March 11, 2015 | by Japheth J Omojuwa Print

Presidential candidates for the March 28 Nigerian election, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (rtd.). Photos by World Economic Forum and Chatham House (license).

Nigeria’s general election will be held on March 28, with only a short time left for the political conversation to address crucial issues like national insecurity, the declining economy, and endemic corruption — but substantive discussion has been little more than a sideshow to the campaign trivialities that have taken center stage in recent weeks. These are dicey times for Nigeria, and the elections are only a diversion in a troubling story that will continue long after the polls are closed and the results announced.

Nigeria’s latest democratic experiment started in 1999, and the following 16 years have been the nation’s longest democratic run. Although there is a semblance of stability at the center, real cohesion and security is fleeting. The 2015 elections will likely offer democracy’s biggest test yet in Nigeria, as the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) faces its highest-ever prospects of losing to the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, since it took leadership of Nigeria in 1999.

In an effort to provide some semblance of international election oversight, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Lagos in January to encourage the major candidates to uphold tenets of justice and nonviolence at the polls. At the time of his visit, the challenges that Nigeria faces from deadly insurgent group Boko Haram were only one of many subjects for discussion. The ongoing violence was soon used, though, as political pretext for a six-week postponement of the election — despite promises from incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan that the integrity of the polls would not be compromised.

President Jonathan and the other major candidate in this month’s election, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (rtd.), have yet to debate each other, and have given no indication that they plan to do so before the election. A debate between the two could have finally offered an opportunity to address critical development issues, but none of the political parties appear to be interested in tackling these serious problems. Rather than indulging in inconsequential campaign rhetoric, here’s what the candidates should be talking about.

First, insecurity from violence is a critical issue as Nigerians face the consequences of a badly managed war on insurgents in the northeast. Boko Haram killed about 10,000 people last year, and this year’s monthly average deaths at their hands are even higher. About 2,000 people were reportedly killed as the insurgents massacred civilians in Baga, Borno. Expect a major overhaul of Nigeria’s security setup after the polls close.

Second, Nigeria’s registration process for new businesses remains one of the most arduous on the continent, and the nation is currently 170th out of 189 economies in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” rankings. It’s time to face the reality that thriving private enterprise is the key to economic growth, and the public sector should take a well-deserved back seat. The liberalized telecommunications sector remains the most competitive. It also happens to be the only sector in which Nigerians pay far less for the same service than they did just over a decade ago. Politicians entertained some pretense that the power industry would be liberalized as well, but reality shows that government remains heavily involved — including through price-fixing. Rather than standing in the way of entrepreneurs, the government should stand aside and let them drive new economic growth.

Third, Nigeria’s economy is in serious trouble for several other reasons. The Nigerian naira continues to plunge in value against the U.S. dollar, interest rates are higher than ever, and one of the largest boons to Nigeria in recent years is vanishing as oil revenues dwindle along with world prices. Oil hasn’t commanded its formerly high prices in quite a while, so around 95 percent of Nigeria’s foreign trade revenue is threatened. Rather than relying on fleeting proceeds from a single industry, Nigeria needs to foster a climate of economic freedom that allows businesses of all kinds to grow. Economic diversification can no longer be deemed a luxury.

Finally, endemic corruption prevents the Nigerian government from enacting any real reform, and the electorate lacks the political will to hold politicians accountable. President Jonathan has promised to engage technology to fight political corruption, but this seems far-fetched. A lack of technology is not the reason that corruption thrives in Nigeria. How can technology stand up to state-backed political impunity? What sort of technology could boost the political will of the Nigerian electorate?

Whoever wins the elections, reforms will be inevitable. After the polls close, the political class will no longer have free gifts to give away, and the sprawling and ineffective civil service will have to be drastically reduced and reformed. Can Nigeria prosper after the coming difficult times? Only if the Nigerian government musters the political will to institute reforms across the board. It is never too late to do the right thing, but political corruption and voter apathy continue to cast doubt on long-term success.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.