Bola Tinubu’s Nigeria

Despite liberalizing the economy to the detriment of the majority, Nigeria’s president has faced little opposition in his first year in office.

Swearing-in ceremony of Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, May 29 2023. Credit Paul Kagame via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

One thing both his giddy admirers and somber critics can agree on is that, politically, Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu’s first half-year in office has been a resounding success. It should go without saying that political success is not a measure of economic achievement, even less so of moral legitimacy. Instead, and especially in the absence of a culture of reliable national approval ratings, political success is best gauged on how much a given administration can build support for, or withstand opposition to, its governing agenda. And on this score, whether it is as a result of ruthless cunning or a stroke of good fortune, Nigeria’s president has maintained a nearly impeccable record.  

The plainest example of this was Tinubu’s decisive triumph at the supreme court over his main electoral rivals, Atiku Abubaker of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party. Granted, it is not typically considered an aberration for a ruling party to win a favorable decision in an election tribunal, especially in electoral systems where the courts make their decision after the president-elect has already been sworn in. Yet, the unanimous affirmation of Tinubu’s victory by the Supreme Court justices confounded many albeit naive opposition activists. Given the controversial polling process that produced the slimmest margin a Nigerian presidential candidate has ever scored, and in light of the significant questions that were raised about Tinubu’s qualifications (including questions about his admittedly forfeiting $460,000 of narcotics-linked funds to the FBI) one can be forgiven for expecting even a little debate among the justices. In the end, despite re-surfacing some of his dirty (if already well-aerated) laundry, the court decision contributed to buttressing Tinubu’s mandate by exposing the extent to which the opposition lacked the coordination to collect and present evidence of systematic electoral malfeasance.

Beyond consolidating his electoral mandate, a more historically significant political victory for Tinubu in his first year of office has been his administration’s ability to push through the farthest-reaching economic liberalization agenda since the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) were introduced in Nigeria in 1986. This historical backdrop is worth dwelling on momentarily. Two of Tinubu’s most significant reforms—the announced total liberalization of Nigeria’s national currency and the removal of the petroleum subsidy—were deemed unachievable at the height of the SAPs. Indeed, even the Babangida regime which launched the SAPs opted, as have all its successors before Tinubu, to announce a phased removal of the petrol subsidy and a gradual liberalization of the currency. Even if the announced liberalizations under Tinubu have yet to be fully implemented, the present administration has already achieved what its predecessors could not: a normalization of the total removal of subsidies as the desired end-point and the concurrent shifting of public debate to a discussion over the method for best achieving this. 

This prompts a question. Why has Tinubu’s version of liberalization —predictably lauded as “radical”, “dramatic”, and “bold” in the international financial press— not generated the public outcry experienced both in the past, and by contemporary liberalizers elsewhere in Africa (take Kenya, for example, where a month of intense mass protests forced Ruto to reinstate petrol subsidies last August)?  The puzzle of public quiescence is only deepened because these policies, which have led to a more than three-fold increase in the cost of petroleum and an over 50 percent devaluation of the naira,  were accompanied by a severe cost of living crisis characterized by historic (and spiraling) inflation levels, a 36% jump in food prices, and up to 78% increases in transport fares in some areas. To put it in other words: How has an administration that began with one of the shakiest mandates in history and has only deepened a chronic economic crisis managed to proceed with no significant political or public resistance? 


Shock therapy

There are some straightforward and some relatively less straightforward answers to this. For one, it is clear that the leaders of the main opposition parties, having campaigned on nearly identical liberalization policies as Tinubu, have had only half-hearted quibbles to offer, asserting that they would have implemented the same agenda, but only better. The seeming consensus among the main parties has deepened a sense of demoralization among the general public struggling under the weight of the economic crisis but deprived of political leadership able to articulate meaningful alternatives.  

The malaise of the major opposition parties has also infected recognized protest leaders and the umbrella union centers. The fact that the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), having historically led the fight against devaluation and the removal of the subsidy, endorsed Peter Obi, a staunch advocate of liberalization, in the 2023 presidential election has meant that the unions are hamstrung in their ability to oppose the Tinubu administration’s policies without falling victim to accusations of hypocrisy and overt partisanship. A similar fate has befallen many prominent #EndSARS activists who have thrown their weight behind the Labour Party candidate, and now have very little to say in response as their candidate’s policies are implemented by his supposed opponent. 

Granted, the NLC, for its part, criticized the Tinubu administration for not acting quickly enough to cushion the effects of his policies—launching a “warning strike” in September 2023 to compel the government to raise the minimum wage. Yet, these actions, insofar as they seek to make the effects of the liberalization policies easier to swallow for waged workers, betray a tacit acceptance of the administration’s agenda as a fait accompli, leaving the larger informal and rural workforce unsure of where to turn for relief, let alone representation. These internal constraints are also reinforced by the ‘stick’ of repression, court injunctions against strikes, physical assaults on labor leaders, and the wider threat of insecurity, all of which have contributed to resigning organized labor to accepting the “carrot” of minimum wage negotiations. While a higher minimum wage would be an unequivocally positive development, it would undoubtedly also further stabilize the liberalization package.  

Furthermore, the speedy and simultaneous rollout of both key policies— announced during the president’s inauguration speech—has left the remaining opponents of the agenda scrambling and disorganized, with some would-be critics succumbing to the glib hope that the new administration “needs time to settle” and for the policies to take root before they can be evaluated. This, along with a media blitz focused on promoting the idea that the government is bankrupt (despite relatively high oil prices) and on emphasizing the need for temporary sacrifices that might one day lead to economic growth, has deepened an atmosphere of confusion and begrudging acceptance. Jeffrey Sacks—among other notable proponents of the merits of economic liberalization via a decisive stroke—must be rubbing his hands.

Un-televised resistance

All of this is not to say that the administration’s economic agenda has gone entirely unchallenged in Nigeria. Political quiescence at the level of national organized opposition is in contrast to more localized ‘wildcat’ demonstrations of grievance, such as the traders and residents of Lagos Island who surrounded Tinubu’s motorcade in December chanting in Yoruba, “Ebi npa wa oo” meaning we are hungry. A measure of more organized resistance also emerged on university campuses across the country, where student groups organized #FeesMustFall and other campaigns in response to the introduction of student loans and to a hike in fees that the administration introduced in its early days. 

These expressions of disaffection remain sporadic and limited to particular policy areas rather than the underlying commonality that unites them. Meanwhile, left-leaning organizations such as the African Action Congress (AAC) or the Take It Back Movement, have largely (though not exclusively) retreated, following a demoralizing electoral performance, into the arena of internal cadre building which, though necessary, leaves the question of action in response to the immediate situation unanswered. 

In the long run, the political success of the administration’s first year in office may contain the seeds of its eventual undoing. Emboldened by its policy coup, and basking in the glow of positive attention it received from the international financial press, the administration will likely continue to overplay its hand, deepening its liberalization drive across new policy arenas, including a mooted increase in electricity tariffs. As always, the shape of the oppositional and public response will depend on the progress of attempts to forge meaningful links between the various forms of resistance.

Further Reading

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