Buhari’s Unsexy Task


Nigerian presidents are notorious for self-aggrandizement.

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo termed himself founder of modern Nigeria. And yet he presided over one of the most imperial eras in his country’s history, making political art out of disdaining the judiciary and legislature, hounding the opposition, empowering anachronistic behavior by the likes of Lamidi Adedibu and Chris Uba, turning elections into “do-or-die” events, and—among other scandals—blowing at least $10 billion of Nigeria’s scarce resources on so-called electric power projects that occasioned little or no improvement. So much for being a modernizing influence, much less the founder of modern Nigeria!

buhariHis successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, styled himself a servant-leader. Yet, he insisted on keeping a mandate that he admitted was obtained in an election fraught with fraud; he would not tell Nigerians that he was gravely sick, much less agree to hand over power even as he spent months in foreign hospitals. He neither acted like a servant nor a leader.

The next in line, Goodluck Jonathan, seized the appealing title of transformational leader. As Nigerians are now realizing, he was something of an absentee leader (an oxymoron). At a time when Boko Haram insurgents were pounding the northeast of Nigeria and routing the Nigerian military, President Jonathan apparently acquiesced in the callous transformation of the defense budget into a windfall for his political cohorts.

President Muhammadu Buhari rode into office with Change as his virtual middle name. He’s supposed to be the president to change the political culture in Nigeria, to set his country on the path to greatness.

Let’s grant him his due. He is Nigeria’s first president since Shehu Shagari who has left no impression of setting the illicit accumulation of wealth as a top priority. When he warns his ministers and other lieutenants against fiddling with public funds, it is possible to take him at his word. After President Yar’Adua’s wife, Turai, and President Jonathan’s, Patience, left us two examples of execrable First Ladyship, Mr. Buhari’s wife, Aisha, has maintained a modest profile that is altogether welcome. We have not heard of Aisha Buhari ordering any governors about, or courting a courtier of politicians who would address her as “Mummy” or “Mother of the Nation.”

Yet, for all that, President Buhari has done nothing in eight months to inspire hope that he is Change. Is he capable of doing so? I hope so; but he hasn’t done it. Certainly, he has a unique opportunity to rise to the challenge.

Past Nigerian presidents could get away with acts of self-worship, instead of earning their accolade through sound statecraft. Mr. Buhari’s predecessors always had enough cushion of funds to squander and use in buying affection. They could always count on receiving hefty cheques from oil companies—enough cash, at least, to serve the grasping impulse of the politically elevated and their hirelings.

Mr. Buhari has assumed the Presidency at a time when the famed petrodollar is thin, and may soon dry up altogether. As I write, the price of crude oil per barrel continues to tumble, threatening to go under $30. The United States, once a major importer of Nigerian crude, has dramatically increased its domestic production. China has many attractive suppliers to choose from. We may be approaching a time when erstwhile big importers of Nigeria’s crude could say to us, drink the stuff if you wish! The dropping crude oil prices have already wreaked havoc on the revenue projections that informed Mr. Buhari’s first budget.

The implication is clear. Whilst President Buhari’s predecessors were able to pay lip service to the goal of diversifying Nigeria’s economy, he does not have that luxury. He cannot “oil” his way to funds to fuel Nigeria’s developmental projects. Nor would it be prudent to just turn to borrowing.

If the naira continues its steady slide against the dollar, the consequences are bound to be dire for Nigerians. As Nigerian firms budget ever more naira to purchase machinery and other goods from Europe, Asia and North America, many of them are likely to go under. In order to survive, others are likely to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers. Imagine the impact of this prospect in a country whose unemployment rates are already terribly high.

What time is it for President Buhari? It’s time for visionary and imaginative leadership. It requires hiring the best hands out there to help him think/lead Nigeria out of this perfect storm. Does he have what it takes? It remains to be seen.

Nigeria’s economic crisis is not coming; we are very much in the midst of it. It’s disturbing, then, that the president has not deemed it necessary to outline his plan to, A, ameliorate the situation, and, B, begin to set the economy on a different, post-oil course.

Nigeria’s economic crisis highlights the limitations of the current administration’s anti-corruption policy. There’s nothing new in Mr. Buhari’s war against corruption. He’s using the same tools as former Presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan. A lot of cases filed by the EFCC during Obasanjo’s administration are still in process, stalled in a judicial system that is programmed to shield privileged thieves. Already, the Supreme Court has put the case against Senate President Bukola Saraki in a state of abeyance. There’s no sign that the case against former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, will not drag on for years. One expects that the government will indict many more ex-officials. As I suggested last week, there won’t be enough investigators, prosecutors, and judges to handle the size of the potential new indictments.

Meanwhile, as the economy becomes more beleaguered, Nigerians are bound to lose interest in the soap opera of EFCC prosecutions.

Mr. Buhari’s challenge is to outline his policies for getting the economy out of its current (and bound to worsen) quagmire, fixing the broken educational system, establishing a semblance of a healthcare system, improving infrastructure, and reforming law enforcement, the judiciary and other institutions. It’s not a sexy task, and certainly won’t inspire the kind of frenzied applause that comes from arresting a Dasuki or two. But that’s the deeper challenge that would establish whether Mr. Buhari understands what it means to epitomize Change.

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Written by
Okey Ndibe
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