Buhari years: Triumph of unemployment, poverty


Job seekers

As he departs for his Daura, Katsina State home, President Muhammadu Buhari bequeaths a tortured legacy of economic devastation. Its highlights are record levels of unemployment, poverty, inflation, hunger, and despair. Though the regime has been making claims of achievements across all sectors, the reality of poverty and joblessness intrude stubbornly into its narrative. For many, his regime represents the worst era of economic privation ever witnessed in the country since independence.

Contemporary figures tell the story succinctly. At the United Nations threshold of $1.90 per day, nearly 12 percent of the world’s population living in poverty today dwells in Nigeria, declares Statista. Global consultancy, KPMG, in its Global Economy Outlook Report, estimates the country’s jobless rate in 2022 at 37.7 percent and projects this to stand at 40.6 percent this year. Experts forecast inflation to spike even higher if the government follows through on the promised withdrawal of petrol subsidies next month, provoking more job losses, hunger, and poverty.

Buhari met a battered economy, with sharp drops in public revenue, bogged down by over-reliance on oil and gas receipts, low tax receipts and huge fiscal leakages, and skirting recession. But bewildered by the complexities of managing a modern economy, insular and statist, and distancing himself from experts, he failed to take the necessary bold measures. Instead, he applied outdated, ineffectual measures. The result was two recessions on his watch, huge debts, energy crises, capital flight, a foreign exchange crisis, a crashing currency, a decline in foreign direct investment, production slowdowns, and poverty.

Nigeria’s downward economic trajectory preceded the regime. Previous governments had long been running the country aground. His immediate predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, crowned his rudderless tenure by bungling the 2013 power sector asset sales, thereby denying the country of a major engine to facilitate an economic rebound. Prices of oil, the country’s mainstay, had been falling since mid-2014, thus putting the government’s finances in a precarious state.

The National Bureau of Statistics said more than eight million Nigerians were unemployed in 2015 (10.44 percent of the labor force). This was worrying enough to make voters reject Jonathan at the polls on Buhari’s promise, among other considerations, to reverse unemployment. When he took over, another 13.5 million people were considered underemployed; that is those working for less than 40 hours per week, or in jobs that underutilise their qualifications.

But soon, according to NBS figures, the unemployment rate rose steadily, reaching 23.1 percent in 2018 and sharply to 33.3 percent in 2020. Bloomberg reported in March 2021 that Nigeria briefly surpassed South Africa on a list of 82 countries whose unemployment rates were tracked, with Namibia leading with 33.4 percent.

Only 20.7 million persons between the ages of 15 to 64 were willing and able to work and actively seeking work, added the NBS, compared to 19.6 million in Q2 2015 and 17.7 million in Q1 of the same year.

In the youth segment, the situation is explosive. A report by The Spectator Index, a financial news online source, stated that 53 percent of Nigerian youths were unemployed, making the country the second worst in the world, behind South Africa, which has a 61 percent youth unemployment rate.

The youth unemployment rate is expected to rise to 58 percent by the end of this quarter, according to Trading Economics. In a country with the youth accounting for over 60 percent of the population, this could spell disastrous consequences.

Unemployment has continued to be a challenge due to the slower-than-required economic growth and the inability of the economy to absorb the estimated over four million new entrants into the Nigerian job market every year.

Buhari had initially promised to provide three million jobs yearly through “public works programmes and shifting the economy towards value-added production.” This would have delivered 24 million jobs in eight years. He could not deliver.

Poverty is raging. NBS research indicates that the poverty rate which had risen to 61 percent by 2012, increased to about 69.01 percent by 2015. In 2018, three years into Buhari’s tenure, Nigeria replaced India as the world’s poverty capital, according to the ranking by the World Poverty Clock, and held it for four years until the Asian country regained its title in 2022.

The NBS sealed the regime’s legacy when it released its Multidimensional Poverty Report 2022 which it had undertaken with support from several other national and international bodies, showing that 133 million Nigerians are ‘multi-dimensionally’ poor.

Hunger is its companion. Nigeria was ranked 103 out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index. It ranked 103 out of 116 countries in 2021 and 98 out of 107 countries in 2020. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that 25 million persons in the country face the threat of hunger from the second half of this year.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the World Bank in its 2021 Poverty and Equity Brief said, “Around four in 10 Nigerians were living in poverty and millions more were vulnerable to falling below the poverty line, as economic growth was slow and was not inclusive.”

A further 31.9 percent of Nigerians had consumption levels between $1.90 and $3.20 per person per day, making them vulnerable to falling into extreme poverty. Given continued oil dependence, rapid population growth, and limited job creation, Nigeria has struggled to invigorate the broad-based growth needed to tackle poverty.

Indeed, there were factors beyond the country’s control. Apart from volatile oil prices, and inherited distortions in the economy, the world since 2020 has been reeling from the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Russia-Ukraine War. Climate change, floods, and insecurity have made recovery, job creation, and poverty alleviation tougher.

The World Bank had forecast that the COVID-19 and oil price crises could push around 10 million additional Nigerians into poverty by 2022. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs reported that the global unemployment rate rose from 5.4 percent in 2019 to 6.5 percent in 2020; the number of unemployed persons rose by 33 million to 220 million.

Nigeria, however, had ample opportunity to rebound. But Buhari repeatedly made mistakes, opted for wrong choices, and ignored expert input. When in an economic hole, development experts advise reaching for the ‘low-hanging fruits.’ Buhari did not; had he reinvigorated the privatisation and liberalisation programme, privatising the loss-making moribund refineries, concessioning viable airports, concessioning the ports, the Ajaokuta Steel Company and other state-owned steel assets, he would have unleashed a floodgate of investment, job creation, and competition. These have been proven over decades across the world. These measures would also free funds for investment in social services and critical poverty-alleviation interventions.

His various poverty-reducing intervention schemes—such as Trader Moni, Farmer Moni, Empower, and others – were expensive but had limited impact. Buhari did not partner closely with the organised private sector as required in an economy on the ropes. He surrounded himself with cronies with statist instincts like himself, locking out alternative ideas.

By failing to tackle insecurity, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing suffered. These, along with inflation and the energy and foreign exchange crises crippled SMEs which together with agriculture are the largest creator of jobs and defence against poverty.

Buhari had said in 2019 that he aimed to initiate policies that would lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty over 10 years, and in June 2021, he claimed to have lifted 10.5 million Nigerians. This was shortly disproved by the World Poverty Clock report showing that indeed more Nigerians slipped into poverty. On the same day, Buhari professed to have dragged over 10 million out of poverty in two years, the number of Nigerians living on less than $1.90 daily was revealed to have risen by 41 percent.

The regime’s several poverty alleviation programmes, from SURE-P to conditional cash transfers and the like, did very little. They were cosmetic and some threw up scandals.

The government has not done enough to plug revenue leakages. Remittance of statutory funds to the Federation Account by many agencies is low. The House of Representatives identified over 60 government agencies that failed to remit funds. The Nigerian National Petroleum Company admitted that it did not fund the account throughout 2022. Such behaviour deprives the government of funds for investment in the economic and social sectors.

In the end, Buhari’s eight years have deepened poverty and joblessness. The millions of youths without jobs, with a few fleeing abroad, others roaming the streets or engaging in menial jobs tell the story; so do the millions of poor struggling to survive in a country and under a regime that had failed them. They will not miss him.

The Punch

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