Muhammadu Buhari’s supporters in Kaduna state celebrate as he is declared winner of Nigeria’s presidential polls in March
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Lagos, March 28

The rainy season has not yet begun but dark clouds hang low, threatening to unleash torrents. The roads for once are empty. The bashed-up fleets of yellow buses (“molues”) and their smaller cousins (“danfos”), which define the traffic in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city, are packed bumper to bumper in bus parks in compliance with an election day ban.

To enforce this, every 500 yards or so, there is a military checkpoint. Nigeria has been on edge for months, the tension ratcheted up by a six-week delay to elections and uncertainty over whether voting can take place in parts of the country where Boko Haram terrorists hold sway.

It is the fifth election since the military drained the last dollars from the treasury and, in 1999, handed a fractured nation back into the hands of civilians. Nigeria has come a long way, shedding its pariah status, and last year overtaking South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy.

But there are moments this feels like Africa in the 1990s, when the cold war legacy of dictatorship met pent-up aspirations for political pluralism, sparking a decade of turmoil and civil war. The atmosphere is at once leaden and pregnant with expectation — months of campaigning having brought bitter regional, ethnic and personal rivalries into play. Everyone setting off to vote knows that, for better or worse, Nigeria will look different in the coming days.

“Please shun violence, online and offline,” writes hyperactive columnist Tolu Ogunlesi, my election observing companion, in the first of a string of tweets that has him compulsively fiddling with his smartphone. Ogunlesi is very much Africa 2015 — irreverent, witty and exasperated at the slow pace at which his country’s path to greater prosperity is being cleared of obstacles.

Wearing high visibility yellow accreditation vests, we negotiate the checkpoints and accelerate on to the 12km bridge that snakes across the lagoon. The bridge connects the business district and leafier island neighbourhoods to the mainland’s densely packed tenements. We glimpse sackcloth sails floating past the dark horizon — a regatta of fishermen and sand dredgers, indifferent to the day’s politics. For many Nigerians, government has yet to touch their lives in any meaningful way.

Our immediate destination, an annex building within Alausa, the seat of the opposition-led state government, is frontline in a generational battle for the future of Africa’s most populous nation. Inside, hundreds of young activists manning hotlines are generating the hum of a call-centre. In a corner, a group of mostly bearded men in their late twenties discuss long delays in the delivery of election materials to opposition strongholds.

Lagos’s Ebute Metta neighbourhood with the city’s commercial centre and the Third Mainland Bridge in the background

These are the foot soldiers in a political alliance calibrated to uproot one of the most entrenched patronage systems on the continent today, a network that from behind its democratic façade has sucked out ever greater sums of petrodollars over the past 16 years. The annex is the “situation room” of the All Progressives Congress, the main opposition alliance. It has been carefully put together to monitor proceedings at hundreds of polling stations across the city, collate data and combat skulduggery. Everyone is expecting plenty of the latter — hence the sense of foreboding.

“Our people are very much aware we have to fight for change,” says Adewale Temitope, an adviser to the outgoing Lagos state governor.

This year has been looming in the Nigerian psyche since the National Intelligence Council, the agency that sits atop the US intelligence community, brought together a group of experts in 2005 to forecast what sub-Saharan Africa might look like a decade later. Among the risks the NIC identified was the break-up of Nigeria’s multi-ethnic federation of 36 states, and an ensuing conflict that might send millions over borders into neighbouring parts of west Africa. Their prognosis was an obvious echo of the Biafran war of the 1960s — when rival elites came to blows in a coup and counter-coup that unleashed pogroms and an attempt by the ethnic Igbos at the receiving end to secede. The threat of homegrown Islamist extremism — of the Boko Haram variety — was also flagged up.

Such a situation would have disastrous repercussions for the region as well as marking a major setback for Africa’s maturing relations with the outside world. One in five black Africans — and one in about every 40 humans — is Nigerian. After a decade and a half of rapid expansion, Nigeria’s economy now accounts for roughly a fifth of Africa’s overall gross domestic product.

Although there were other more neutral scenarios in the report, “Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa’s Future” grew to mythic dimensions in parts of the national media, where it was wrongly interpreted as an officially sanctioned US view that Nigeria was doomed to fail in 2015. Seen from the Nigerian side, the NIC scenario was symptomatic of the schizophrenic way in which their country is viewed. It’s either dancing on the brink of catastrophe, if you are the former US ambassador, John Campbell, who wrote a book with that title in 2013, or ready for transformational take-off. That’s the view of investment gurus such as Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist, or Mark Mobius, the emerging markets fund manager.

Intoxicated by the dynamism he found on a trip to Lagos last year, in widely reported comments Mobius declared Nigeria the next big thing. “You’ve got a vibrant and growing middle class, a big consumer population, a young population that will be consuming more and more,” he said.

Yet, some of the ingredients for state failure are also undeniably present — the same religious, ethnic and regional tensions that fuelled the Biafran war, amplified now by social media. In the run-up to this year’s election, these combined with a glut of corruption scandals, the horrors of the Boko Haram insurgency, and the falling price of oil to create a perfect storm. The Mobiuses of the world fell silent.

On March 30, the ascetic former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, leading a broad alliance, was declared winner of the presidential polls. It came as a shock to the barons of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), in power since 1999. He was the first opposition candidate to defeat a sitting president, Goodluck Jonathan, who, against the wishes of some advisers, gracefully gave way. The PDP had not bargained for the professorial electoral commissioner, Attahiru Jega, whose stubborn insistence on the use of new biometric voter ID cards blindsided election fraudsters. They had also failed to take into account the sophistication and resolve of some of the people they were up against, including the young men and women in Alausa — a restless generation of Nigerians impatient to see Nigeria thrive.

Office workers on Lagos Island

Voluble, at times combustible, Lagosians are proud to have made strides the rest of the country has yet to take, and are fiercely protective of their relative self-sufficiency. Having tasted more than a decade of rapid growth, the city has become a hotbed of aspiration.

It is also a meeting point of old and new for a nation in transition. A new class of entrepreneur is exemplified by the technology elite — selling goods, opinions and Nigerian films online — independent of government and largely indifferent to politics. At the same time, many of the city’s globetrotting bankers and oilmen remain steeped in a culture of patronage and nepotism and, though loath to admit it, dependent on government largesse.

Port Harcourt, April 11

In the months following the election, I hoped to drive to the four corners of the country to assess the state of the nation. Things did not go to plan. Notably, the whole country ran out of fuel — a reminder, if any was needed, of the unsustainable way in which Africa’s leading producer of crude oil was being governed.

The elections were at their roughest at my first port of call in Rivers State — the richest in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger delta. Two years ago the state fell into opposition hands when the outgoing governor, Rotimi Amaechi, defected in a move that helped rally opposition to Goodluck Jonathan. He has since become a close ally of President Buhari’s — giving the PDP further incentive to win the state back at governorship elections.

When I travel there, the region is still smarting at the defeat of its native son: Jonathan’s ascent in 2010 marked the first time someone from a minority group in the region had served as president. During the state polls, there were scattered incidents of violence across Rivers. Election distribution centres were set alight, and armed thugs turned back vehicles. In the local government area of Omuanwa, north-west of the state capital Port Harcourt, PDP thugs shot one man dead and wounded another. There were no election materials in the area, amid suspicions that hired thugs were removing ballot papers to rig results.

“I was thinking they would allow us to vote this time,” Amaechi told me as he prepared to cast his vote at a nearby polling station. “But I don’t see an election when people are being shot and chased away.” Much of Nigeria voted peacefully and enjoyed a choice for almost the first time, thanks in part to the biometric voting cards that limited fraud. This was not the case here, where Jonathan’s party muscled its way to victory.

Muhammadu Buhari (seated) before he became president, at the coronation of Lamido Sanusi as emir of Kano in February

In a blacked-out 4x4 lent to me by an old political bruiser from the region, I speed past miles of oil palms and jungle to the town of Abonnema, founded in the 19th century on a river island by warlord chiefs whose wealth originated in the slave and, later, palm oil trades. That buccaneering spirit lives on in the town, at the heart of a thriving trade in stolen oil that is costing the state and multinationals billions of dollars every year.

There I find a local chieftain, sitting disconsolately in a dimly lit lounge with five smartphones arrayed in front of him. Like many in the region he is lamenting the opportunity to develop the Niger delta, lost during the five years Jonathan was president. He also remarks on how the presidential elections have split Nigeria along the same lines as in the Biafran war in 1967 with the Igbo south-east and the Niger delta going one way and the rest of the country the other. Only this time it was ballots not bullets that marked the split.

“The country is very divided now. How they will bring it back together is a problem. Ethnicity has come up again so badly. We have lost nationhood again. We are back into regions with horrible suspicions,” he says.

He blames Jonathan for pursuing a policy of appeasement with delta militants by buying them off with pipeline protection contracts and an amnesty. This policy helped restore the official oil flow, after years of vandalism and kidnapping campaigns, but it also exacerbated criminalisation, the chief says, and led to a surge in the theft of oil. “Buhari must stop all those things. He must return the social system and rebuild education.”

That will be among the new government’s stiffest challenges. Since the onset of oil production in the 1960s, the Niger delta has been denuded of its wealth. The simmering resentment this has engendered lives on in the younger generations.

“President Jonathan had begun to transform Nigeria. All the people who ganged up against him were the people who bastardised the country,” says Udengs Eradiri, president of the unarmed but militant Ijaw Youth Council, which has thousands of members across the delta. “We don’t want to rush into the expectation that we’ll blow up pipelines again. But we own the economy of Nigeria. This administration will not succeed without the free flow of oil,” he says.

Therein lies one of the greatest conundrums for President Buhari: keeping the Niger delta militants at bay while finding the resources, at a time of collapsed oil prices, to finance the development of the delta where previous state and federal governments have largely failed.

Kaduna, June 11

Nasir el-Rufai, the newly elected governor of Kaduna state, earned a reputation as a firebrand during years in opposition by drawing relentless attention, via his tweets and blogs, to the failings of the country’s rulers. Now among a raft of new state governors who swept the former ruling party from the north and centre of the country, he is proving every bit the technocrat. The 55-year-old quantity surveyor turned politician is among Buhari’s closest allies.

Nasir el-Rufai at a polling station to cast his votes in April 2015

The governors of Nigeria’s 36 states are among the country’s most powerful politicians, managing in some cases budgets bigger than those of small African nations. But around half the states are virtually bankrupt, following years of profligacy compounded by the falling oil price, revenues from which are shared around the federation.

Unlike many of his peers in opposition, el-Rufai arrived in office with a plan — which is why I choose to visit his state in the weeks after his inauguration on May 29.

“One of the first decisions we took was for the deputy governor to donate half our salaries and allowances to government coffers, and we have been appealing to all office holders and senior civil servants to do something similar,” he tells me. Is anyone else biting? “No one has made an offer yet,” he laughs.

El-Rufai also intends to cut the number of ministries in the state government by a third to free up more resources to invest in service delivery and infrastructure, a move that will entail laying off a whole tier of civil servants.

Kaduna was the administrative capital of Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north during colonial times and has been a centre of northern political intrigue ever since. Kaduna State is something of a microcosm for Nigeria as a whole — brimming with energy, divided between Christians and Muslims, prey to criminals (mostly cattle rustlers) and with a legacy of mismanagement that will be tough to overcome. On my way in, I stopped at the Peugeot factory, where 60,000 a year of the once ubiquitous 504s were manufactured at peak production in the 1980s. The factory now struggles to sell the three cars it assembles per day and is on life support from creditors. The nearby textile industry, which once employed tens of thousands of workers, is equally moribund.

The abandoned compound of Kaduna Textiles Limited, which used to employ 15,000 people

When I arrive to see el-Rufai, among the first things he wants to talk about is his office. He is currently in the old one — bequeathed by the British. But there is a new architectural eyesore a few hundred yards away recently completed by the defeated incumbent. I get a tour from Kabir Yahaya, a pharmacist and politician friendly with the new governor.

“This was built by people with an idea they would be perpetually in power,” he says, ushering me into a room the size of an Olympic swimming pool, filled with yellow leather sofas. Behind a wall at the back is a double bedroom with Jacuzzi. The building, which already has cracks, cost an unlikely N10bn ($50m). Its new occupants see it as emblematic of the way many Nigerian states have been run, with priorities skewed towards prestige projects managed through inflated contracts. As it is, debt and salaries soak up around 90 per cent of the state revenues, roughly the same proportion as for the federal government.

“Of course that is not sustainable. We can’t exist as a government that only pays salaries, as a minority who are depriving the majority of a future. If you don’t build roads, schools, hospitals, and support farmers, you are destroying the future,” says el-Rufai.

In concert with the federal government he wants to revive the textile industry (to create jobs) and to take advantage of a new Chinese-built high speed railway line, near completion, which will connect the city to the capital Abuja to the south.

“I would like to see Kaduna regain its place as the gateway to the north, not just politically but economically, and as a new light manufacturing and service hub to serve Abuja and the rest of country,” he says. “We hope we will raise governance standards here to a point where it will galvanise our colleagues in the north to raise their own acts.”

This would be an invaluable contribution. Much of the attention on Nigeria’s governance failures of recent years has focused at the federal level. But it is within many of the states that governance has been at its worst.

Kano, June 17

The emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi, arrives in the courtyard of his elegant 15th-century palace on the back of a white horse at around midday. There’s a man running beside him, shading him from the sun with a huge yellow parasol. Dozens of vassals wearing turbans are blowing horns.

This is just a normal day at the office for the former central bank governor who, as much as anyone, prepared the ground for the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan at this year’s polls.

Lamido Sanusi, former Central Bank governor and new emir of Kano

His carefully documented allegations about the scale of mismanagement at the state oil company were hard to suppress, involving as they did more than $1bn that should allegedly have gone to the treasury each month but that went astray between January 2012 and July 2013 — the period he studied. The scandal continues to reverberate as the new administration probes oil traders, private companies, officials from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and former government ministers, shaking some of them down in an effort to retrieve much needed cash. Sanusi believes that, with a man as intolerant of corruption as President Buhari, some at least will wind up in jail.

As a result of his allegations, Sanusi was suspended from his position several months before his term ended as Central Bank governor last June. In Nigeria, “if you have not done anything considered controversial, you have probably not done anything much at all,” he said at the time.

Within a few days of his term’s expiry, he was appointed emir, the second highest Islamic authority in the country, on the death of Ado Abdullahi Bayero, who had held the position since 1963. Were it not for this unexpected turn of events, “I would have been out of a job”, Sanusi says.

This means one of Nigeria’s most outspoken intellectuals — who publicly faced down powerful fraudsters to clean up the country’s banking system — has been thrust into the heart of one of its most conservative institutions. As traditional ruler in the region’s main commercial centre, it also gives him a platform to spur the regeneration of the north’s ailing economy and to encourage reforms in the Islamic education system.

The emir is one of a triumvirate of powerful rulers whose lineage dates from the vast Hausa-Fulani and Bornu empires that predated British imperial rule. Like all traditional positions, he tells me, his has been stripped of most of its former functions, many of which are now the domain of elected local governments. But it gives him power to appoint traditional authorities and imams across northern Nigeria’s most populous state. With that comes a network of informants he will use to collect data on public health and education, and to needle local authorities who are failing to encourage immunisation and child enrolment in schools.

“I am trying to activate that [traditional] system to make it a major support for the state government,” he says. “My vision is to use technology to condition behaviour. This is far more important than using laws.”

Sanusi was also recently appointed chairman of Black Rhino, a $5bn investment vehicle created by private equity group Blackstone alongside Aliko Dangote, another Kano native and Africa’s richest industrialist, to invest in African energy and infrastructure. “Being on the board of Black Rhino will allow me to do the kind of thing I like doing — bringing in investment in a manner that is useful to society,” he says.

Kano was once a thriving commercial and industrial centre at the heart of Nigeria’s groundnut and cotton industries. Like Kaduna, its industries are now moribund. “Understanding how the fundamental economic model has changed and how you now need to rejig it, is extremely important,” says the emir, explaining that the region around him once knew great prosperity but has fallen into destitution. It is one cause of the Islamist extremism that has taken root.

Abuja, June 18

From the north, the road into Nigeria’s purpose-built capital is strewn with inselbergs, vast monolithic stone outcrops that rise abruptly out of the lush savannah. At the centre of the country, the city became the seat of government in 1991 after Lagos had become too crowded and chaotic. Abuja is highly functional by comparison — partly thanks to el-Rufai’s past reincarnation here as minister of the federal capital territory. Despite a steady influx of inhabitants, it is somewhat soulless, defined by its shock of bright red and blue rooftops. Whoever planned Abuja must have been a Lego addict.

Nigeria National Mosque in the capital Abuja

The dominant inselberg inside the city is Aso Rock under which lies the presidential villa and, after recent redecorations, its new occupant Muhammadu Buhari. His first days in office were unremarkable by Nigerian standards. But they give an insight into just how tough it is governing Africa’s most populous nation.

A new wave of suicide bombs was ravaging markets across northern cities. Flushed from their north-eastern hinterland by a recent offensive, Boko Haram extremists had taken to attacking soft targets again. To a backdrop of continuing fuel scarcity, an oil tanker blew up in the east, claiming 75 lives. Teachers went on strike. As well as all that, the 73-year-old former military ruler had to contend with a fuss over the watch his wife wore at his inauguration. Social media activists deemed a $50,000 diamond-encrusted Cartier incompatible with the general’s ascetic image.

In the lobby of the Abuja Hilton, epicentre of Nigerian political life, the talk is all about how slow-moving the new president has been. There was still no sign of a cabinet six weeks after the inauguration. Nigerians had expected Buhari to “hit the ground running. Instead, he hit the ground,” quipped one newspaper columnist.

A bumper to bumper queue for petrol in Abuja during a chronic fuel shortage in May

In defence, his allies argue that Nigeria has never witnessed the transition from one political party to another. Moreover, significant changes have been under way. The mere presence at the top of a man with moral authority — born of a rare reputation for never having abused public office for personal gain — has revived moribund public institutions. Crude oil has been pumped up to the refinery at Kaduna for the first time in a generation. The near dormant Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has announced new probes and arrests, as has the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, which has uncovered a thriving crystal meth business in the south-east.

As rival factions of the new ruling party, jostling for position, came to blows on the floor of the National Assembly, Buhari remained inscrutable, above the fray. He was busy mending diplomatic fences, building stronger ties with neighbouring countries, re-engaging the estranged South Africans, and smoothing frayed relations with Britain and the US. Nigerians are impatient to witness the change he has promised. The general appears impervious. He has inherited a mess and, as long as the oil price remains low, limited resources with which to address it. He is taking his time, picking the right lieutenants, risking some good will while he tarries.

His predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, was pictured shortly after leaving office, smiling at Heathrow airport. He was on his way to the Galápagos Islands. The former zoology lecturer was following in Charles Darwin’s footsteps to the island, famed for its flightless blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and giant tortoises.

William Wallis is the FT’s African affairs writer

Photographs: Benedicte Kurzen/NOOR; Panos Pictures; Reuters; Getty

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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