By Ali Abare Abubakar
ABUJA, Nigeria — Since Alejo Fred lost his job as an engineer two years ago, he has been earning a living by salvaging sellable items from trash.
“There was a robust, private-sector-driven construction industry,” he said. “But this is all gone in a cloud of economic uncertainty.”
As Africa’s most populous country approaches a critical general election Feb. 16, Mr. Fred and an increasing number of other Nigerian voters are voicing disappointment with President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired military general who is promising that a second term would be an improvement on the first.
Mr. Buhari rode to power in 2015 on promises to turn around the country’s moribund economy, tackle corruption and defeat the brutal Boko Haram, the Islamic State affiliate that was wreaking havoc in the northeast.
But low oil prices sparked a recession in 2016, dashing the president’s hopes of fulfilling many of his campaign pledges. Almost 10 million people have lost jobs since the recession struck, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The unemployment rate now stands at more than 23 percent. Half of Nigeria’s 180 million people live in extreme poverty. Growth in the gross domestic product is expected to hit an annual rate of 1.5 percent in the current quarter, nearly a quarter lower than a year ago.
With the presidency, seats in the parliament and 29 of 36 governorships all up for grabs Feb. 16, Mr. Buhari’s weakness could have major policy consequences.
Leading opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party is pledging to sell off the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., a hotbed of corruption, if he is elected. Mr. Abubakar recently called on Mr. Buhari to resign after the president confessed to regional governors that the economy was in bad shape.
“The economy has collapsed under his watch,” said Mr. Abubakar, who was vice president under President Olusegun Obasanjo. “He has no idea on how to fix it.”
In a brutal takedown on Foreign Policy.com, Nigerian political analyst Remi Adeyoka said Mr. Buhari had completely squandered the goodwill and high hopes his 2015 election had sparked.
“In the past four years, Buhari’s government has serially ignored court orders, harassed and arrested journalists and activists, deployed security services to intimidate political opponents, and unforgivably sanctioned the killings of hundreds of unarmed civilians on multiple occasions with the impunity of a power-drunk dictatorship,” Mr. Adeyoka wrote.
His first term has “highlighted the difference between accepting the principle of elective government and being a true democrat,” Mr. Adeyoka said. “In Nigeria, like elsewhere in today’s world, the biggest threat to democracy comes not from generals instigating coups but from authoritarians-at-heart winning elections, only to use their democratic mandate to rule anti-democratically.”
Supporters of Mr. Buhari see his tenure differently. They argue that he has been making painful but necessary reforms that won’t change Nigeria’s economy overnight.
“President Buhari is confronting the effect of gross mismanagement of the country under the previous regimes,” said Abdulkarim Muhammad Abdullahi, a leader of the APC Big League, a pro-Buhari advocacy group. “Buhari has done well to rejig the country’s economy.”
More telling is that critics accuse Mr. Buhari of falling short in the fight against terrorism. During the 2015 campaign, he promised to eliminate the scourge within a year. Soon after he took office, he launched an all-out assault on Boko Haram, resulting in a lull in rampages. Many militants were pushed into a narrow region on Nigeria’s border with Chad.
But as the general election inches closer, the terrorists are resurfacing and the president now speaks only of having “degraded” the enemy.
A faction of Boko Haram that recently renamed itself the Islamic State’s West Africa Province launched brazen assaults in the northeast, overrunning military bases and rural communities and fueling fears that the fight against terrorism is far from over. Armed bandits are now wreaking havoc in lawless northwestern Nigeria, too.
“The impact of recent fighting on innocent civilians is devastating,” said Samantha Newport, the U.N. spokeswoman for Nigeria. “It has created a humanitarian tragedy.”
Ms. Newport estimated that the Islamic State’s West Africa Province has displaced 30,000 people. The United Nations recently withdrew 260 aid workers from Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, the largest pullout in three years, she said.
Despite his past campaign promises, the violence ironically could help Mr. Buhari at the ballot box by suppressing the opposition vote. Many voters in the northeast would oppose the president if they had a chance, but it’s not clear whether polling places will open in regions where militants are active.
“Our people are made to flee back to Maiduguri [the regional capital] and probably consigned to [refugee] camps,” said Mohammed Imam, who is running for the Borno state governorship with the opposition People’s Democratic Party.
A spokesman for the government, Lai Mohammed, said officials were taking measures to ensure free, fair and credible elections throughout the country.
On top of the problems the country as a whole faces, Mr. Buhari has been embroiled in corruption scandals.
Nigeria improved its ranking on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index last year, moving from 148th to 144th among 180 countries and territories. But that merely put the country back to the ranking it had in 2017.
The president recently suspended the country’s chief justice, Walter Onnoghen, over reports of corruption, but the opposition accused him of seeking to eliminate an independent authority who might challenge his own efforts to fix the coming election.
“It means that the next election is nothing more than a ritualistic outing,” said Mike Ozekhome, a Nigerian constitutional lawyer, referring to the suspension.
American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria warned that the campaign against the chief justice could “cast a pall over the electoral process.”
Accused of failing to list his personal assets before taking his job, Mr. Onnoghen has refused to step down, forcing Mr. Buhari to suspend him, the president’s spokesman said. Officials are now examining the charges.
Many ordinary Nigerians feel they can’t do much about high-level corruption, but they have strong opinions about their fortunes under Mr. Buhari, who assumed office on a wave of hope. His ascension marked the first peaceful democratic transition of power to an opposition candidate in the country’s history.
“I’m running out of business because of the harsh economy,” said Yazidu Harisu, 15, an itinerant tailor waiting one recent evening for customers under a tree with his mobile sewing machine in One Man Village, a suburb of Abuja.
“I don’t want Buhari to be re-elected,” said Mr. Harisu. “It’s not that we don’t like him, but the people are suffering under his watch.”