The newsflow from Nigeria is, as ever, hectic: political alliances are shifting as President Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress splits and the People’s Democratic Party, written off only one election cycle ago, draws back power-brokers; finance minister Kemi Adeosun has resigned over her submission of an apparently forged National Youth Service Corps exemption certificate (she had anyway thought she was exempt, having lived in the UK until she was 34); clashes between herders and farmers in the Middle Belt are now killing more people than the jihadist Boko Haram – which has not gone away despite huge military operations. While entrepreneurs launch innovative schemes from fintech to wind power, there is much to discourage investors as Nigeria prepares for elections in February 2019.
Critical oil and gas sector reforms remain stalled, a decade after the late Rilwanu Lukman presented the first draft of the Petroleum Industry Bill, intended to overhaul corporate and financial structures and working practices. In Buhari’s first term, only a first element of the ambitious legislation’s expected four components, the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, was adopted by the National Assembly. But even this has stalled again; Buhari has refused to give it presidential assent, which his senior special assistant on National Assembly matters Ita Enang said was due to “some legislative drafting concerns”, which could “create ambiguity and conflict in interpretation”.
More effort has apparently gone into trying to overhaul the electricity supply industry, which along with tackling corruption and eradicating Boko Haram is among Buhari’s key priorities. Powerful supporters led by the World Bank are anxious to end the bottlenecks that have made the industry one of the continent’s most abject failures, but financing remains elusive and generation remains at historic lows – down at 2,006MW on 22-23 September. The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (Nerc) in mid-September said the 11 distribution companies owed the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trader N112bn ($310m) in Q1 2018; only two had metered up to 50% of customers in their areas. No Nigeria-watcher would disagree with Nerc’s conclusion, that “this serious liquidity challenge is partly attributed to non-cost-reflective tariffs, and high technical and commercial losses aggravated by consumers’ apathy to payment arising from estimated billing and poor quality of supply in most load centres”.
Buhari’s efforts to tackle corruption are widely applauded, but the impact has been much less than anticipated. Potential rivals, including wealthy former vice-president Atiku Aboubakr, have less of a reputation for pressing good governance.
His administration has managed to stabilise the currency, but the economy is not performing well, leading the government to seek more funds from big corporations. It is widely recognised that the government’s inability to raise tax revenue is a source of profound weakness for the economy. A demand for $2bn in what the attorney general claims are unpaid taxes and charges accrued by MTN came just days after the South African telecoms giant was ordered to repatriate $8.1bn to Nigeria – a giant sum which led ratings agency Fitch to place MTN on ‘rating watch negative’. MTN has made huge profits for its Nigerian mobiles business, but claims the attorney general is exceeding his powers. Analysts fear the move reflects an injured government seeking to exploit soft targets – which in turn will drive away investment.
Accusations that HSBC Holdings laundered more than $100m of late dictator Sani Abacha’s stolen fortune may have some substance. But an element of revenge may also have been involved, after HSBC’s Johannesburg-based economist David Faulkner claimed in a research note that a win for Buhari “raises the risk of limited economic progress and further fiscal deterioration, prolonging the stagnation of his first term”. Whatever the virtues of either claim, the build-up to elections threatens ever more mud-slinging, and that will give no comfort to those trying to press ahead with projects that may improve the lives of the majority of Nigerians.
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