Are you better off than you were three years ago? 

In October 1980, a week before the American Presidential elections, the only presidential debate of that year's contest took place. After a lengthy debate, Ronald Reagan, challenging the incumbent Jimmy Carter, asked the question above, followed by other questions to guide responses. Was it easier to buy things in the store? Was there less unemployment in the country? Was America still respected throughout the world? Did people they safe and secure? 

Reagan was eight points behind Carter a week to the 1980 polls, pre-debate. After the debate, Reagan went up by three points and went on to win the election. Americans had answered. 

President Buhari used similar campaign rhetoric in 2015. In his 'Let us talk' campaign video, he responded to those asking why he continued to run for president by suggesting that  'nothing had changed in the 30 years that he had left office'. In the video, he asked Nigerians if they could honestly tell themselves that the country had changed for the better. Nigerians also answered.

One could argue that Buhari's 2015 success was partly driven by stories of his previous term in office, such as his famed 'War against Indiscipline' and his long period in opposition against the government. These formed the anchor of his change campaign, evoking renewed optimism of how he could finally make Nigerians better off. However, the tune has changed, and it is interesting to see how simple, yet complicated the question can be. 


Many Voices, One Answer?

Are we better off? Finding a single answer to the question is difficult. Much has been made of Nigeria's diverse background, her many tongues, and cultures. Added to other differences in income, geography and even tribe, this can also lend itself to people forming opinions or 'biases' based on their groups' experience. We saw this even during the 2015 elections when Buhari won an overwhelming majority in the North, while Jonathan was endorsed by the people of the South-South and South-East.

And of course, it is difficult to determine what the people care about. Interestingly, in this year's Democracy Day speech, Buhari focused on the economy, security and anti-corruption as the pillars of his administration. In the latest NOI poll commemorating Buhari's 3rd year in office, he received 16% on handling the Economy, 43% on Security and 32% on the fight against corruption. But while these scores paint a negative picture, it is worth looking into what may have swayed this evaluation.


The Caveats

Several issues come into play when you try and evaluate an administration. NOI admits that their telephone-based survey approach may exclude non-telephone users. But they argue that increasing mobile penetration and the fact that surveys are conducted in five languages (English, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and Pidgin) ensures scientificity and credibility. Still, even the most sophisticated polls are imperfect, as international election results continue to show us. 

We wade into more controversial territory when we try and determine what weight to assign each person's assessment of the administration. Should we assign more weight to the poor? The better educated? Do we use PVC collection as a sign of civic engagement? These questions throw up different answers. If PVC collection is a sign of active civic engagement, then the North is probably more civic-minded and engaged. If education, as measured by the scores needed to get into Federal colleges and general pass rates, is a more valid factor, the South should hold greater sway. Neither seems entirely satisfactory. 

And yet there is an even more important challenge: it is impossible to evaluate the Buhari presidency and answer the 'are you better off?' question in isolation. A presidential term is equal parts response to the past and vision of the future. It is why President Jonathan still looms large over the actions or inactions of this government. We cannot entirely blame President Buhari for the recession, or even how he handled Boko Haram or tackled corruption. But these are the issues Buhari himself focused on in his speech, and some may say, during his presidency. As we have also seen, the powers of the presidency are so much that it is difficult to excuse every inaction as a result of prior actions. 

It is with this confusion that we head into 2019, and almost inevitably, into the looming 2019 debate. There will be slogans, jingles and adverts a-plenty. This time, however, the Buhari administration comes in as the incumbent. The burden of proof lies with them. And whether we return the president, or inaugurate a new leader on May 29, 2019, may depend on our collective answer to a question we are neither equipped to ask or respond to. Still, we must ask it. Are we better off, and invariably, would we be better off with someone else?


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