Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Time for Buhari to Play Nice

Nigeria's new president may have a mandate from the voters. But if he can't get the state governors on his side, his ambitious reforms won't stand a chance.

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When Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria's president-elect, takes the stage in Abuja on Friday to officially take power, he'll be setting the capstone on one great achievement for the country and starting off on a string of even more daunting tasks. His ambitious "to-do" list includes righting an economy in crisis, fighting an Islamist insurgency, and battling endemic corruption. The problem, however, is that while Nigeria’s momentous presidential vote of March 28-29 -- which yielded a peaceful transition of power from a sitting president to a democratically elected successor -- is undoubtedly a milestone for African democracy, it doesn't mean that Buhari's mandate at the polls will actually translate into governing power. To get his agenda through, he's going to need the help of the state governors. And though Buhari's anti-corruption line sold well at the voting booth, the country's powerful governors might be a tougher sell.

Despite a contentious campaign, the elections in which Buhari and his opposition coalition, All Progressives Congress (APC), won by more than 2.5 million votes were relatively peaceful. The defeated People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which had held power for 16 years, also agreed to step down peacefully. APC candidates won a majority of seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, which will alter the configuration of leadership in the National Assembly in favor of the opposition for the first time since the transition to civilian rule in 1999.

While the presidential elections have attracted the lion's share of the attention, the state governorship elections conducted on April 11 and 25 carried equally important implications in shaping the country’s democratic trajectory for the next four years. Yes, Buhari will take over leadership of one of the most powerful presidencies in the "global south." But given Nigeria’s size and the complexity of the challenges -- an economy hit by falling oil prices, a devalued local currency, a prolonged fuel supply shortage, a government plagued with corruption at every level, and a weak security sector beset by an Islamist insurgency -- the president alone is incapable of accomplishing much. Which means an accountable, coordinated, and cooperative state-level government is arguably greater today than before.

When Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president-elect, takes the stage in Abuja on Friday to officially take power, he’ll be setting the capstone on one great achievement for the country and starting off on a string of even more daunting tasks. His ambitious “to-do” list includes righting an economy in crisis, fighting an Islamist insurgency, and battling endemic corruption. The problem, however, is that while Nigeria’s momentous presidential vote of March 28-29 — which yielded a peaceful transition of power from a sitting president to a democratically elected successor — is undoubtedly a milestone for African democracy, it doesn’t mean that Buhari’s mandate at the polls will actually translate into governing power. To get his agenda through, he’s going to need the help of the state governors. And though Buhari’s anti-corruption line sold well at the voting booth, the country’s powerful governors might be a tougher sell.

Despite a contentious campaign, the elections in which Buhari and his opposition coalition, All Progressives Congress (APC), won by more than 2.5 million votes were relatively peaceful. The defeated People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which had held power for 16 years, also agreed to step down peacefully. APC candidates won a majority of seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, which will alter the configuration of leadership in the National Assembly in favor of the opposition for the first time since the transition to civilian rule in 1999.

While the presidential elections have attracted the lion’s share of the attention, the state governorship elections conducted on April 11 and 25 carried equally important implications in shaping the country’s democratic trajectory for the next four years. Yes, Buhari will take over leadership of one of the most powerful presidencies in the “global south.” But given Nigeria’s size and the complexity of the challenges — an economy hit by falling oil prices, a devalued local currency, a prolonged fuel supply shortage, a government plagued with corruption at every level, and a weak security sector beset by an Islamist insurgency — the president alone is incapable of accomplishing much. Which means an accountable, coordinated, and cooperative state-level government is arguably greater today than before.

States rule

Politically, Nigeria is organized under a federal structure, consisting of a central government, 36 states, a Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), and 774 local government areas loosely organized across the different states under six geopolitical zones: northeast, northwest, northcentral, southeast, southwest, and south south. By law, state governors not only enjoy vast fiscal, territorial, security, and legal powers; they also control statutory federal revenue allocations, which account for about 50 percent of all government spending, and enjoy wide latitude to interpret and implement policies as they wish. Uncooperative governors, even from within the APC, could cause problems for Buhari’s government because he has promised significant reforms to the economic and security sectors that will require state-level cooperation to achieve. Because of constitutional authority vested in states, Buhari will have to convince governors to use their authority to strengthen state-level coordination and cooperate with the incoming government to design and implement realistic social and economic policies.

That might prove a tall order.

Considered as one of the most powerful political blocs in the country, the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) is a non-partisan coalition that brings together all the elected governors to promote cooperation among the states, and between the states and other tiers of government. Past presidents have often found themselves at odds with the NGF, and some have expressed concerns that it has become a powerful lobbying group to serve the interest of the governors. Former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration often cited the lack of cooperation of northern governors as a scapegoat for its inability to make significant progress against the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency.

On the face of it, president-elect Buhari seems to be in a good position: The APC’s victory at the national level was followed by wins at the state-level. APC gubernatorial candidates won over control of nine states from the PDP, and now control 22 states, including the country’s commercial hub, Lagos. The PDP won gubernatorial seats in only 13 states but retained control of the core oil producing states in the Niger Delta, in the south south. The All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), one of the few opposition parties not to merge with the APC, controls Anambra state, in the southeast. The vote, however, is only one part of the governance process.

Southern man

Buhari’s party did not win governorships in any of the core oil producing states, such as Rivers, Bayelsa, and Delta. Revenues from these states make up the majority of the total government budget, meaning that relations between the new federal government and the governments of these states will be critical for Buhari’s ability govern. Another cause for concern is the looming threat of a possible return of militancy in the Niger Delta region. In recent weeks, a number of militants have warned against tampering with the federal amnesty program launched in 2009 to disarm and rehabilitate militants with a cash stipend, job training, or micro credit loans. The amnesty program has brought relative stability to the region, but made minimal change to the lives of the militants. The program is expected to expire this year.

The resurgence of instability in the Delta would be a disaster. At the height of the violence, fueled by competition for oil wealth by exploited minority ethnic groups, militias fought bitterly with Nigerian security forces. Between 2006 and 2009, Nigeria’s daily oil production decreased to about 900,000 barrels per day from 2.5 million barrels per day — and national revenue was cut by more than half, leading to a major financial crisis. A return of militancy could disrupt oil production and starve an already cash-strapped federal government of much needed oil revenue. Whether, and to what extent, the PDP-led government in the Delta region will be supportive of the ruling APC-dominated federal government — and facilitate negotiations to maintain the amnesty program — remains unclear.

The issue of Buhari’s ability to work with state governors goes beyond courting the opposition.

Cabinet consultations

Over the past decade and a half, the state governors have become increasingly influential outside their states. By law, each state is represented by at least one federal minister in the executive cabinet, and many governors believe they should be consulted before these nominations are made. Constitutionally, the power to choose minsters rests with the president. However since 1999, governors from the ruling party have played a significant role in appointing ministers from their states, and many often appointed weak individuals who were submissive to them. Buhari, who has publicly stated that he will not have ministers imposed on him by governors from his party, reportedly met with APC governors and governors-elect in early May to discuss ministerial appointments. The governors may fight to retain their appointment powers.

The APC, also, is not exactly unified bloc. Rather, it is a coalition of members from several opposition parties and disaffected members of the PDP who switched sides before the 2015 elections. Governors from eight states (Adamawa, Benue, Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Kebbi, Kwara, and Sokoto) are former members of the PDP. The tendency of politicians to flock to any party in power, or switch parties even after elections is quite common in Nigeria. Buhari has made clear that he will not appoint any post-election PDP defectors to his cabinet. Given the power of state governors, it is also not clear how committed these APC members will remain to the party, especially if they feel that Buhari’s approach is a threat to their autonomy.

Doling out the dollars

The way money flows in Nigeria might also make things hard for Buhari. Some of Nigeria’s states have large populations and serious economic might, creating gubernatorial strongholds. In 2014, revenue allocations to the 10 states that receive the most federal cash were higher than the budgets of most neighboring countries. Half of all government spending occurs at the state-level. As such, the state governors wield more influence than the central government over social issues that directly impact the lives of citizens, such as basic infrastructure development and service delivery. Despite the flow of federal funds, as many as 19 states reportedly still owe civil servants several months in salaries and pensions.

State governors have increasingly come under scrutiny for reckless spending and diverting public funds for personal use. APC governors and governors-elect reportedly met with Buhari in early May to request that the incoming government consider a financial bailout for the states. While occurrences of unpaid salaries are not new in Nigeria, this could create a crisis in the early days of the new government. Citizens voted overwhelming based on their frustrations with the outgoing government to meet basic needs. Expectations are high and Nigerians desperately want to see an improvement in their daily lives. President-elect Buhari and the governors must cooperate in developing an approach to find revenues to pay worker’s salaries and maintain a functioning government — without being distracted from the many other challenges the country has to contend with.

Unlike past elections, president-elect Buhari is coming to power with a broad popular mandate from Nigerian voters. But though this affords him a chance to address some of the issues that have plagued the country for far too long, his success at governing Nigeria will largely depend on how closely his government is able to work with and enlist the support of the state governors. Nigeria’s democracy does not begin or end at the ballot box — and bringing real change to the country is a task too big to rest on Buhari’s shoulders alone.

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Oge Onubogu is Program Officer for Africa at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed are her own.

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