With eye on economy, Nigeria girds for combustible election

Declining crude oil prices have sapped Nigeria's export revenues. If reelected, President Jonathan has vowed to diversify the economy of Africa's biggest oil producer. 

Joe Penney/Reuters
A trader changes dollars with naira at a currency exchange store in Lagos.

Although the fight against Boko Haram militants has taken center stage in Nigeria's election campaign, the continued decline of Africa’s largest economy could be the deciding factor for voters later this month.

Nigerians are frustrated with power shortages, the rising cost of goods due to currency depreciation, and persistent youth unemployment, all areas affected by recent economic woes.

“The state of the economy has increased the level of uncertainty in the country,” says Dr. Ismail Ibraheem, a mass communications professor at the University of Lagos. “I am not sure that I will be able to buy the same things with my salary that I bought a month ago.”

A sharp drop in crude oil prices has been felt worldwide. But it bites especially hard for oil-producing countries like Nigeria, where the majority of the economy is structured around oil sales. It exports around two million barrels per day, and oil revenues generate about 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings and close to 80 percent of government income. 

Mr. Ibraheem predicts these economic headwinds could translate into more votes for opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari and his APC party. Mr. Buhari is in a tight race against incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, who many blame for the weakened economy. 

“The problem we are facing today is the problem of security and economy. We have gathered competent hands to manage the economy and tackle insecurity,” Buhari said during a campaign speech in January.

He accuses government of running the economy into the ground and says their economic policies have worsened the lives of Nigerians.

Unclear future 

The economic instability coupled with the postponement of the election to Mar. 20 due to the Boko Haram threat prompted Standard & Poor's to put Nigeria on watch for a potential downgrade last month. Nigeria's current BB minus rating is three notches below investment grade. After the polls were delayed by six weeks last month, Nigeria's currency fell to an all-time low of about 205 to the dollar. 

“Uncertainties of the election cycle also reinforced the volatility of the local currency and relative weakness of corporate investment,” says Abiola Rasaq, head of research and chief strategist at Associated Discount House.

Solutions are few, but experts say short-term solutions can only have a limited impact. “The only thing that will stop further devaluation is when the economy is made less import-dependent,’’ says David Adonri, chief executive officer of Lagos-based Lambeth Trust & Investment Co. Ltd.

President Jonathan agrees. Though he claims to have led Nigeria to become Africa’s number one economy – a status it gained last year as a result of recalculations of its economic output, rather than a sudden growth spurt – he has pledged to diversify it away from dependency on oil. 

At the Nigerian Stock Exchange on Thursday he promised to hand more control to the private sector if he stayed in office saying that the government “will no longer be the owner and manager of businesses.”

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