A Week in Nigeria: 19 January

In this week’s round-up: Opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar lays out radical plans if elected president, President Buhari speaks in a TV interview and aid agencies describe gains by Islamist insurgents.

Atiku Abubakar and his running mate Peter Obi have run an election campaign that has been tightly focused on the economy and being business friendly
  • With politicians returning to the public eye after the Christmas period, and with just weeks left until the 16th February presidential election, the main candidates took centre stage this week. Nigeria’s main opposition candidate for president, businessman and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, told Reuters in an interview that he would seek to privatise the state oil company and other government assets if elected next month, while removing a costly petrol subsidy, to revive the economy. With unemployment at 23.1 percent in the third quarter of 2018 and inflation at a seven-month high of 11.44 percent in December, the economy has become a key election issue. “As a policy, we want to have less government as far as businesses are concerned. No sector is going to be exempted as far as liberalisation and privatisation is concerned,” he said. “I am committed to privatising NNPC. Even if they are going to kill me, I’ll do it,” Abubakar, who served as vice president between 1999 and 2007, told business leaders in the commercial capital Lagos. He also said he would oversee plans for a comprehensive policy for the privatisation of government enterprises.
  • The incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, gave a rare television interview. During a televised town hall meeting with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, he answered questions relating to his record on a number of key issues including security, the economy and corruption. While the two-hour broadcast failed to yield any revelations, the rare glimpse of Buhari fielding questions on live television provoked varied responses on social media.
  • Militants have killed more than 100 soldiers and seized a huge stock of weapons in clashes in northeast Nigeria since Dec. 26, a report by a group of aid agencies said. The report by the Global Protection Cluster in Chad, a group of aid agencies led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said attacks in the Baga-Kawa area of northeast Nigeria on Dec. 26 caused more than 6,357 people to flee east into Chad and some 20,000 others to flee to safety within Nigeria. The military took a different view. “Undoubtedly we recorded some casualties in these encounters, since we are at war and not a picnic, but certainly not the over-bloated casualty statistics being touted by UNHCR,” said an army spokesman. The surge in attacks, mostly carried out by an Islamic State allied breakaway faction of Boko Haram, has occurred in the run-up to the elections, prompting Buhari’s critics to seize upon security as an issue. The president, a retired general and former military ruler, responded to criticism by arguing that militants were unable to control huge swathes of territory in the way they did in the months before he came to power in 2015. “When this administration came, Boko Haram was holding 17 local governments in the northeast. They are not holding any local governments,” he said in the televised town hall meeting.
  • Annual inflation in Nigeria stood at 11.44 percent in December, a seven-month high, up from 11.28 percent in November, the National Bureau of Statistics said. Inflation has been rising steadily since July, increasing chances that the central bank could tighten interest rates at its first meeting of 2019 next week. The price index, which peaked at 18.7 percent in January last year, has been in double digits for three years. Food prices, which make up the bulk of the inflation basket, rose to 13.56 percent in December, up from 13.30 percent a month earlier.
  • A court hearing to consider allegations that the head of Nigeria’s judiciary breached asset declaration rules was adjourned until 22 January. Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen did not appear at the Code of Conduct Tribunal hearing. Nigeria’s judiciary plays a key role in election matters and has helped resolve disputes in past votes. That means Onnoghen or his successor could help decide the victor if results of the election are disputed in court. The conduct tribunal, which tries asset declaration misdemeanours, said in a statement on Saturday that Onnoghen would face six separate charges, but did not give further details. Onnoghen could not be reached for comment. Under Nigerian law, state officials must declare their assets before taking office and after they leave. The hearing was adjourned because the court agreed that the chief justice was not properly served with a court summons. Papers were served to his personal assistant and not Onnoghen himself.
  • And Nigeria’s state oil firm said it had paid $993.7 million up to September in arrears owed to its joint ventures with multinational oil companies by September. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) also said it still had to make up payments of $3.95 billion. It said it was seeking to raise about $2.3 billion in financing from third parties, such as joint venture partners, to help cover costs. And the state oil firm revealed that it was raising $3.15 billion through a firm called SEEPCO to develop 416 million barrels of reserves from the Oil Mining Licence (OML) 13 field. NNPC has over the years piled up unpaid bills, so-called cash calls, that it was obliged to pay Western firms with which it has joint ventures for oil exploration and production. The delay in payments has hindered oil and gas investment in the OPEC state and worsened a budget crisis as the government seeks to increase spending to boost an economy still recovering from a recession.

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