With 89 million people living in extreme poverty and unemployment soaring to 23.1 percent, a political opposition to President Muhammadu Buhari is shaping up on the promise of restoring federal governance, which was discarded five decades ago.
Ahead of Nigeria's February 16 presidential elections, the political climate is already tense, even among voters, with 84 million people set to go to the polls.
On a recent Thursday, one Abdullahi Yada’u from north central Plateau State, divorced his wife for insisting she would vote for President Muhammadu Buhari.
Yada’u and his divorced wife both voted for Buhari in 2015, but he says he cannot stand his wife maintaining support for the president, accusing the leader of performing poorly.
Under the ruling All Progressives Congress, Buhari is seeking a second term and faces 72 other candidates.
He first came to power nearly four years ago, promising to fight corruption and decimate terrorist group Boko Haram - which has killed more than 30,000 civilians in northeastern Nigeria since 2009.
Instead, Boko Haram and its Daesh splinter group have repeatedly attacked military bases and communities, with the latest attack seeing more than a hundred soldiers killed and weapons seized.
Buhari’s anti-graft war is also largely seen as targeting opposition politicians while shielding corrupt elements in his government.
But for Mustapha Miko, a microbiologist from North West state of Kano, the president will not have his vote again after failing to keep another major promise - to take the country back more than 50 years to a federal system of government.
“I would be shifting [my support] because we need to go back,” said Miko, who has been jobless since 2016.
Though 37, Miko has heard how between 1954 and 1966, Nigeria's political and economic structures offered better opportunities.
“The living standard was better, opportunities were everywhere. Money had value and we didn't import food, we produced abundantly,” confirms 70-year-old Emmanuel Okujagu, a retired primary school teacher in southern Nigeria's Rivers State.
Today, despite huge revenue inflows from crude oil, out of a population of nearly 200 million, 87 million live in extreme poverty - the worst figures globally. Unemployment has soared to 23.1 percent and inflation peaked at 11.28 percent, against -37 percent in 1967.
How did that happen?
Conditions in the Fifties and Sixties are reminisced upon as offering ‘true federalism’, which began with the pre-independence constitution in 1954 and was strengthened by the (post-independence) Republican Constitution in 1963. Both devolved political and economic powers to three component regions which controlled their resources and paid taxes to the centre.
The system drove economic and social development as the regions competed within comparative advantages. Northern Region, for instance, produced grains/staple foods on a large scale; Eastern Region was the coal/oil centre, and Western Region represented cocoa exports.
It was “a foundation that was progressive and solid”, says 69-year-old Jason Osai, a professor of development studies at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology. “Based on that strong foundation and its capacity to motivate productivity, we flourished.”
But since 1966, when the military seized power, 36 states have been created and regional autonomy dismissed, with ownership and control of all underground resources (such as oil, coal, copper and zinc) centralised.
Upon the return to democracy in 1999, a military-supervised constitution backed further resource centralisation.
The effect has been an overburdened economy tied to crude oil that was discovered in 1958 and still constitutes 92 percent of all foreign earnings, while other mineral resources and sectors, such as agriculture manufacturing, are under-utilised.
Since states are run through monthly oil-derived allocations from central government, most have struggled to survive financially since 2014 when oil prices began to fall, prompting calls for what is called ‘economic restructuring’ - used to mean either a fallback to the previous regional structures, or to allow each state to control its resources.
The aim is to open up the economy through diversification and holistic resource exploration.
However, despite centralised government being linked to the loss of 400 billion dollars in 39 years through massive official corruption, both Buhari and past administrations have ignored calls to initiate constitution review processes for restructuring.
“It’s a chaotic situation and they are benefitting from it,” says Professor Osai. “No one has been patriotic enough and committed to get us back on our foot.”
Recently, Buhari’s government directed citizens desirous of restructuring to go to court, angering voters like Yada’u and Miko who are now aiming to vote restructuring-committed candidates.
I will reduce the size of the federal government completely. I support restructuring and we will liberalize several sectors of the Economy. #AtikuMeetsBusinessCommunity pic.twitter.com/EFgXWBeU3w— Atiku Abubakar (@atiku) January 16, 2019
Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party, is Buhari's major challenger and the former vice president. He has been a longtime advocate for restructuring and has made it his major campaign promise.
“One of the most important policies I have advocated for in this country is restructuring. Today I stand before you to pledge that within six months, we shall start the process of reconstructing this country,” Abubakar told supporters recently.
Some political and regional blocks have already endorsed Abubakar, presuming that his consistent message on restructuring could suggest sincerity.
“Nigerians need to live, dream and hope again and would readily welcome any message that meets this quality with a rational and superior argument that proves responsibility and not mere empty promises as witnessed in the past,” says Segun Awosanya, an institutional reforms advocate from Lagos, Nigeria's commercial centre.