Gifted with a fresh four-year mandate, Muhammadu Buhari has a unique opportunity to reverse the comprehensive failure of his first term by a vigorous performance. The country is beset with multi-faceted problems: insecurity, a terrible economy, corruption, dilapidated infrastructure and a deeply divided polity. Success will begin and be defined by the quality of the cabinet and other key, non-cabinet, appointees he assembles as well as by the policy direction and leadership he provides. Nigerians will not wait, as he made them do in his first term, for six months to have ministers.
The just-disbanded team was an unmitigated failure: true, there were a number of proven technocrats with impressive past records, but Buhari’s lack-lustre aura, his insouciant approach, sectionalism and poor leadership ensured that there was no sterling performance to speak of and the cabinet was dissolved with no major achievement or headline project completed, leaving Nigerians the poorer for it.
Yet, the country is in dire straits on every front. Insecurity has assumed a monstrous dimension; bandits, employing the methodology of terror, have rendered large swathes of the North-West and North-Central regions unsafe, killing, robbing, raping and kidnapping en masse for ransom. In the North-East, Boko Haram and affiliates of global terror franchises, have regained their momentum, raiding villages to kill, kidnap women and children and overrunning military bases to capture equipment, weapons and ammunition. Kidnapping is Nigeria’s fastest growing industry, assuming industrial scale proportions in the North and providing millions of naira in ransom for gangs and freelancers in the South. The Nigeria Security Tracker of the think-tank, United States-based Council of Foreign Relations, tallied 262 civilian deaths in the first three months of this year, a figure that has since risen astronomically as the bandits become more emboldened. Boko Haram killed at least 1,200 persons in 2018 and displaced 200,000 others as reported in the Human Rights Watch World Report 2019. The kidnapping of 120 persons on the Birnin Gwari-Kaduna Road within a space of a mere five days in May last year as recorded by the National Union of Road Transport Workers shows how dire; apart from the 1,071 persons killed and 685 kidnapped in the first quarter of this year announced by the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu.
The economy is on the precipice: foreign direct investment shrank by 43 per cent in 2018, total debt stock stood at $79.43 billion by December 2018, of which $25.27 billion was external borrowing and rising as the government struggles to meet recurrent obligations. The African Development Bank warned that with debt servicing taking over 50 per cent of revenues, the economy is on slippery ground. Infrastructure has suffered neglect and underfunding. Buhari and his cabinet failed to rehabilitate the Apapa access roads in Lagos, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the East-West Road and other major highways, just as ports, airports, hospitals and schools are dilapidated. Taming corruption, his headline campaign leitmotif, has suffered reverses as the Buhari administration lacked a winning strategy, a coordinator or law officers with the passion to eradicate sleaze.
Thankfully, he has again set lofty goals for himself, among them eradicating insecurity, improving the economy, diversifying exports and revenue sources, and taking millions of Nigerians out of poverty. For Buhari to snatch such success from the jaws of failure going forward, he should, first, avoid the mistakes that guaranteed his mediocre first four years.
More than any other person, Buhari needs to reform himself. He urgently needs to change his closed mindset. The way he has run Nigeria these past four years cannot deliver prosperity, only retrogression. Not even the best cabinet can make an impact with a distracted and divisive president. He should adopt a hands-on approach, set targets for his appointees and promptly remove non-performers.
He should start with the security chiefs; with security broken, he should search for, and appoint a defence minister, and security heads that can deliver. You cannot tame insecurity by being sectional and excluding talents outside of your narrow ethnic and sectarian circle as Buhari has done these past four years.
Next, rescuing the economy requires a formidable economic team and intelligent coordination. He needs men and women who can think outside the box and are committed to a private sector-led economy, liberalisation and the exit of government from commercial ventures, reform of the oil and railway sectors and aggressive reform of taxation.
He should also look beyond his party in the overall interest of the country: in his first term in office, US president Barack Obama, a Democrat, tapped three Republicans to head the defence, transportation and commerce departments (ministries). To rescue Ghana’s economy, a former president, Jerry Rawlings, brought in technocrats from outside his PNDC party. Singapore’s legendary reformist leader, Lee Yuan Kew, scouted for knowledgeable Singaporeans from around the world to join his team to propel the city state into the global top 10 in GDP per capita.
You don’t change a winning team, says the popular adage; but it is imperative to change a losing one. Buhari’s anti-corruption war has floundered despite the enthusiasm of the heads of the two major anti-graft agencies; he should look for an attorney-general who has unmistakable distaste for, and is passionate about fighting corruption.
Nigeria needs to reform the oil sector: had Buhari backed his Minister of State Ibe Kachikwu’s plans to restructure the industry and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, we would not remain trapped in import-dependence for refined petroleum products, nor remain saddled with loss-making refineries. Had he adequately funded infrastructure, perhaps his Power, Works and Housing Minister, Babatunde Fashola, would have done better. Ministers should have full presidential backing and funding to drive reforms and boost infrastructure.
Finally, the President should not hand over his administration to a few individuals as his wife, Aisha, has repeatedly alleged; he should shun parochialism and drop his aloofness and patronising attitude. He is not doing Nigerians a favour; he asked for their mandate and he should serve with passion, humility and a renewed sense of purpose by choosing a winning team to assist him take Nigeria to a starting block.