In conversation with Donald Duke: Nigeria's next president?

Jan 25, 2019|Aisha Salaudeen

Ahead of the 2019 Nigerian elections, our business journalist, Aisha Salaudeen, spoke with Donald Duke, one of Nigeria's presidential candidates, on his plan for reforming Nigeria.


When I asked Donald Duke why he decided to run for President in 2019, he merely smiled.

“I have been in politics. I was governor for eight years, so running is not a new thing. If it's someone who has never been in politics that question would fly, but for me, it is just a natural path,” he said.

Fair enough. After serving as the Commissioner of Finance, Budget & Planning in Cross River State, he was elected as Governor of the state in 1999, staying in office for eight years.

And yet, there is a perception—right or not—that Duke sits outside the political establishment. Ahead of the 2019 Elections, he did not fight for the People’s Democratic Party ticket with the likes of Rabiu Kwankwaso and Jonah David Jang, two other ex-Governors. Instead, he has ridden on Nigeria’s third-party wave, seemingly identifying more with the likes of Kingsley Moghalu and Oby Ezekwesili.

Of course, he is doing so under the umbrella of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a much more recognisable name than all other alternative parties.

For Duke, Nigeria’s current situation transcends political parties, and he simply backs himself as the man to take the country forward. “There are three things required for the development of the country: Vision, strategy and the will. The current administration does not have that, I do,” he tells me.

With his record as Governor, he is confident in his capacity to govern Nigeria, an advantage he holds over many of his peers. He shows this in his damning critique of the wastefulness of Nigeria’s economic policy. “Spending money on anything has never solved any problem. As a governor, I realised that long ago,“ he says. “You solve problems by making plans not throwing money around. Nigeria always throws money,” he adds.

I ask for particular policies that demonstrate this behaviour and the conversation turns to the government’s plans to expand manufacturing hubs in Nnewi and Onitsha. “Okay Nnewi has a potential manufacturing base but if the folks there don't have access to credit, if they don't have energy, if the infrastructure is not there you can throw all the money around, and nothing would happen,” Duke declares.

One key element of his economic strategy is to create an enabling environment to drive growth in Nigeria’s small & medium scale enterprises (SME). Duke identifies high interest rates as a priority here but distances himself from this administration’s interventionist approach to the issue. The government has attempted to circumvent the high interest rate problem by facilitating cheap credit to specific sectors like agriculture.

Duke struggles to see the wisdom in the approach. “If we had single-digit interest rates, then those who want to do agriculture will do agriculture, and those want to do cloth making will do it too.”

Another economic issue he deviates from the current stance is Nigeria’s foreign exchange policy. “Our economy is geared towards imports, so we celebrate when the exchange rate is very affordable. We fail to realise that we are discouraging exports and encouraging imports,” he asserts. Duke sounds less averse to naira devaluation, a policy Nigeria has religiously resisted in the last 20 years, despite clear evidence that the alternative cannot work.

His emphasis on SMEs and exports stems from his belief that Nigerians need to move along the value chain if the economy is to thrive. “Look, we grow enough tomatoes in Nigeria to feed all of West Africa, but we are still importing tomato paste, why?” he asks. “If you go to Hadeija, Jigawa State, you will find pineapples as far as your eyes can see. But in a month or two they will all be rotten. The next time they plant the same thing.”

Essentially, Duke is striving for Nigeria to diversify from primary production (agriculture, etc.) to secondary production (agro-processing, etc.). This would be a late move in a country with a very weak industrial base compared to its peers—the manufacturing sector only accounts for less than 10% of the Nigerian economy. Moreover, widespread industrialisation is a proven method of job creation.  

But Duke also understands that for this to work, Nigeria needs to become more productive. “Our economy is the largest in Africa because of our population, not because we are productive,” he declares, alluding to Nigeria’s estimated productivity of $3 per hour, one of the lowest in the world.

Tackling the productivity issue requires looking at Nigeria’s failed power sector, and Duke has some interesting ideas here. “My policy is simple. In the short-term, slash the price of gas because you flare most of it anyway,” he tells me. It is a surprising recommendation considering the power generating companies previously owned by the government already buy gas at discounted rates, and this is regularly cited as one of the reasons Nigeria does not have cost-reflective electricity tariffs.  

But it’s not just about revamping the economy, Nigeria’s declining healthcare system bothers Donald Duke just as much.

Presently, Nigeria has a 1:4000 doctor to patient ratio, nearly ten times less than the World Health Organisation recommendation. To ensure that Nigerians get better access to these doctors and healthcare facilities, Duke plans to set up an emergency health sector plan if elected.

He also advocates a local approach to healthcare. “Anything essential must be local. We’re going to allocate more money, and get state governments to allocate more to healthcare too. It is not the prerogative of the federal government alone,” he says.

His health ambitions are grand: build and equip at least one primary healthcare centre in every ward of the country and ensure there are enough general hospitals in the country to deal with general ailments, accidents and emergencies. “My administration will ensure that every local government area has a general hospital with a trauma centre,” he states.

When I raise the issue of medical doctors fleeing Nigeria, he outlines his plans to improve the pay and work conditions of medical practitioners. He also intends to establish a regulatory body to ensure that health standards are maintained.

But healthcare is expensive, and Nigerians are poor. Duke’s healthcare goals seem a step beyond the medium-term capacity of the country. He seems to recognise this.  “The next thing is affordability of the healthcare. We need to have insurance,” he assures me. However, nationwide medical insurance is potentially very expensive, difficult to implement, and may struggle in a polarised country like Nigeria.

Nevertheless, Duke is unperturbed by this as he believes the government is not spending as much as it should. “22.7%. That’s America’s budget to GDP ratio. Your budget to GDP ratio should be between 20% and 25%. If our GDP is $500 billion* (Editor’s note: Nigeria’s GDP is $320 billion at an exchange rate of ₦360/$1) then our budget should be at least $100 billion. Guess what our budget is? $24 billion* (Editor’s note: Nigeria’s 2019 budget is $25 billion at an exchange rate of ₦360/$1).”

He goes further, saying, “Do you know that between 1979 and 1983 Nigeria used to budget on the average $25 billion? Our population then was 75 million. Today our population is 200 million, and we are budgeting $24 billion almost 40 years after.”

Although Duke is right in saying that the Nigerian government spends too little given the size of the economy, the government spends way too much for what it earns. Nigeria’s budget deficit was 3.3% in 2017, above the 3% national limit of fiscal sustainability, and government revenues were so low that the government borrowed more than it earned.

In all, the responsibility to fix Nigeria is a sizable one, but Donald Duke backs himself. The failure of the system up to this point does not discourage him. “It is not difficult if you have the will. If you can't design a system that works then step aside so someone else can do it.”

Considering the many ideas he has for when he becomes President, I ask him if he has a timeline to work through all of them if he is elected as Nigeria's president in a few weeks. He hopes to start as early as possible and wrap up his plans after his first tenure.

“Let me tell you something. In 10 years Nigeria’s standards should match global standards. It sounds like a fairy-tale, but it can happen,” he announces confidently.

It sounds too good to be true, but Duke assures me that with someone like him in power, Nigeria can become better in just a decade. “I know continuity in politics is a problem, and that is why I am going to be clear-headed from the moment I get into office.”