As a New Year begins, gloom pervades the Nigerian space. The populace is reeling from economic adversity, the greed of the thoroughly corrupt political class, prevalent insecurity and dismay over hiccups in the assault on corruption. Hopes of a better experience kindled by the offer of electoral change to the irredeemable past administration have, for many, crashed on the rocks of economic anguish, sectionalism and negative continuity. On President Muhammadu Buhari’s shoulders lies the blame as well as the responsibility for a positive reboot. This year presents him with a last chance to save his legacy and rebalance the country.
To be fair, not all the criticisms directed at Buhari for today’s parlous state of affairs are on target. Recession, low reserves and fiscal buffers, broken infrastructure and insecurity are the inevitable results of the incompetence, corruption and lack of vision of past governments. The immediate past administration, especially, vandalised the treasury, broke all records of corruption and crowned its infamy by bequeathing to us a fraudulent power assets privatisation and rampaging terrorism. To Buhari’s credit, he has restored the fighting spirit of the military and retaken territory captured by the Boko Haram terrorists. Similar refuelling of the anti-corruption machinery has checkmated the looting spree that flourished under Goodluck Jonathan, while vigorous efforts have been made to plug the leakages in public finances. The Treasury Single Account platform, over which previous administrations dithered, had enabled the government to bring in N2.26 trillion by December 2, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria. Despite the vigorous push-back from entrenched interests and a compromised judiciary, the war on graft has made progress such that recoveries of looted funds are planned to part-fund the 2017 budget to the tune of N565.1 billion. Though hampered by low funds, several dilapidated important highways and rail lines are being rehabilitated. But things would have been way better.
The downsides are palpable. Predictions by the National Bureau of Statistics and the International Monetary Fund that the economy will shrink by 1.3 per cent and 1.7 per cent respectively capture the gloom. Three successive quarters of recession gave way to stagflation by October, said the CBN, which also announced foreign reserves at a low $25.04 billion mid-December. Manufacturing has been contracting too, with a reported 1,500 factories witnessing partial or full shut-down between 2015 and April 2016. The crisis is more pronounced in the foreign exchange market where the naira exchanged at N498 to $1 on Thursday, N192.75 above the official CBN rate of N305.25.
The economy, security, corruption and inclusiveness are the four major (though not exclusive) areas Buhari should give priority as time is running out. These are increasingly urgent problems. First, we re-present our recommendation that he should cast his net wide and bring in knowledgeable stakeholders to tackle the economy. It is an emergency. We need to knock strict order into the forex market and eliminate the current bedlam of multiple exchange rates that has denied genuine businesses of timely, affordable forex and created a vibrant rent-taking cabal. For businesses to stay afloat, they must have access to forex for raw materials and machinery.
All policies should have the single-minded triple objectives of creating jobs, transforming into an export-driven economy and achieving self-sufficiency in food and basic medicines. There can be no success without urgently restarting the privatisation programme and liberalising the operating environment. These are critical to attracting the massive infusion of Foreign Direct Investment of a minimum $20 billion per year for a decade recommended by the United Nations Development Programme.
Spending and well-structured borrowing should go to the SMEs, construction, mining, agriculture and start-ups. The N15 billion earmarked in the budget for development banks is too meagre and should be raised and well-managed. A stimulus plan, accompanied by tax reforms to capture more eligible payers, ending the waste and reforming the bureaucracy, is also crucial.
Nigeria is becoming too insecure. Military success against Boko Haram should be followed up by effective intelligence and police operations. Buhari should shake up the police and other security agencies to crush kidnapping, armed robbery and sectarian violence. The vigour deployed against Boko Haram should be replicated against the criminals posing as agitators in the Niger Delta region and against the marauding Fulani herdsmen, whose murderous rampage across the country has propelled them to the No.4 spot on the Global Terrorism Index of world’s most deadly terrorist groups.
We do not doubt Buhari’s sincerity in rooting out corruption. But it needs a robust strategy and the right personnel. He should quickly clear the uncertainty over the EFCC acting head, recharge the comatose Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission and appoint a fierce, incorruptible anti-corruption crusader whom he would vest with the full presidential backing to coordinate the war. He needs to purge his inner circle first and end the in-fighting and intrigues in the Presidency that are impacting negatively on the war on graft. Not all his trusted aides share his hatred for corruption.
Above all, this year, Buhari must live up to his inauguration day promise of being for everybody; a father and the president of all Nigerians. His pledge sounds very hollow today in the light of his perceived unabashed sectionalism and seeming disdain for some sections of the polity. He needs to do more to reassure Southerners and Northern minorities that he indeed belongs to all Nigerians, irrespective of ethnic nationality, region, religion or political persuasion. He should run an all-inclusive government.
Nigeria, a complex amalgam of ethnicities, faith and cultures, is his constituency. To win the multiple wars to recover the economy, root out corruption, enthrone security and make Nigeria great, Buhari should reinvent himself as a father-figure, recruit all stakeholders and drop outdated ideas and insularity, while he and his ministers imbibe a sense of urgency. This should be his task in 2017 as 2019, election year, is just round the corner.