Nigeria: Tinubu's UNGA Speech Needs Action Back Home

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-eighth session.
21 September 2023

Mr Ogu said the president made the announcement of the subsidy removal without putting an alternative plan in place to allow for a smooth transition for Nigerians.

Nigeria's President Bola Tinubu addressed major African issues while calling for equal partnerships with the global West, but Nigerian analysts say he must first show strong leadership back home.

Mr Tinubu spoke during the General Assembly world leaders' speeches on 19 September. He took office on 29 May immediately announcing he was dropping petrol subsidy as one of his first acts. The move doubled transportation costs across the country of 213 million people in less than 24 hours. Many Nigerians had to abandon their cars as the cost of petrol rose by about 200 per cent. This has further worsened inflation with food prices skyrocketing in a country where about half of citizens are poor. Nigerians accused the president of triggering a panic that could have been avoided on his first day in office.

At the General Assembly, Mr Tinubu, nevertheless, gave a strong speech focusing on many of the problems that Africa faces and the fact that the West is not ready to deal with Africa on equal terms, said Kelechukwu Ogu, a Nigerian energy analyst who is currently based in Berkeley, California. "But back home in Nigeria, there are a lot of things wrong with Tinubu's signalling," he said.

Mr Ogu said the president made the announcement of the subsidy removal without putting an alternative plan in place to allow for a smooth transition for Nigerians to manage the sudden change.

A few weeks after his inauguration, Mr Tinubu also announced a change to the country's exchange rate system, describing it as "noxious." The policy is the first step in a journey of many miles, said Mayowa Tijani, a business journalist and editor at large at TheCable, a Nigerian newspaper, about the new forex policy. Bottlenecks are still making access to foreign exchange difficult, he said.

"Devaluation of the naira was inevitable," Mr Tijani said, referring to the country's currency. "But not just as a single policy. We need complementary policies that allow for the inflow of FX [foreign exchange] for it to make sense. We don't have enough guidelines and supporting mechanisms to make it work efficiently. We also need to make it easier for investors to take their money out."

Mr Tinubu praised his policy moves in his speech to the General Assembly, saying the resulting hardship is necessary "to establish a foundation for durable growth and investment to build the economy our people deserve."

He referred to the Marshall Plan of 1948, which tasked the United States with providing the huge resources needed for rebuilding postwar Western Europe, saying that Africa could use such a Western partnership to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

"Today and for several decades, Africa has been asking for the same level of political commitment and devotion of resources that described the Marshall Plan," he said. "We are not asking for identical programmes and actions. What we seek is an equally firm commitment to partnership. We seek enhanced international cooperation with African nations to achieve the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals."

Seyi Awojulugbe, a senior analyst at SBM Intelligence, a geopolitical platform in Nigeria, said that beyond the "feel good" speech by Mr Tinubu at the UN, Africa as a continent must offer tangible ways to trigger the partnership that it thinks it deserves. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is playing a visible role in contributing to solving the war in Ukraine, for example, she said. Nigeria's foreign policy is centred on Africa, but its stances in recent years have indicated otherwise, she argued.

"Africa has depended on foreign aid from the West for quite a while," she said. "The best thing for Africa and African leaders right now is to come to the table as a participant and offer something. Lean on our soft and hard powers to show the world what Africa has to offer."

Corruption is endemic among Nigeria's politicians and civil servants. So far, Mr Tinubu has not shown serious indication that his government would forge a different path, experts say. He recently appointed Abubakar Bagudu, an ex-governor who has spent time in jail and helped Sani Abacha, Nigeria's former dictator, to siphon public funds into offshore accounts.

"Failures in good governance have hindered Africa," Mr Tinubu acknowledged at the UN. "But broken promises, unfair treatment and outright exploitation from abroad have also exacted a heavy toll on our ability to progress."

Mr Tinubu has been president for just four months, Ms Awojulugbe said, so the administration "deserves to be given a chance" to deliver on its promises to Nigerians.

"These reforms are biting Nigerians hard, and the people will naturally turn to the government for succour," she said. "No doubt, the country's books are in a bad state but this is where the creativity of the government is needed to help figure out a way to help make things better."

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