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November 18, 2010

Nigerian Presidential Candidates Campaign on Economy

by Scott Stearns

Nigeria's economy is one of the biggest campaign issues for presidential candidates, especially following last week's strike over wages.

President Goodluck Jonathan ended the strike after just one day by promising to raise the minimum wage, which is now about $50 a month.

Political science professor Isitoah Ozoemene says the president gets credit for ending the walkout so quickly, but risks greater political losses if he fails to deliver on higher wages before next year's vote.

Ozoemene says the economy is an emotional issue for Nigerian voters, who are frustrated that lawmakers have taken so long to raise public wages when there appears to be no limit to how much money politicians make.

"Nigerians are suffering," said Ozoemene.  "They don't have food on the table. Yet they see those who are supposed to be their public servants living in extravagant ways. Nobody approved their salaries, so why should it be the case [for workers]?"

President Jonathan is campaigning on what he says is evidence that he has got the economy back on track after a drop in oil revenues, which account for 85 percent of the federal budget.

"We have rolled out a law that requires companies operating in the oil and gas sectors of our economy to utilize an appreciable percentage of their goods and services from local sources," said  Jonathan.  "This will generate employment for our youth and empower our people."

The president's main challenger, former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida says Nigeria is in economic crisis.

"The economy must be productive." The society must care. And we must stop the current disconnect between the Nigerian people and their government,” said Babangida. “ It is for this reason that the presidency of 2011 is very, very critical for our long-term survival as a people and as a nation."

So what do voters think about the candidates' economic credentials?  Salisu Ibrahim says Mr. Babangida's eight years atop a military dictatorship give him more experience than Mr. Jonathan.

"He was president of this country before. He has been there for many years. He has experienced so many things. He has introduced a lot of new changes that bring life into the economy," noted Ibrahim.

One of Mr. Babangida's biggest change was a 1987 structural adjustment program. Critics says the economic austerity plan disproportionately raised prices for the middle class. Ibrahim Salisu says that was not Mr. Babangida's fault.

"That issue of structural adjustment program is an issue that was global at that time," added Ibrahim.  "It wasn't an isolated case for Nigeria. That is why the failure should not be related to Nigeria alone without relating it to the global economy at that time."

Voter Phillip Ojisua believes President Jonathan is better suited to guide the economy after coming to power earlier this year following the death of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua.

"Since Jonathan was there, even before the death of our former president Yar'Adua, we've never had any problem of people spending the night or spending one hour at the fuel station," said Ojisua.  "So I think that is a plus of the present government."

Ojisua adds thats Mr. Jonathan clearly has less experience than Mr. Babangida, but he believes the current president offers better leadership.

"I believe one was not born with experience, so if he is given a free hand he will do his best," said Ojisua.

Mr. Jonathan and Mr. Babangida are both running to be the presidential candidate of Nigeria's ruling party. Mr. Jonathan's candidacy upsets an informal power sharing agreement that rotates the presidency between north and south every eight years. That deal specifies that the next president should be form the north to fill what would have been President Yar'Adua's second term instead of continuing on with Mr. Jonathan, who is from the south.