Nigeria Elections: The Economist and its tongue-in-cheek verdict

GEJWriting in its February 7, 2015, issue, The Economist made some pronouncements on Nigeria’s presidential election with the same magisterial authority that has always defined its analysis of socio-economic matters in developing countries. Such analysis is often made through those old, jaundiced lens which produce images hardly ever consistent with reality.

Of course, these can only culminate in some pathetic logic as evident in the publication’s tragic verdict that seems to suggest that Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s candidacy were a better option in comparison to President Goodluck Jonathan’s. “As a northerner and Muslim, he will have greater legitimacy among villagers whose help he will need to isolate the insurgents. As a military man, he is more likely to win the respect of a demoralised army. We are relieved not to have a vote in this election. But were we offered one we would – with a heavy heart – choose Mr Buhari.”

This tongue-in-cheek assertion is a by-product of the West’s paternalistic attitude towards Africa; the assumption that it knows what’s best for Africa and the reluctance to concede that the old “decadent” template to which the continent seemed eternally bound for decades has changed. That is the reason the magazine’s editors could so glibly discountenance President Jonathan’s economic accomplishments as if Nigeria’s economy were a conscious, organic being whose growth does not depend on some impetus.

“The single bright spot of his rule has been Nigeria’s economy, one of the world’s fastest-growing,” the magazine observed. “Yet that is largely despite the government rather than because of it.”

It’s inconceivable that the remarkable growth attained in the country’s non-oil sector is not the outcome of a painstaking planning and committed implementation of policies. We see huge leaps in agriculture which stands out as a beacon with some impressive indices: a 14.2 per cent rise in exports in the first quarter of 2014; $4 billion investments as a result of reforms; 1.07 million metric ton increase in farm output following the introduction of dry season farming in 10 northern states in 2013; 7 million metric tons of paddy rice added to national production since 2011; elimination of the largely corrupt era where most farmers were shut out of agricultural inputs like fertilizers or procured them from middlemen at highly exorbitant rates.

Similar advances exist in the creative sector where the Jonathan administration, apart from securing NEXIM’s support for showbiz entrepreneurs, has launched Project Advancing Creativity and Technology, a N3 billion grant for Nollywood artistes that has aided distribution and led to a few top-notch productions. The impressive data could also be glimpsed in manufacturing, a sector which for long teemed with dismal figures that meant companies seldom produced at optimal capacity. The tale is gradually changing. For instance, Nigeria has today become a net exporter of cement, moving production from 2 million metric tons to a capacity of 28.5 million metric tons. These, combined yielded the robust figures that emerged from Nigeria’s rebased GDP ($510 billion), the highest in Africa at present. There is as well the YouWin programme, an initiative of the Federal Government that creates a platform for enterprising youths to pitch for support for their start-ups. The dreams of many young and aspiring entrepreneurs have been launched this way. Of course, this has created enduring job opportunities for many.

These cannot be fortuitous statistics. To suggest that anyone of these feats had occurred “despite the government rather than because of it” is grossly uncharitable and smacks of intellectual dishonesty. It’s as silly as implying that the decades long reputation of The Economist globally was earned despite the editors than because of them.

That is the sort of flawed reasoning that runs through the essay. Any surprise then why it teems with simplistic assumptions you would only expect to find in a hack publication? It is the reason also why the magazine could have drawn a conclusion utterly incongruous with its premise. How could a magazine that seeks “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress” (an extract from the publisher’s vision) contemplate giving its vote to Buhari – even “with a heavy heart” – were it possible to do so. This was how the magazine described the ex-general’s regime:

“His rule was nasty, brutish and mercifully short. Declaring a ‘war against indiscipline’, he ordered whip-wielding soldiers to ensure that Nigerians formed orderly queues. His economics, known as Buharism, was destructive. Instead of letting the currency depreciate in the face of trade deficit, he tried to fix prices and ban ‘unnecessary’ imports. He expelled 700,000 migrants in the delusion that this would create jobs for Nigerians. He banned political meetings and free speech. He detained thousands, used secret tribunals and executed people for crimes that were not capital punishment.”

Well, thankfully, the magazine’s writers and editors are not eligible to vote and the effect of their puerile conjectures would, happily, be barely discernible because the true narrative about the elections and what the candidates actually represent is each day becoming apparent to Nigerians.

Indeed, a little learning is a dangerous thing, as the 18th-century English poet, Alexander Pope, had observed. The Economist noted that “Nigerians typically die eight years younger than their poorer neighbours in nearby Ghana.” What the magazine failed to indicate, perhaps fearing that probing deep could lead to findings that will controvert the editors long held presuppositions, is that life expectancy in the Jonathan administration rose to 52 years from the 47 years that it was before his accession.

Another instance of the ruinous effect of insufficient understanding is deducible in the “Few nowadays question his commitment to democracy or expect him to turn autocratic: he has repeatedly stood for election and accepted the outcome when he lost.” What is left unsaid is that his comments after losing the 2011 presidential election do not reflect tolerance, an important democratic virtue. In fact, his utterance more or less presaged the violence unleashed across some northern states by youths alleging the Peoples Democratic Party had rigged the election against General Buhari, then presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change which would later coalesce into the All Progressives Congress. That violence claimed scores of innocent lives, among them some members of the National Youths Service Corps.

There is a line in the essay by The Economist, which doubtless unwittingly, offers a disturbing glimpse into General Buhari’s personality: “As a northerner and Muslim, he will have greater legitimacy among villagers whose help he would need to isolate the insurgents…” The magazine may, implicitly, be voicing what some analysts had long suspected – that the intolerably vicious atmosphere that spawned the north-east insurgency is a protest against Jonathan’s election as Nigeria’s president. How can sharing ethnic affinity with a section where terrorism has taken firm roots ever be considered a strong point in a sharply polarised nation as Nigeria? It is a belittling quality which anyone who seeks to rule an ethnically diverse people should never wish to be identified with.

But the ex-general has done little to dispel sentiments that may hurt his chances at the poll. This includes very divisive issues. So even when people outside the north are horrified by his pledge to work towards the implementing of the Sharia code across Nigeria, he makes no attempt to refute that. He was also silent few years ago when hurtful sentiments about the polio vaccine emerged in the north, resulting in the inability of health workers to immunise thousands of children. That unfortunate decision seriously hampered the drive to eliminate polio and set Nigeria’s targets back by several years. But there’s a silver lining in the dark clouds because the man whose government had been so unfairly appraised by The Economist stepped up National Immunisation Coverage from 38 per cent in 2012 to 82 percent in 2013.

Such intervention yielded other heart-warming indices that include the following: eradication of guinea worm disease which previously affected over 800,000 lives in Nigeria yearly; non-transmission of the type-3 wild polio virus for more than one year; an increase in health insurance coverage from 6 per cent in 2011 to 8 per cent in 2013; reduction of under-5 mortality to 94/1000 live births from 157/1000 live births. The ratio too for maternal mortality is down to 350/100,000 live births in 2012, a significant improvement from 545/100,000 live births which was the case in 2008.

The ridiculous attempt to deodorise the unpleasant odour that the Buhari story leaves in the air is inconsistent with the unsparing mindset that a number of commentators adopt when appraising President Jonathan. It seems whereas Buhari gets a pat on the back, sort of, for his downright failures, Jonathan runs the gauntlet even for his accomplishments which, to his adversaries, should rather be left in the closet. It is such discriminatory assessments that distorted the narrative resulting in the notion that Jonathan has achieved nothing despite countless evidence to the contrary.

So, while the failure to defeat Boko Haram is repeatedly cited with some flourish to buttress the unflattering labels which members of the opposition had coined to define the president, the fact that he was initially hampered by shrill calls for restraint and claims he was planning genocide against the North is conveniently ignored. As a matter of fact, General Buhari had voiced such refrain which somewhat rationalises Boko Haram’s existence. This is a point The Economist could have considered before making a pronouncement akin to giving a tacit nod to Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator whose government the magazine had been hugely critical of.

But, as history proves, no matter how further away from the public view reality is pushed, it often returns. And when it does, the entire truth becomes as evident as the gulf between the man whose policies gave Nigeria its status as Africa’s biggest economy and “a former military dictator with blood on his hands”, as The Economist had described General Buhari.

Wole Karim Adisa wrote in from Lagos



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