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.
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 being delivered to the navy, and in the past few months a dozen Super Tucano attack aircraft have also 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.
Tolu Ogunlesi is special assistant on digital and new media to President Buhari