The Buhari Appeal

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GUEST COLUMNIST PAGE BY MAGNUS ONYIBE

As the old saying goes, a prophet is not recognised at his home but often times revered outside. As President Muhammadu Buhari is increasingly being assailed in the social media he is now being courted abroad. This week, he is billed to be in the United Kingdom for a conference on anti-corruption, a subject about which our president is very passionate.

This is ironic because, President Buhari was venerated in the social media during the campaign for the election in which he was overwhelmingly elected president, barely one year ago.

General Buhari, as he was known a year ago, was a cult figure amongst the talakawas or the masses in his homestead, which is the core northern part of Nigeria, but arising from his draconian rule as military head of state – December 1983-1986-Nigerians across tribal divides, started loving and disliking him in equal proportions. Hence he ran for the presidency thrice, 2003, 2007 and 2011, unsuccessfully.

But following a political re-alignment that made him the candidate of a broad coalition of political parties, his candidacy was so popular that he had the appeal of 10 A-list Nollywood stars together, and could pull crowds to his campaign rallies that only evangelical preachers like, Reverend Bonkhe could attract to a religious crusade. The reason for his magnetic appeal is because he was a symbol of integrity and epitome of probity contesting on a nationally spread political platform.

Buhari brooked no nonsense and he never compromised his rigid principles. At a time when mind boggling embezzlement of public funds by politicians in the executive arm of government and stealing of trillions of naira from civil servants pension funds by civil servants became pervasive, Nigerian voters were looking for a messiah. Moreso as Boko Haram terrorists were decimating lives in the North-eastern parts and rampaging through huge swathes of land and claiming Nigerian territories by hoisting their flags.

Nigerians actually totally embraced Buhari as evident in the nearly 15 million votes cast in his favour nationwide, which was about 2.5 million more than the close to 13 million votes cast in favour of former President Goodluck Jonathan. So, truly, it was the votes of the masses that swept Buhari into office as president and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of Nigeria on March 28th 2015. This perhaps is the reason the sense of expectations of Nigerians from Buhari’s presidency were as huge as the wave of sentiments that swept him into office.

It took awfully a long time — five months — to name a cabinet, Nigerians grew more impatient, and that took a toll on Buhari’s image too. Along with the long delay in setting up government, came anxiety of voters, in addition to fellow politicians, who started feeling frustrated, that the reward of appointment of other political stakeholders, into political offices, like boards of parastatals etc., had become elusive. Another critical Buhari appeal repellent is the fact that the Chibok girls abducted in April by Boko Haram terrorists about two years ago have remained in captivity.

Although, the dastardly activities of the terrorist, Boko Haram group have been greatly curtailed and most of the territories earlier captured are being recovered by gallant Nigerian soldiers bolstered by sophisticated equipment, the danger faced by the victims and misery of the families left behind, still leave bad taste in the mouth. That too has rubbed off badly on Buhari’s stellar image, because getting rid of Boko Haram and bringing the estimated 218 kidnapped Chibok school girls home were campaign promises, which voters took very seriously and they have remained unfulfilled. None realisation of the expectations of Chibok girls being brought home has also been toxic to Buhari’s appeal.

To crown all the missteps or perceived sins of Buhari, listed above, 2016 national budget, which is a routine record of planned income and expenditure for a designated period was bogged down in parliament, for months before it was signed into law. Worst still, the document was also dogged by accusations and counter accusations of “padding” by the executive and the legislative arms of government. Again, though he has apologised for the budget mess, President Buhari is being held accountable for the poor handling of the budget fiasco, thus demystifying his superhuman toga-body language, new sheriff in town-conferred on him at inception of his regime.

Even if the global economic meltdown stemming from the sudden crash in crude oil price, which is Nigeria’s main forex earner, was not the fault of President Buhari, he has been made the ‘fall-guy’, as the grim and biting reality of poverty have turned some former Buhari devotees into critics. With all of the above listed lofty public expectations not being met by Buhari, Nigerians felt betrayed and the bubble burst as the president’s high approval rating plummeted and a man who is legendarily invincible, became hollow in some quarters. The angst in the polity is so palpable that some would argue that if Buhari should contest for an election in Kano, home to his most ardent supporters, he would likely suffer a loss. So in just one year, President Buhari’s image has swung 360 per cent from very well loved to being resented.

In the light of the foregoing scenario, it is unsurprising that his unprecedented foreign trips is attracting bile and ire of Nigerians, so much so that all sorts of caricatures have been made of the president in the social media and even cartoons, in mainstream newspapers. Consequently, President Buhari’s media handlers are having quite an arduous task trying to restore his pre-election image without much luck. Cabinet member and super minister —controlling three powerful portfolios — power, works and housing, Babatunde Fashola, had weighed in with his characteristic intellectual fervour. Not many Nigerians were impressed by Fashola’s salesmanship as he tried to rationalise the president’s numerous travels, simply because all other sore points were already stacked up against President Buhari. So his numerous foreign travels to foreign lands are the most easily identifiable soft targets to anchor public resentment.

Contrary to the current situation of being loathed back home, Buhari’s supporters argue that his frequent international travels is a reflection of the magnetism to his personality by his fellow heads of government who are enamoured by his characteristic abhorrence of corruption and have been extending invitations to him, left right and centre to visit or participate in their pet projects etc. The last trip was to China on a state visit from which he returned with a harvest of loans and business deals — naira/yuan swap — that could ameliorate the pressure on the meagre forex in Nigeria’s foreign reserve when implemented.

Corruption can’t be wiped out overnight, so it’s a scientific and systemic approach, rather than a bulldozing attitude that would work better to cure Nigeria of the disease. What’s the point chasing a bull into a China shop where all the delicate wares could be broken in the process of catching the bull?

The president must also try to reset his warm relationship with his home base, by reaching out to the poor masses in more profound ways than he is currently doing. As he pointed out during his budget signing ritual, living in Aso Rock has not changed him, so he still feels the pains of the masses, which is why he has to set about proving his continuous connection to the grassroots. To find his way back to the hearts and minds of his local base and regain his momentum, Buhari has to quickly start implementing his social security programmes, which should not include sustenance of the naira guzzling fuel subsidy.

Yes, N5,000 stipend would go to the poor monthly and 500,000 graduates would get jobs as teachers, as provided in the recently signed 2016 appropriation bill, but how far would that go towards assuaging the disappointment and anger of the people. The alternative strategy is for the president to find ways of boosting employment by keeping the industries running. It’s only an employed person that can afford a roof over his/her head and “three” square meals.

The N2 billion set aside for capital projects in budget 2016 would also create employment for a good number of Nigerians, but then again, it may not be enough as importation of capital intensive equipment and machinery to drive production, may not be easy to source, given the current tight forex regime, except Nigerians are ready to make do with the inexpensive and moderate quality Chinese made equipment via the yuan/naira swap, which if you ask me, is better than nothing. The seemingly inevitable capital restriction policy aimed at stemming further depletion of the forex, which is not growing, given the crash in oil price is hurting production and by extension, causing the loss of jobs.

As the trio of the president, CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele and Minister of State for Petroleum Ibe Kachiku have admitted, about 60 per cent of forex outflow is applied in importation of fuel products. This implies that if finished petroleum products importation is reduced, there will be less pressure on the nation’s forex reserve and enough to spend in other sectors, like importation of equipment and machinery to drive industrial/manufacturing production and construction work. Happily, some of the four oil refineries are already coming back into production, so imports are being augmented, but they have been suffering setbacks, arising from vandalism of pipelines that convey crude oil to the refineries.

A quick and simple solution would be to set up asset protection corp, like the civil defence corps, youths service corps and road safety corps to protect critical assets like oil installations and telecoms as well as electricity installations currently being vandalised nationwide. Apart from safeguarding critical assets in the process, by setting up the proposed agency, more jobs would be created for the teeming unemployed youth population. A quaint but implementable proposition, because there is currently a huge pool of unemployed youths that could absorb into that workforce. All they need is a crash programme on the nitty gritty.

More on that in a future article.
Also, the Chinese are renown for very quick establishing modular refineries like the one in Niger and Chad Republics, so how about getting them to apply part of the $6 billion loan extended to Nigeria, in building some, just the way they are constructing airport terminals in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port-Harcourt? Also, if government did not continue the policy of destroying indigenous refineries, instead of supporting the enterprise by improving on the technological knowhow of the operators and allocating products to them, they could have been augmenting the epileptic supply from the major refineries. There is no reason why high end and low end, large scale and small scale refining, can’t exist side by side as they all have ideal roles to play in the economy.

It beats imagination that government authorities accepted the international oil companies’ advice to destroy indigenous marginal refineries, just as they recommended the capping of marginal oil fields, until recently that they sold the capped rigs to indigenous investors. Furthermore, why can’t Nigeria take her oil swap deal further by engaging in trade by barter with countries that are keen on her oil in exchange for goods and services that are needed in Nigeria? Actually, there are countries, like Nigeria that would not like to spend cash, but have goods and services to swap.

Most of the concepts outlined above are actually low hanging fruits, which can be plucked within reasonably short period. Once Buhari is able to create jobs through a combination of the initiatives highlighted above and thus reduce poverty, then restore hope to the increasingly hopeless people, who constitute the critical mass of his fan base, trust would return and the president would be a man of the people again.

*Onyibe, a development strategist, is a former commissioner in Delta State.