Many Nigerians certainly happy to see Buhari go, but less sure of what comes next

Many Nigerians certainly happy to see Buhari go, but less sure of what comes next
A supporter of Nigeria's ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, holds a banner with the image of the party's presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, during a political campaign rally in Lagos, Nigeria, on 26 November 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Akintunde Akinleye)

For the past six months, many of the people in Africa’s most populous country have been waiting for the misery of the Muhammadu Buhari years to end. Now, as Nigeria’s version of eight lost years winds down, expectations are rising.

Nigeria’s hopes of moving to a better place depend largely on two men: incoming President Bola Tinubu and the billionaire industrialist Aliko Dangote.

The launch this week in Lagos of the world’s largest mega refinery by Dangote, Africa’s richest man, has created a buzz of excitement.

nigeria dangote

Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote. (Photo: Reuters / Akintunde Akinleye)

The refinery is a $20-billion monster which, if it reaches capacity, is designed to produce 650,000 barrels of product a day, employ 120,000 people, spawn a domestic petrochemical industry, provide the fertiliser needs for the country’s farmers and generate more than double the country’s present supply of electricity.

While doubts remain about the engineering and how soon it will take to be fully operational – no one in the world has built a refinery like this before – its importance to the region was reflected by the attendance of six west African heads of state at the launch.

Dangote has a plaque on his desk that reads: “Nothing is impossible.” He has shown that big things can still get done in Nigeria – just not by the government.


As a perfect illustration of the incompetence that has marked his time in office, Muhammadu Buhari finally released a long-term national development plan, Nigeria 2050, this month – eight years after becoming President and three weeks before stepping down.

Nigeria Buhari

Outgoing Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Julien de Rosa)

Buhari is clearly not willing to go gently into the night. This eleventh-hour move is among a raft of obstacles he put in place to trip up incoming Tinubu – even though he did confer on him Nigeria’s highest honour on Thursday night.

“Buhari does not even understand that such action is an insult and deeply disrespectful of the incoming government,” commented Jibrin Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development, “especially coming from a man who could not implement a plan for himself.”

Buhari also got the launch of Dangote’s refinery in Lagos this week moved earlier so that he could cut the ribbon, but its game-changing benefits will accrue to the Tinubu administration.

Tinubu inherits a nation that has been run into the ground. Abuja has been paralysed and economic recovery has been sluggish.

The Nigerian economy remains shackled to oil and gas, which is responsible for more than 80% of government revenue. The decline of production in the sector, which now produces little more than half of its Opec quota of 1.8 million barrels per day, explains why Nigeria is bringing in less revenue than the monthly interest payments on its ballooning debt.

Under Buhari real power has been vested in a small clique of northerners – relatives and hometown cronies – while Nigerians complain that corruption has risen to levels not seen since the era of military rule.

The new refinery should end the practice in which Nigeria exports its crude and then pays to import the product back with scarce foreign exchange. Rent-seekers can extract their cut at both ends of the transaction. The refinery will allow Tinubu to remove or scale down the fuel subsidy, which is draining the economy. Foreign exchange savings from the refinery will strengthen the naira and potentially help remove the other bugbear of Nigerian traders and investors – the two-tier currency.

Lekki Free Trade Zone

It is noteworthy that Dangote chose to build the plant not in the Niger Delta, from where the refinery will draw much of its light sweet crude oil, but Lagos – or more precisely the Lekki Free Trade Zone, a brainchild of Tinubu who was governor of the state.

Tinubu has come in for bashing by some press and political opponents who accuse him of corruption and question his victory in the February election, which is still being litigated before a tribunal. However, Nigerian society is broader than the social media activists who have dominated the discourse since the election, and many Nigerians just want to move on.

In his presidential campaign, Tinubu ran on a track record of achievement as Governor of Lagos from 1999 to 2007, which became what he termed the “engine of prosperity” in Nigeria. His vision is essentially to do for Nigeria what he did for Lagos.

There are many who challenge his claims, but the reality is that Lagos has the most diversified economy of the 36 states in Nigeria and constitutes 22% of the country’s economy with only 6% of its population.

Zainab Usman, director of the Africa programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a leading advocate for the diversification of the Nigerian economy, provides a compelling glimpse of what Tinubu achieved: “The city has cleaned up dramatically since the dark days of the 1990s when parts of Lagos were uninhabitable, buried under mountains of rubbish, being devoured by the rising tides of the Atlantic Ocean, conquered by violent criminal gangs and arenas of social unrest.”

Crime and security

Key to Tinubu’s success was hiring technocrats and mentoring smart young people to run the state. While he has kept his appointments close to his chest, much will depend on whom he entrusts with leadership in the new administration.

Tinubu regards one of his most important achievements as combating crime and restoring security – the “bedrock of a prosperous and democratic society” – to Lagos.

As President, he will have to radically reorganise the police, military and intelligence to deal with multiple overlapping security crises. 

Tinubu is more of a backroom dealmaker than a charismatic leader. His strength in southwest Nigeria was his ability to unite all the power groups – the intellectuals, the traditional leaders, the street and market people – for the eight years when he was virtually the only check on the power against a federal government in the hands of the People’s Democratic Party.

Tinubu has been accused of corruption, yet his election was vigorously opposed by many of the rent-seekers allied with the Buhari administration who went to extreme lengths to prevent him from being elected.

If he is to restore the rule of law and security in Nigeria, he knows he has to crack down on the scams, the sharp practices and looting that keeps an entire class of parasites in Nigeria afloat. In this too, he will find common ground with Dangote, whose refinery threatens the livelihoods of oil traders and importers, among the most venal and tricky members of the grey economy.

Ebenezer Obadare of the Council on Foreign Relations writes that one insight to draw from the Buhari presidency “is that it is possible for an individual believed by many to be personally incorruptible [Buhari] to preside over an administration that is none the less defined by corruption and rank incompetence. On the contrary, with the incoming Bola Tinubu government, Nigerians will soon find out whether a leader widely seen as corrupt can preside over a relatively malfeasance-free and reasonably competent administration.” DM

Phillip van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get unscrambled by signing up right here.


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