/ 5 June 2024

Good choices, bad outcomes, harder lives in Nigeria

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Nigeria President Bola Tinubu.

When Bola Tinubu became Nigeria’s president a year ago, he inherited a weak economy from his predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari, who he succeeded as head of both the state and the ruling All Progressives Congress party.

The government was spending the equivalent of 2.2% of its national gross domestic product on fuel subsidies to keep pump prices low and oil barons rich, and the naira was being artificially propped up, which discouraged foreign investors.

Hard decisions had to be made.

“This meant that any honeymoon period would be short [for Tinubu],” said Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, a research analyst at the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development.

Tinubu did not ask for a honeymoon.

On his inauguration day on 29 May last year, Tinubu went off script to announce that he was cutting the fuel subsidy. His government now spends well under half of what his predecessors did on those subsidies. 

The president has also allowed the naira to float — driven by market forces, rather than artificial interventions, it is now selling at around 1 400 against the US dollar, up from 462 a year ago.

Macroeconomists approve of Tinubu’s choices. The International Monetary Fund projects that the Nigerian economy will grow by 3.3% this year, up from 2.9% in 2023.

But on the streets, sentiments run in the opposite direction. A litre of fuel sells for 850 naira, up from 239 naira last May. Food prices have increased by 38%, because a weak naira has made imports such as fertilisers, wheat and rice more expensive for local businesses.

Bola Tinubu’s hardnose economic decisions failed to account for the impact on low-income Nigerians.

“It has not been easy. We thought we were getting a government that would transform the situation but what is happening now does not meet our expectations,” said Titilayo Owolabi, a 25-year-old mother of two.

Owolabi runs a shop selling food in Apapa, the port area in Lagos. Last year a derica (measuring bowl) of rice sold for 500 naira but now she offers it at 1 200 naira. With customers unable to afford her goods, Owolabi’s income has nosedived. 

She used to make about 50 000 naira in daily sales but hardly gets a quarter of that now. 

Food and fuel have become prohibitively expensive and many Nigerians can no longer afford the basics.

Hunger protests have broken out in major cities such as Lagos, Ibadan and Kaduna. Some people have resorted to looting trucks and warehouses for food.

Owolabi began rationing food in her own household. “My children’s lunch bag used to be filled with food and snacks,” she explained. “But nowadays I put a 100 naira biscuit in the box and I tell them to manage it.”

Like Owolabi, 55-year-old mechanic Adeleye Adeoye has seen his income fall to a quarter of what it used to be. He often sits idly at his workshop for hours, waiting in vain for customers to bring their cars in for maintenance. 

He went from making about 20 000 naira per day a year ago to 5 000 naira — on a good day.

Analysts fault Tinubu’s government for failing to plan for short to medium-term social protection programmes that would have reduced this pain.

“You want leaders who realise that there is a human cost to policymaking. And, unfortunately, it didn’t happen. If the government prepared for the aftereffect of these policy moves, it did not show it,” said Ikemesit Effiong, a partner at Lagos risk advisory firm, SBM Intelligence.

A cash transfer to 15 million vulnerable households was not launched until October, and by the end of February, only about 20% of the targeted households had received the benefit.

Low-income households have been left hoping for divine intervention.

“Everything is in God’s hands now,” said Owolabi. “If He decides to change our situation through Tinubu, then things will ease up.”

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here