Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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Fallouts of populism in Nigeria and elsewhere 24 Aug 2018

Populism is prevalent in every society. Populist leaders cut across a variety of ideological, geographical and historical contexts. Various scholars have attempted to provide an ever-elusive definition of populist politics, as different factors are responsible for the different iterations of populism.
Political scientists, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, present populism as an ideology that divides society into two opposing camps: the people versus the elite. In their book, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, they argue that populism is the expression of politics as the general will of the people above all else.

But populism does not always reflect the core beliefs of political actors. It can be based simply on pragmatism; in which case, it is a political strategy to mobilise support from the people for a policy agenda. While there is no one accepted definition of populism, it can be generally described as an anti-establishment sentiment that is used to galvanise the working class.

Of late, populism has been at the centre of political debates across Europe, South America, United States of America and Nigeria. Many scholars and commentators view modern populism as inimical to liberal democracy, suggesting that populist movements constitute a challenge for democratic politics. But historical evidence shows that populism does not always have negative connotations. For every right-wing populist agenda that is viewed to be nationalistic and antediluvian in outlook, there are other types of populism with liberal flourishes.

Some of the forces driving populism and anti-establishment sentiments across the world include unemployment, income inequality and corruption, leading to social divisions that are being exploited by populist actors. For instance, populist politicians claim globalisation has been unfair to their respective countries. They assert that the system favours only the rich and powerful nations and individuals within nations. In his book, Globalization and Its Discontents, Nobel laureate in economics, Joseph E. Stiglitz, said part of the resentment that has fuelled populism, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries like Nigeria, is caused by inequality.

Donald Trump continues to attack the global trade system. In recent times, the populist American president has imposed tariffs on imports from some U.S. allies and increased tariffs on Chinese imports into the United States. One of the main reasons behind Britain's historic decision to leave the EU was anti-immigration and nationalism sentiments of politically far-right groups. Some UK citizens believe the country's unemployment challenge is caused by immigrants who take up jobs meant for UK citizens.  

Many Nigerians who were sick and tired of pervasive corruption under President Goodluck Jonathan's administration lapped up Muhammadu Buhari's anti-graft agenda. Buhari's other populist agenda during the 2015 elections included securing the lives and properties of Nigerians, restructuring the economy and creating employment opportunities for the youth.

But as Nigerian president, he has led an administration that fails to be inclusive and responsive to the economic needs and aspirations of the country. Available statistics show that unemployment has worsened in Nigeria over the last three years. While the counter-insurgency against Boko Haram terrorists has been largely successful, the government has shown tepid response to the horrors of violence by nomadic cattle farmers across the country.

In effect, Buharinomics is devoid of coherence. The president has not backed his populist rhetoric with policies that can positively impact the living conditions of the vast majority of Nigerians who are poor. This has led to considerable disillusionment among many of the people who voted for him and the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2015.

This buyers' remorse is one of the reasons citizens must be wary of populist appeal because, oftentimes, it is nothing more than just blusters. Brexiteers are also exhibiting a serious case of buyers' remorse as they experience the fallouts of their own brand of populism. At least, two-thirds of the public in Britain – including a majority of those who voted to leave the European Union – now think the outcome of Brexit negotiations will be bad for Britain, according to a new poll released by Sky, the British media and telecommunications company.                                                    

Trumpism, as a brand of populism, is now compounding the issues, especially for its supporters. The Trump administration announced a $12 billion welfare package for U.S. farmers who have been affected by retaliatory tariffs targeting U.S. agricultural products, after Trump increased tariffs on Chinese imports. Former Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, called the welfare programme a "$12 billion band-aid on a self-inflicted wound."   

To be clear, the challenges of implementing economically populist policies are not without prejudice to the concerns of voters who support such policy agenda. Indeed, the evidence supports the concerns about growing inequality. 100 researchers, led by French economist, Thomas Piketty, published new findings on global inequality in December 2017. They predict that inequality will continue to grow. If the global order does not change, the share of the world's wealth owned by the top 1% will grow from 20% currently to 24% by 2050. Meanwhile, the share controlled by the bottom 50% of the world's population would shrink from 10% to less than 9% in the same period.   

Their research also shows that in 2016, 55% of total national income in sub-Saharan African countries was owned by 10% of the population. Inequality is lowest in Europe (top 10% earners own 37% share of national income) and highest in the Middle East (at 61%).  

As long as corruption and unemployment continue unabated, there will be increased social dislocations and political upheavals, creating a vicious cycle of populism. Populist movements will arise for good or ill until the social divisions they underlie are seriously addressed by policymakers and the general will of the people is met. Voters also need to be on their guard to ensure that populism does not provide opportunity for incompetent politicians to rouse popular sentiments to gain power.