question; it is the manner of their execution that has left millions of Nigerians reeling. The fast pace of these changes without adequate protection for the most vulnerable has created an unjust, unfair and overwhelming burden amid multiple existing crises.

The state is not an abstract construct but is in fact a representation of the people.  Serving the people who constitute the state should be the chief preoccupation of all leaders and ensuring the security and welfare of those they serve must be the principal objective of every politician. Nigeria is a deeply religious nation, where practically everyone professes one belief or another. All the major faiths advocate loving one’s neighbour, placing people at the core of demonstrating and practicing what they believe.

State building and statecraft must transcend selfish ambition, thirst for power, a base desire to tick a box in one’s CV or any other reason other than service to the people.  It can be a thankless task and a difficult job, but nothing surpasses transforming lives and making the world a better place for even one person. For change to happen we need a critical mass of like-minded people who will say enough is enough!  People are at the core of nation-building; their protection and prosperity are the mandate, duty and obligation of every government. 

Strong, consistent and competent leadership that is dedicated to serving its populace is the anchor. Partnership and collaboration within today’s global village will enable wise and capable leaders to identify and leverage the strategic, economic, perhaps even ideological interests of potential partners in achieving their goal to improve the lot of their citizens. A just and inclusive society can be created and corruption significantly eliminated allowing the nation and indeed the entire continent to flourish. This is my vision for Nigeria and Africa and I believe it can become a reality within a single generation.

I remain convinced that today’s challenges can be resolved with the political will, action and focus on what (or who) matters most i.e. the people and support from the international community.  We can and must create a better future for humanity. All leaders, serving and aspiring, must understand their unassailable duty to serve and put the welfare of their people first. Reforms and changes must be introduced tactfully and humanely.

Dr Kofo Obasanjo-Blackshire is the

Author of Pillars of Statecraft: Nation Building In A Changing World (2023).

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