In one of his parting comments after eight years of leading Africa’s largest and most important country, outgoing Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari returned to his distant roots as a politician by echoing—seemingly inadvertently—the views he held of his fellow citizens the first time he held the country’s highest office, when he led as a stern military dictator in the 1980s.
In his final weeks in office this time, the 80-year-old Buhari looked relaxed and generally content with his record, an opinion that does not seem to be widely shared by the public. But in declaring his eagerness to get back to his private farm, he appeared to chastise the citizens he had ruled over. “I am looking forward to tomorrow to fly to my base to go and meet my cattle and sheep, which are much easier to control than fellow Nigerians,” he said.
For those with long memories, this was an inescapable reminder of Buhari’s previous tenure at the helm of the country’s military dictatorship, when the martinet major general’s signature policy initiative was something he fancied as a nationwide “War Against Indiscipline.” From then to now, it seems, his basic conception of power has changed little: The cure for whatever ails Nigeria is for its people to know their lanes and do what is expected of them, especially by the government—or, shorter still, to comply more and complain less.
It is a risky proposition under most circumstances to venture how history will regard the present, but I will go out on a limb here to say that despite Buhari having had two chances to rule his country, his just completed mandate will come to be seen as an extraordinarily costly period of drift for Nigeria. This is a country that during the last eight years has been in the throes of one of the most remarkable demographic transitions the world has seen in the last century, a phase known to experts as an extended moment of demographic dividend. This means a period when the balance of the population tilts heavily in favor of young, working-aged people, and the ratio of dependents, especially less productive older people, is particularly low.
China underwent a period like this from the 1980s until quite recently, and although political and economic reforms in the country over that time help explain much about its historic fast growth, far less of it would have been possible if the country’s population structure had not been so favorable. Today, India is roughly midway into its own big demographic dividend, and how far and fast the country’s development can proceed will depend in large part on how successful India is at providing opportunities for its huge numbers of young people and employing them productively.
Some will scoff at the mention of Nigeria in the same breath as China and India, but this is precisely the company against which the country needs to be measured. As I have written often, by 2100, the most widely cited projections for Nigeria’s demographic future, those of the United Nations Population Division, foresee a country that is only roughly one-third larger in area than the U.S. state of Texas having as many as 700 million people, making it the third-largest nation in the world.
If one asks what kind of enabling environment the outgoing Buhari administration created for young Nigerians to build future prosperity for their country, summoning a positive response is quite difficult. The readiest answer takes the form of a single slang word, japa, which is derived from the Yoruba language and is often translated as “to run away.” That is what unusually large numbers of Nigeria’s youth hope to do nowadays: escape their country for brighter horizons elsewhere, meaning emigration to other parts of Africa, and increasingly, overseas. And despite the xenophobic attitudes that prevail in much of the world today, as fleeing young Nigerians pursue education and employment wherever they settle, it is those destination societies that on balance will benefit from the injection of ambitious and hardworking young people.
Buhari’s Nigeria has had some scattered successes, such as building badly needed infrastructure on a large scale. But in terms of the educational revolution that the country needs, the vast new investments required to build housing for such a fast-growing population, the need to economically integrate Nigeria much more with its neighbors, and the almost bottomless thirst for new sources of employment—whether through industrialization or advanced services—the country is falling behind or even failing.
Nigeria does not provide even the most basic services to its people. It ranks among the world’s largest oil producers, yet thanks to a combination of poor policy, corruption, and smuggling across borders to its neighbors, for decades it has failed to provide enough gasoline for its citizens. In living memory, Nigeria has also never managed to provide remotely sufficient reliable electricity to its population, either. Consider this stunning fact: The kitchen refrigerator of the average American consumes more power per year than the average Nigerian person does.
Things like this explain why japa is the word of the day. For all of these reasons, I stand firmly by what I wrote in a column in January, when I called the vote the following month that would produce a successor to Buhari the most important election in the world this year. Nothing inclines readers in the West, or indeed in most of the world, to think of Africa in such terms. Nothing in Africa, almost by definition, gets treated as among the most important issue before humanity.
Rather than delivering hope, though, the announced victory of Buhari’s successor and stalwart of the ruling party, Bola Tinubu, who was recently sworn in as president, has unleashed torrents of discouragement and cynicism in the country. The most common view among Nigerians I know or interact with on social media is that Tinubu’s triumph at the polls itself was illegitimate: made possible by a combination of vote-counting manipulations and other polling irregularities, along with violence and intimidation as well as vote buying. The result is still being challenged in court but seems unlikely to be overturned. It is thus worth thinking seriously about what a Tinubu mandate could look like.
There are plenty of causes for skepticism, starting with the 71-year-old’s health and apparent lack of vigor. Tinubu disappeared to Europe for weeks after the election and was said to be pursuing medical care in France for unspecified ailments during much of that time, though he later insisted he had merely been on vacation. Nigerian media reported that he returned to France for medical treatment yet again in May, shortly before his inauguration. I was not exactly reassured by what I heard from Lai Mohammed, who is now Nigeria’s information and culture minister, when he toured the United States after the election to defend the president-elect. “Nobody who went through the rigors of what he went through wouldn’t take a break,” he told me in an interview in April. Ominously, age and infirmity also hobbled Tinubu’s listless predecessor: Buhari spent an enormous amount of time looking after his health abroad.
But it was when I asked whether Mohammed could share some of Tinubu’s agenda for the country that I received my biggest surprise: “Not in the least,” he said. “All I know is that he is going to make a fine president.” Pressed for more, Mohamed added vaguely: “I think his campaign agenda was largely around the economy and providing jobs. He will build on the achievements of his party.”
What is strangest about this to me is that Tinubu has a record of ideas that seem much more useful and modern than Buhari’s war against indiscipline. As governor of Lagos State, home to Nigeria’s enormous economic capital, from 1999 to 2007, Tinubu was credited with instituting something of a break from the pattern of the recent past in terms of Nigerian political leaders. Indeed, his idea, which I’ve written about previously, was substantive enough to have been dubbed the “Lagos Model” and copied by a number of other states and municipalities around the country.
Its notion, at its heart, was that local governments would see dramatically increased tax collection from businesses and individuals to the extent that the governments demonstrated the ability to improve badly needed local services. Some of these things involved major housing or road projects, but many others were relatively simple things such as waste collection and disposal, access to primary education, and traffic management that palpably improved living quality.
I don’t say what follows as an optimist, but it is time for Tinubu to vastly upscale his concept and vigorously roll it out nationwide. Historically, Nigeria’s national government has been associated with graft and other forms of often brazen theft, or “dividing the cake,” as Nigerians say. But as King’s College London lecturer Portia Roelofs writes in her new book, Good Governance in Nigeria: Rethinking Accountability and Transparency in the Twenty-First Century, under the Lagos Model instituted by Tinubu and his groomed successor, Babatunde Fashola, “Dodgy deals were not necessarily a problem so long as this was mitigated by a record of delivering some public benefits.”
Tinubu campaigned under the unfortunate and uninspiring slogan that it was his turn to rule the country, after having been a kingmaker for Buhari and governor of one of the world’s great cities. Now he has a chance, however receding or minuscule, to be a revolutionary. That would require cutting back on the dodgy deal culture that many believe made him rich and insisting, for once, that the Nigerian state deliver—instead of blaming the people for being less obedient than sheep.