Attempting last week to assuage widespread discontent, President Muhammadu Buhari managed instead to deepen public anxiety. By declaring that Nigerians were “accepting” that he was putting in his best, he signposted a bleak future for the world’s most populous black nation. Across the country, however, the verdict is increasingly being made clear to the President: your best is simply not good enough. This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.
The presidential boast was revealed when Buhari received the Gambian president, Adama Barrow, in Abuja. His Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Shehu Garba, quoted him as saying that Nigerians were admitting that this administration was doing its best. “It is noteworthy that, no matter how grudgingly, the people are accepting that we are doing our best.” That is a patently dishonest deduction. In the face of mass unemployment, insecurity, seething discontent among a large segment of the population, sharp divisions along ethnic, religious and regional lines as well as an economy hobbled by policy inertia, energy shortages and statism, this is scary.
Ensconced among his aides, flatterers and influence seekers, Buhari may view the landscape with rose-tinted glasses; the stark reality for most Nigerians, however, is grim. The Buhari government’s job creation policy has been such a notable failure. Combined unemployment for the youth – the jobless and underemployed – in the third quarter of 2017 was 52.65 per cent, representing 22.64 million persons, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria said 272 firms, 50 of them manufacturers, closed down between 2015 and August 2016 due to adverse operating conditions and lack of a coherent economic direction by the administration. Inflation, says the NBS, was 15.37 per cent in December 2017 though analysts say the figure is higher.
The society has become crime-infested; kidnapping has become the country’s fastest growing and most profitable business; banditry has grown also and armed gangs hold sway in parts of many cities across the country. Militancy has resurfaced in the Niger Delta region, threatening the flow of oil and gas production, exports of which fund over 70 per cent of the national budget. Apart from communal clashes, the degrading of the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency has given way to Fulani-herdsmen terrorism, whose handling has exposed Buhari’s glaring leadership deficit. The perpetration of raw evil by Boko Haram in the North-East has dramatically been replaced by monstrous horror of the Fulani herdsmen across the land.
To be fair, Buhari inherited a mess: the departing Goodluck Jonathan government left behind an economy in tatters, with all buffers depleted, infrastructure dilapidated, mounting foreign and domestic debts, institutions and governance processes devalued. It was a thriving lootocracy; for a country notorious around the world for sleaze, the Jonathan administration set new records, which The Economist (magazine) of London described as “industrial scale corruption.’’ As Buhari rightly observed, despite unprecedented revenue in the 16 years to 2015, the preceding administration “vandalised the economy.” He deserves credit for implementing the Treasury Single Account policy, which previous governments dithered over, that improved revenue collection and brought over N7 trillion into the treasury by March 2017, according to the Accountant-General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris. It is also true that the Jonathan government left large swathes of territory in the hands of Boko Haram even while voting an average N1 trillion annually for security and his men heartily emptied the treasury on the pretext of fighting the insurgency.
But elected on the platform of change or what a former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, called ‘‘Any option But Jonathan’’ platform, Buhari, two years and eight months in office, has eroded his brand; ineptitude, ignorance, clannishness, nepotism, distraction, aloofness and confusion have tarnished even his reputation for integrity. What he calls his best is, in many ways, offensive to many.
This government seems to be alarmingly slow. Buhari set himself up for failure from the outset, ring-fencing his presidency with appointees, mostly from his part of the country, relatives and acolytes. Without regard for the ethnic and sectarian diversity of the country, he loaded the security apparatus preponderantly with northerners and filled vacancies in departments and agencies with northerners. Of some top 20 security positions, at least 17 are held by Northerners. Never in the history of this country has a leader demonstrated such clannishness and insensitivity. A sharp cleavage is tearing the country apart.
Though he assembled a cabinet team with some technocrats, the immediate economic challenges are getting short shrift. Lacking economic acumen, he has stalled the privatisation of rail, steel and oil and gas downstream assets and failed to unlock the economy for foreign direct investment and job creation. Instead, public debt rose by N7.1 trillion in his first two years per Debt Management Office data and still rising, as government resorts to borrowing for infrastructure funding and recurrent spending rather than liberalising the environment for FDI and private sector-led growth. The Buhari government has no signature initiative−TSA, anti-graft agencies, Anchor Borrowers’ Scheme are inherited. Deficient electricity supply is still a drag on the economy.
Refraining from plunder is not the only test of integrity: fairness and equity, fulfilment of promises and zero tolerance for errant aides and associates also matter. Buhari fails the integrity test by his benevolent treatment of Fulani terrorists, who are on the rampage nationwide; his continued retention of appointees who smuggled in a wanted pension thief, and who at various times, have hobbled the anti-corruption war. This indicates that things have changed in worrying ways. Buhari’s record of failed electoral promises such as one to break up the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, whose indiscretions have saddled us with yet another round of petrol scarcity, beggars belief.
There are other concerns as well. As President, he is the chief host when Nigerians record accomplishments and the chief mourner when they are in distress. The Fulani herdsmen killings have brought impunity to a spectacular climax. But Buhari did not visit when 73 persons were slaughtered in Benue State, over 100 in Numan, Adamawa State and 19 persons butchered in Rivers State on New Year’s Day. Everywhere else, leaders share in the triumphs and griefs of their people. Buhari only donned military fatigues to inaugurate an army battalion to combat cattle rustlers in Zamfara State, as if cattle are more precious than human lives.
Buhari has stretched the famed patience of Nigerians. His laid-back approach to governance is dragging the country back. But there are several steps Buhari can take to rescue his tottering government. Government’s first priority must be the protection of its people. He needs to take a fresh look at his security chiefs and demand performance based on professionalism from them. Inept ones should be replaced immediately.
He has to rebuild trust in Nigerians whom he has alienated with blatant ethnic chauvinism that renders his inauguration day “I belong to everybody and belong to nobody” pledge hollow. A divisive leader who favours his Fulani-Hausa roots over others cannot be trusted. He should be decisive in dealing with the Fulani herders’ horrific violence that has become an existential threat to our collective security.
He should restructure his team, instil balance in the administration, inject new ideas into his government and flush out the incompetent and tainted aides to make way for performers from all over the country. He should implement economic reforms to boost productivity and competition.
Nigeria needs a competitive federalism, not a “feeding bottle” one. For Buhari to leave a lasting imprint, he should pull Nigeria back from the brink of self-destruction and put it on the path of modernisation.
As a matter of urgency, he should initiate the restructuring of the country into a politically stable, socially just and economically viable federation. We cannot just continue like this.