* Nigeria emerged from recession in 2017
* Growth remains sluggish
* Presidential election to be held on Feb. 16
* President touts infrastructure as path to growth
* Opposition candidate wants expanded private sector role
By Alexis Akwagyiram
LAGOS, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Timi Soleye returned home to Nigeria from the United States to set up a gas logistics business six years ago, encouraged by predictions of growth and an expanding middle class.
Three years later, Nigeria plunged into its first recession in a generation following a sharp fall in the price of oil, which accounts for 90 percent of its foreign exchange earnings.
Infrastructure projects on which Soleye’s business relied were shelved. He kept afloat by doing consultancy work, but others weren’t so lucky.
“I know lots of people whose companies shut and laid people off,” said Soleye, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate and president of CRYO Gas and Power.
Soleye didn’t bother to vote in 2015. But this year, he says he has a reason to do so: he doesn’t want President Muhammadu Buhari to win a second term on Feb. 16. “Enough is enough,” he said.
Buhari’s critics accuse him of failing on a number of issues, including promises to tackle corruption and defeat an Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands since he took the helm of Africa’s most populous nation. But his handling of the economy could cost Buhari more votes than any other issue.
Although Nigeria returned to growth in 2017, the economy expanded by 1.9 percent in 2018, compared with 5.5 percent when Soleye returned to Nigeria in 2013.
Inflation has been in double digits for the last three years, rising to a seven-month high of 11.4 percent in December. And nearly a quarter of the workforce - 23.1 percent - is unemployed, up from 18.1 percent a year earlier.
“People are still worse off after four years in power,” said Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital.
“It’s not all Buhari’s fault. It’s mainly to do with oil. But nonetheless, it’s made it difficult for people to be positive about the economy.”
For Clement Nweke, who sells electrical appliances in a Lagos street market, the last few years have been hard. Inflation and a weaker currency mean 100,000 naira ($330) will only buy one of his air conditioning units, compared with three back in 2015.
“The purchasing power from the public is lower,” he said. “It affects my own business because I don’t push out the many (units) I used to.”
Buhari’s main rival, businessman and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, has zeroed in on the issue.
“Get Nigeria working again,” is his campaign slogan.
He has vowed to double the size of the economy to $900 billion by 2025, mainly by giving a larger role to the private sector.
Buhari argues that the way to bigger growth is through infrastructure development, touting railway and road construction.
But many business leaders doubt he can fix the economy, saying their companies have been hurt by government efforts to help the poor.
“In their quest for what they call affordability, they have essentially price regulated a huge bevy of things, and they do not see that, ironically, it makes things more expensive,” said Soleye.
He said a decision to fix energy tariffs for three years meant that while customers were getting cheap electricity, crippling debts were piling up in Nigeria’s power sector.
Those debts have held up construction of new plants for which Soleye’s company would have provided gas storage and pipelines.
Another often-cited example is the government’s decision to ban rice imports through its land borders in 2015. Instead, the government subsidised tractors, mills and fertiliser and arranged cheaper loans to boost domestic rice production.
But farmers struggled to meet demand, hampered by poor roads to bring their harvest to market and inadequate power for storage facilities. Prices soared.
The only people who did well were smugglers, said Rotimi Williams, who owns a rice farm in the central state of Nasarawa.
“The cost of production of local rice has increased, which means that people are going for cheaper imported rice,” he said.
He blames protectionist policies for Nigeria’s galloping inflation.
The government says it is trying to wean the economy off its reliance on oil sales by encouraging domestic production of everything from wheat to cars.
Some local businesses have profited. Etop Ikpe, CEO of Cars45, an online marketplace for used vehicles, said a decision to increase a tariff on imported vehicles from 20 to 70 percent in 2015 “provided an opportunity”.
“People couldn’t afford brand new cars or imported used cars,” he said.
But as with rice, the Nigerian ports authority reported a surge in car smuggling from neighbouring Benin, and local assembly did not pick up.
Buhari’s supporters point out that Nigeria rose 24 places to 145 in the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking in 2017, largely due to government efforts to cut red tape, including issuing visas on arrival and establishing a centralized electronic system to pay federal taxes.
“One good term deserves another,” says an electronic billboard for Buhari in the Lagos business district of Victoria Island.
How voters respond may depend on whether they believe they will be better off with Atiku, who as vice president from 1999 to 2007 oversaw the liberalisation of Nigeria’s telecommunications industry.
Foreign investors have welcomed his pledges to float the naira, overhaul the central bank, privatise the state oil company and create a $25 billion fund to support private sector infrastructure investment.
The central bank, with Buhari’s backing, imposed currency restrictions in 2015 to defend the naira, rejecting bankers’ advice to float the currency as some other oil exporters had done. The following year, the naira lost a third of its value, and many investors fled.
Capital imports into Nigeria, which stood at $21.32 billion in 2013, fell to $5.12 billion in 2016, before rising to $12.2 billion as the country emerged from recession in 2017.
“If we want to see the unemployment rates coming down and certain initiatives that will boost growth, primarily it will be private sector driven,” said Boye Olawoye, group managing director of investment bank Primera Africa. (Additional reporting by Didi Akinyelure, Chijioke Ohuocha, Seun Sanni and Nneka Chile Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Giles Elgood)