Muhammadu Buhari’s Administration Was Never Progressive

When Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015, some hoped his administration would enact a left-populist agenda. A close examination of his administration’s ideological roots reveals that was always wishful thinking.

Muhammadu Buhari delivers remarks to journalists in Belem Presidential Palace in Lisbon, Portugal on June 30, 2022. (Horacio Villalobos / Corbis via Getty Images)

In the wake of the hard-fought and widely unpopular presidential victory of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election, it is easily forgotten that the ruling party’s initial triumph in 2015 seemed to represent the flowering of popular aspiration.

Bearing “change” as its campaign slogan, the party came to power in the first victory by an opposition party, with its presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari defeating Goodluck Jonathan of the incumbent Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which had held power since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999.

But the APC seemed to represent change in more fundamental ways. The party’s rise was propelled by popular protest against austerity policies, chief of which was the PDP’s attempt to remove Nigeria’s fuel subsidy. Having overseen a period of commercial expansion, GDP growth, and intensified privatization of state-owned enterprises, the PDP, it appeared, had overplayed its hand in attempting to remove Nigeria’s “meagre but essential form of social welfare, derived from the country’s vast petroleum resources.”

When the PDP government announced a planned removal of the subsidy in 2012, prominent opposition party leaders — who only a year later would unite to form the APC — joined unionists, civil-society groups, and youth activists in a nationwide protest. The ensuing general strike and #OccupyNigeria protests contributed to the downfall of the PDP government at the same time as social movements and political parties were challenging orthodox economic regimes across the globe.

Thus, seen as arriving in the wake of candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and parties such as Podemos and Syriza, who “used popular discontent with austerity as a springboard to elected office,” it is understandable that some observers hoped the APC could succeed in breaking “with the assumptions of neoliberal technocratic management.”

As such, Buhari’s victory can be considered a product of what has been called “the end of the end of history” — a period concurrently marked by the breakdown of the neoliberal order and the rise of the “global populist wave,” which appeared to gain pace across consolidated and electoral democracies alike.

However, approaching the end of its tenure, it is clear that the Buhari administration’s attempted challenge to neoliberalism has been as ineffective as it has been fraught with contradictions — both those inherent to the nature of the ruling party’s coalition and driven by exogenous economic and political events. This essay focuses on the former. Specifically, it considers the ideological foundations of the Buhari administration, assessing how far they shaped the economic policy pursued by the administration and what might come after it.

A Progressive Era Dawns?

Some early explorations of the ideological underpinnings of the APC administration under Buhari — in terms of both its campaign promises and its approach to economic governance — viewed the party as an attempted left-wing challenge to neoliberalism, effectively taking at its word the APC’s “progressive” self-ascription.

Prominent members of the APC at various points seemed to echo this narrative. Bola Tinubu, a mastermind of the APC coalition and Nigeria’s current president-elect, said during the 2015 campaign:

On the one side, the PDP champions a conservative, elitist economic model based on the theory that wealth money (sic) must first go to the already rich and well-heeled who shall determine how small a fraction of it will trickle-down to the rest of society. On the progressive side, we believe government can fillip economic growth and development in such a way that brings the fairness of prosperity to all of society.

This “progressive” vision also appeared to be borne out in several aspects of the administration’s economic approach during Buhari’s first term. In addition to increasing spending on infrastructure, the administration also moderately expanded existing conditional cash-transfer programs.

Even more striking, perhaps, was the administration’s attempt to manage the value of the national currency, pushing the Central Bank of Nigeria to restrict domestic access to foreign exchange. This apparent abandonment of central bank independence, a norm often identified as a pillar of neoliberal common sense, alarmed many Nigerian commentators and suggested to some that President Buhari harbored “socialist leanings.”

Yet, the comparative record of the global populist wave suggests that implementing protectionist policy has been as much a part of the tool kit of a diverse array of governments on the populist right — including those led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi, and former US president Donald Trump — as on the populist left.

Moreover, accounting for the Buhari administration’s economic impulse in terms of a progressive inclination within the APC overstates the party’s ideological coherence. In reality, the APC remains a fragile coalition between the two main opposition party-families that came together in 2013 to form the Congress for Progressive Change/All Nigeria Peoples Party led by Buhari, and the Action Congress of Nigeria led by Bola Tinubu. The latter faction — which does self-describe as “progressive” — remained the junior partner in the coalition until Tinubu’s recent presidential victory.

This segment of the APC, with its base in southwest Nigeria, traces its genealogy to Obafemi Awolowo, the Nigerian independence leader and statesman who was among a generation of anglophone African independence leaders affiliated with the socialist Fabian Society in the UK. However, scholars of contemporary southwest Nigerian politics have long noted a departure from these earlier roots. Instead, they point out that the trajectories of states led by members of the Tinubu fold have now largely conformed to the Lagos Model, an ethnically inflected articulation of neoliberal governance reforms anchored on developing “world-class cities” and epitomized by the recent development trajectory of the city of Lagos.

More importantly, to generalize left-populist progressivism as the APC’s economic philosophy would also be to gloss over the more interesting (if less frequently acknowledged) ideological genealogy of the leading faction of the APC, spearheaded by Buhari.

Crucially, many of the central architects of this faction — often associated with the cryptically named “Kaduna Mafia” — have been among the leading lights of a school of northern Nigerian academics and public intellectuals who are self-described as “radical conservatives.” (A lot of their writings have appeared in the publication, named after the Gamji club, which was founded by Ibrahim Tahir at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in 1967 as a social club in honor of Nigeria’s archconservative independence leader, Ahmadu Bello). This camp has counted some of the most influential Buhari administration players within its fold, including Buhari’s closest advisers, such as Abba Kyari and Mamman Daura. Though the philosophical sources of their economic vision are likely as varied as any other school of political thought, many members of this grouping — including Kyari and Daura — acknowledge their intellectual debts to the late Tahir, a Cambridge-educated sociologist and political strategist.

While ideologically idiosyncratic, Tahir and the school of thought he helped nurture have been united by a mix of cultural conservatism and respect for traditional hierarchy, as well as a firm belief in the power of a strong nationalist state to stabilize the market economy through maintaining a meritocratic basis for capital accumulation. During Tahir’s time as a head of the sociology department at ABU, his conservative, state-capitalist perspective — compared by some of his disciples to the “one-nation Toryism” of the UK context — brought Tahir into frequent and heated intellectual conflict with a politically less influential school of ABU-based communist and socialist academics, including Yusufu Bala Usman and Patrick Wilmot.

Tahir would later become an early champion of Buhari’s presidential bid, serving as his campaign’s spokesperson in 2003 and 2007. It might not be overly presumptuous to surmise that Tahir’s service as one of Buhari’s intellectual inspirations shaped the administration’s decision in 2022 to posthumously award Tahir an Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), among Nigeria’s highest national honors.

In addition to the pride of place afforded to Tahir and other avowed right-wing ideologues within his inner circle (the late Mahmud Tukur, another ABU-based academic and statesman, deserves honorable mention here), Buhari’s long association with conservative cultural politics is a further reason why his party’s “progressive” self-ascription carries a note of irony.

Considering the party’s wider ideological underpinnings, it is evident that contemporary attempts to ascribe socialist leanings to the APC or Buhari are, at best, misinformed. If this begins to clarify what, in ideological terms, the Buhari-led APC government was not, it still leaves open the question of what the administration was. Have the ideological influences spelled out above had an impact on some of the key politico-economic pursuits of the administration? How might the legacy of “Buharism” influence what comes after Buhari?

Revisiting “Buharism”

One of the initial obstacles to understanding the economic vision of the Buhari administration is that most commentators begin with an ipso facto dismissal of its economic approach, taking as a given that economic policy under Buhari has been essentially directionless. Lacking serious critical assessments of the ideological identity and legacy of the APC’s first presidential administration, we are left to consider how defenders of the administration have articulated its vision. How, in other words, has what has been called “Buharism” been understood on its own terms?

As one of its earlier proponents, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi — the outspoken former governor of the Nigerian Central Bank and emir of Kano — proposed the clearest articulation of Buharism, pointing out the neoclassical basis of the fiscal and monetary policies pursued by Buhari’s first military government (1983–1984), most of which have resurfaced under the current administration.

In Sanusi’s reading, while Buharism entailed a form of nationalist resistance to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)–encouraged prescription of currency devaluation that gained prominence in Nigeria in the early 1980s, it was also “based on a sound understanding of neo-classical economics.”

For Sanusi, Buhari’s military administration mounted this resistance based on the expectation that given Nigeria’s dependency on oil — a commodity denominated in dollars — the devaluation of the naira would not improve Nigeria’s disadvantaged balance-of-payments condition. Instead, he argued, Buharists held that:

the only groups who would benefit from devaluation were the rich parasites who had enough liquidity to continue with their conspicuous consumption, the large multi-national corporations with an unlimited access to loanable funds and the foreign “investor” who can now purchase our grossly cheapened and undervalued domestic assets. In one stroke we would wipe out the middle class, destroy indigenous manufacturing, undervalue the national wealth and create inflation and unemployment. This is standard economic theory and it is exactly what happened to Nigeria after it went through the hands of our IMF economists under IBB.

Usefully, this clarifies that a key segment of the Buharist social base included a domestic elite, typified by Sanusi himself, who desired to see the Nigerian state turn more strongly in favor of domestic capitalist production over the interests of foreign investment. Sanusi says as much, mischievously opting to put the issue in Marxian language when he goes on to refer to Buharism as a “bourgeois nationalist” ideology, forced to take “extreme measures” to resist “Global capitalism (externally)” and “its parasitic and unpatriotic agents and spokespersons (internally).”

Indeed, the necessity and urgency of such resistance form part of Sanusi’s justification for the administration’s imposition of “Draconian policies,” which Sanusi saw as the basis of economic success in “the ‘tiger economies’ of Asia such as Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand.” He further argues that “the harsh exchange control and economic sabotage laws of Buharism were a necessary and logical fallout of its economic theory,” before evocatively concluding that, “At his best Buhari may have been a Bonaparte or a Bismarck. At his worst he may have been a Hitler or a Mussolini.”

What most commends Sanusi’s elaboration of Buharism is not only his compelling assessment of the economic regime as effectively right-wing nationalist, but also the remarkable extent to which his analysis of this economic philosophy in its initial military guise preempted the economic trajectory of Buhari’s democratic government.

Yet, where my disagreement arises with Sanusi’s early definition of Buharism is that his largely glowing portrait de-emphasizes crucial features of this economic approach which, in both its initial and current iteration, presage its downfall. In the first place, Sanusi overstates the extent to which Buharism aims to erect a genuine roadblock — as opposed, say, to a temporary and corrective pit stop — to further liberalization. In A History of Nigeria, historians Toyin Falola and Matthew Heaton lend credence to this pit-stop alternative when they argue that:

Buhari’s main emphasis was to root out corrupt persons and practices so as to ensure that [the IMF-proposed] austerity policies were followed appropriately. The idea was that, if Nigerian government and business made a concerted and conspicuous effort to live by ethical and legitimate business practices and to pay off loans in a timely manner, foreign investors would be more willing to see Nigeria as a safe and potentially lucrative place to do business.

Similarly, in the 1980s. Adebayo Olukoshi and Tajudeen Abdulraheem, as well as Olatunde Ojo and Peter Koehn, pointed out that with the exception of the junta’s resistance to devaluing the naira at a rate acceptable to the IMF, Buhari’s wider economic policy regime was pursued within the broad framework of continuing negotiations with the IMF, which the administration hoped would result in a $2.5-3 billion loan.

Indeed, as Sanusi ultimately acknowledged in a follow-up essay responding to critics of his original piece, the first Buhari government oversaw currency depreciation, but in a gradual and controlled manner, concluding that this “gradualist approach to deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation” was preferable to the “big-bang approach” preferred by proponents of immediate deregulation.

Rather than a narrative of valiant resistance against “multinational corporations” and “parasites,” such discreet gradualism seems to better account for why the current Buhari administration has been more successful than its ostensibly more (neo)liberal immediate predecessor at pushing through the further depreciation of the naira, the historic privatization of Nigeria’s state-owned petroleum company, and the gradual removal of petrol subsidies.

Furthermore, while conceding some flaws in this model, Sanusi’s largely laudatory account also stops short of acknowledging the spectacular extent to which Buharism consistently fails, not only on its own terms but also in constantly creating the political conditions for its undoing. The former failing is most obvious in the administration’s signature demand-management policy, which restricted dollar access to only sanctioned imports and served to create rackets around currency trading and import licensing, with those closest to both policy levers benefiting from rent-seeking. Though Sanusi has more recently spoken out against the opportunity for currency roundtripping created by the policy, he stops short of recognizing it as a failure inherent to the Buharist paradigm. It is clear that the parasitism that Buharism purports to eliminate remains among its essential products. What is less clear is whether this outcome is best understood, in contemporary parlance, as a feature or a bug.

After the Populist Wave

Perhaps the greatest failing of Buharism, past and present, is the fact that it consistently generates such a large scale of popular and elite discontent that succeeding governments have little choice but to return to the well-worn path of economic orthodoxy. Once again, political-economic governance after Buhari appears poised to return to a paradigm more friendly to international finance and its domestic allies. This likely trajectory is apparent in the fact that the three main presidential candidates in Nigeria’s 2023 election — including the APC’s flag bearer, Tinubu — agreed on the need for currency deregulation and fuel-subsidy removal, amid the continued privatization of state enterprises.

Thus, while emerging at a moment of global optimism about an alternative to neoliberalism, Buharism sought not a path to an alternative economic order, but Nigeria’s gradual acceptance of the seemingly inevitable fate of economic globalization. The victory in the 2023 election of the more market-friendly Tinubu camp of the APC suggests that after a half-hearted and ultimately abortive detour, Nigeria’s “end of history” moment has resumed.

Politico-economic developments in Nigeria thus appear to align with the wider record of the global populist wave, which has seen the rise of various idiosyncratic but ultimately abortive challenges to economic globalization, only to be followed by a resurgence of neoliberal technocratic governance. Perhaps the apparent populist challenge to the economic establishment was always likely to be more rhetorical than practical.

Yet, despite its many liberal-sounding campaign proclamations, an APC administration led by Tinubu will likely struggle to relinquish aspects of Buhari’s regulation of the national currency and import regime. In addition to the political necessity of retaining some of the Buharist policy apparatus, the incoming APC administration — facing pressure to consolidate a divided party and shore up its weak mandate — is unlikely to relinquish control of these valuable sources of rent entirely to the caprices of market forces.

Though spurned in the campaign discourse of the main parties, it thus appears likely that some key pillars of the Buharist economic policy regime will be retained by the incoming administration. Regrettably, then, it appears that the waning days of the Buhari administration are unlikely to mark the definitive end of Buharism.