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Despite Nigeria’s problems, President Buhari is building a legacy of hope | Tolu Ogunlesi

Nigeria has faced challenges for as long as anyone can remember. But one problem Nigerians don’t talk about is our collective inability to acknowledge where progress is being made.

Fixating only on what is not working robs us of the chance to analyse and replicate our successes, and demoralises a populace in dire need of optimism.

There is much to be hopeful about, but you won’t necessarily learn about it in the mainstream news. President Buhari came to office in 2015 promising to focus on three areas: security, the economy and corruption. There were no illusions that, considering where we were coming from, a lot of the work would need to be corrective and foundational.

It is the president’s view that the jobs and inclusive growth Nigeria needs will be driven by investment in infrastructure. When you can guarantee better lives for people, security becomes a more manageable issue. “If we fix infrastructure, Nigerians will mind their businesses,” the president often says.

The last time Nigeria saw this level of infrastructure investment was in the 1990s, when the then retired Maj Gen Buhari headed a special fund created to invest petroleum revenues into health, education and infrastructure.

More than two decades later, Buhari is doing this on a bigger scale. A new Presidential Infrastructure Development Fund, a tax credit scheme encouraging private sector investment in roads, and most recently, a 15tr-naira (£26.4bn) Infrastructure Corporation (“InfraCorp”).

This is the first administration in the history of independent Nigeria to start and complete a railway – the line linking the cities of Lagos and Ibadan. No one who has used the new service is unimpressed. It’s an achievement that reminds us that groundbreaking development is possible. Some say the bar is low; possibly, but there is no better time than now to raise it.

Much is said about how corrupt Nigerian society is, borne out by its place in Transparency International’s annual rankings. Corruption is a serious problem, but the president, honoured as the African Union’s anti-corruption champion for 2018, has led the fight. The cancer of corruption requires a cocktail of drugs, some to constrict its blood supply, others to attack the scourge itself.

Timeline

Nigeria since independence

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From hopeful beginnings in 1960, west Africa’s powerhouse has suffered civil war, years of coups and military rule, ethnic and regional conflicts, endemic corruption, banditry and Islamist insurgencies. Here are some key events.

1 October 1960

Nigeria gains independence

New constitution establishes federal system with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner, as prime minister and Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, as governor general, the ceremonial head of state.

July 1966

Northern-led counter-coup led by Lt Col Murtala Muhammed

Lt Col Yakubu Gowon becomes head of state. Estimated 30,000 Igbos massacred in riots in northern Nigeria, causing about 1 million to flee to south-east

May 1967

Three eastern states secede as the Republic of Biafra leading to a three-year civil war

January 1970

Biafra surrenders

Between 500,000 and 2 million civilians die from starvation during the war. Gowon attempts reconciliation, declaring “no victor, no vanquished”

July 1975

Gowon overthrown by Murtala Mohammed

Process of moving federal capital to Abuja begins

February 1976

Mohammed killed in coup

Succeeded by top aide, Lt Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, who initiates transition from military rule to US-style presidential system

October 1979

Obasanjo becomes first general to hand power to elected leader

Shehu Shagari, a northerner, becomes first president of second republic, with Igbo vice-president

December 1983

Shagari deposed

Coup led by Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari after disputed elections

June 1993

Babangida annuls election

Chief Moshood Abiola is apparent winner

November 1995

Ken Saro-Wiwa executed

The writer and campaigner against oil industry damage to his Ogoni homeland, is executed with eight other dissidents. EU imposes sanctions and Commonwealth suspends Nigeria’s membership

May 1999

Obasanjo is sworn in as president

June 2000

Islamic sharia law adopted by several northern states

Clashes with Christians opposing the issue lead to hundreds of deaths

2006

Militants in Niger delta demand bigger share of region’s oil wealth

April 2007

Umaru Yar’Adua wins presidential election

March 2011

Goodluck Jonathan wins presidential election

May 2013

Jonathan sends troops against Boko Haram

A state of emergency is declared in northern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa. Insurgent violence mounts in eight other states

April 2014

Boko Haram kidnaps more than 270 girls

They are taken from a boarding school in northern town of Chibok. Over the next year, Boko Haram launch series of attacks across north-east Nigeria and into neighbouring Chad and Cameroon, seizing several towns near Lake Chad. Group’s allegiance switched from al-Qaida to Islamic State

March 2015

Buhari wins presidential election

He is the first opposition candidate to do so in Nigeria

1 November 2016

Niger Delta Avengers rebels bomb oil pipelines

1 October 2021

Debt payments reach 1.47tn naira

Nigeria spends 1.47tn naira (£2.6bn) on servicing domestic and external debt in first half of 2021, according to data from Debt Management Office 

The very first order Buhari issued, in August 2015, mandated compliance with a new accounting system promoting transparency in government finances. In the years since, the federal government has been introducing enhanced levels of automation to everything from filing tax returns to business registration and import duty exemptions.

A national database for vehicle registration is in progress, a valuable tool in the fight against smuggling and vehicle theft. A performance management system has been launched to better track how ministers are meeting their assigned targets.

Many of these things are long overdue, and should have been done before. In my view, it is to Buhari’s credit that they are being pursued now.

The most challenging issue is security. But significant progress has been made, which only people who have no idea where we are coming from find easy to dismiss.

The most pressing security issue in 2015 was Boko Haram and its determination to establish an Islamic caliphate; wielding every weapon possible, including suicide bombs, to create the terror necessary to subdue the Nigerian state.

Six years on, Boko Haram and its various offshoots have been substantially tamed. Two of its commanders have been killed this year, amid infighting helped along by the intensifying military onslaught. There remain significant issues: Boko Haram may be weakened but it is not dead, and must continue to be seen as a threat for the foreseeable future.

The main theatre of insecurity in the country has shifted to the north-west, where vast forests shelter gangs of bandits, and it is now up to the armed forces to bring calm to the region in the months ahead, as they are successfully doing in the north-east.

One reason for optimism is the Nigerian military’s biggest hardware renewal programme in decades. Examples include the new landing ship tank delivered to the navy in June, and in the past few months a dozen Super Tucano attack aircraft have been delivered, swelling the number of warplanes procured in the last five years to 36.

Underpinning the administration’s progressive agenda are several overdue legislative reforms – necessary catalysts for long-term change even if it’s a struggle to convey that significance to a public more interested in the price of groceries.

For example, the Nigeria Police Force Act, which dates from 1943, has had a makeover. It’s a similar story with the Prisons Act (from 1972), the Companies Act (1990), and the Petroleum Act (1969).

Reforming laws will not magically transform a country, but it is a step on the journey. Rebuilding is all around us, laying the groundwork for a country that works for all Nigerians.

Investment – domestic and foreign – is thriving; thankfully, no investor requires a country to be perfect. Money is flowing into agriculture, manufacturing (consumer goods, vehicle assembly), aviation, oil and gas, healthcare, logistics and fintech, in recognition of the potential of a country of more than 200 million people, half of them under 20.

The Dangote Refinery, the largest single-train refinery in the world, the “AKK” gas pipeline and the expansion of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas plant, are three multibillion-dollar projects worth highlighting. A new deep-seaport is being completed in Lagos, the first new port in decades; the rail corridor is growing.

There is much still to be done, and it is now a race against time. In 18 months, the president’s second and final term will end, and it will be for his successor to carry on. I’m convinced that only from then onwards will the country feel the true impact of this administration’s legacy of change.