The Brevity of Applause


Chidi amuta
Educated at Universities in Nigeria and the United States, Amuta who holds a First Class Honours and a Ph.D. is Chairman of Wilson and Welzmann Associates Ltd, a media and public affairs consulting firm.

The ambiguities of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency are now on full display. While most Nigerians are confident that Buhari is a President that is not likely to shame the country, his popularity rating among ordinary street people is currently quite low. The masses now look at the tattered remnants of Buhari’s campaign posters and shrug in utter unbelief and understandable trepidation about the future. So much was promised and so much hope pervaded the air.

However, twelve months later, the most popular question among the masses touches on the slogan of change that governs Buhari’s second coming. Most lives have become harder, almost tattered. Hope has become dangerously scanty while all great expectations have been drastically pruned. And yet, President Buhari would insist that it is to the welfare of the broad masses that he remains irrevocably committed, not the comfort of the elite. He wants to show street people appreciation for trooping out to vote for him. Ironically, the policies he has pursued so far have almost all produced the opposite effect: they look more like deliberate inflictions of pain and hardship on the very people that President Buhari says he loves so dearly.

Among the elite, however, the President would probably get an above average job approval rating.The elite can understand that oil prices have tanked and the Nigerian government is statistically broke. It is only the elite that can afford the luxury of close political analysis and complex rationalization. Among them, there is a higher consensus that the President is probably doing his best but is overwhelmed by the enormity of both inherited and self-inflicted problems.

A man whose return to power was greeted by mass hysteria and palpable mob excitement a year ago has become the object of growing mass cynicism and galloping pessimism. In barely one year in office, the excited shouts of ‘Sai Buhari’ have almost been totally drownedby excruciating groans of ‘Buhari, One Chance!’ Just a year ago, “Sai Buhari’ was the anthem of a national consensus that returned the former military leader to the state house. It was a charge to overhaul Nigeria. ‘Buhari, One Chance’ on the other hand is a depressing repudiation of this choice. It is in fact the anguished cry of a people experiencing that sinking feeling of collective betrayal and loss of direction.

Hashimu Suleiman, the young man who undertook an epic trek from Lagos to Abuja to symbolically herald the second coming of Buhari has now openly regretted his much-celebrated risky venture. If the president were to drive through the same campaign venues and city streets where excited crowds reached out to touch his magic garment in expectation of a better life a year ago, the stone throwers may now outnumber the praise singers. One year of intensified hunger, more unemployment, higher gasoline prices, creeping insecurity and crippling power outages has done Buhari’s fledgling administration severe damage. What went wrong?

The burden of Buhari’s mission of national restoration has been compounded by a crisis of expectation among the people. Unarguably, the president was fired by noble intentions. But there would seem to be a mismatch between the President’s overload of good intentions and his government’s now trade mark executive inertia. Incidentally, only the right level of executive capacity can translate the best intentions into perceivable and tangible public good. Admittedly, no government anywhere in the world can fulfill its electoral promises in just one year in office but good governments need only a few months to articulate a clear acceptable and sensible policy direction.

Burdened by a tradition of betrayals by successive governments and armed with knowledge of our massive potentials, Nigerians have developed a troubling and permanent sense of entitlement. From those we elect into public office, we expect almost instant reward of the fruits of good governance. This entitlement syndrome produces hasty judgment and breeds the quick spread of cynicism when public policy hits a bump.Even then, Nigerians recognize purposive direction and are good followers of good governments.

President Buhari identified three core priority areas on inauguration: anti-corruption, security and the economy. The progress in containing the scourge of Boko Haram is increasingly evident. The leadership of the movement is in disarray. Mr. Abubakar Shekau wherever he may be is not likely to make more silly videos to taunt President Buhari. The occasional suicide bomb may go off now and again until the fleeing terrorists run out of young innocent girls to blow up. These are the death throes of a misguided terrorist insurgency. However, the decline of Boko Haram as a national security threat is being replaced elsewhere by more limited but equally dangerous irritations: resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta, a Biafra Spring, terrorist herdsmen, transactional kidnapping etc. In order to fulfill his promise of a peaceful and orderly Nigeria, Mr. Buhari will need to strengthen the nation’s wobbly security apparatus to cope with these other growing irritations.

Easily Buhari’s signature undertaking is his anti-corruption project. He has come down heavily on the Nigeria’s shameful culture of humongous corruption, especially in the Jonathan era. The sums involved are frightening just as the geo-political spread of the accused is global. However, the trials continue to drag just as the judiciary itself is increasingly mired in acts of corruption. Unfortunately, the president failed to carry out a thorough shakeup of the nation’s judiciary as a prelude to the launch of the anti-corruption project. One year after, the EFCC has hardly obtained more than two credible convictions. At this rate, many doubt that much will be achieved in four years.

Beyond judicial somersaults and investigative tardiness, many have pointed out that the politicians being arrested and investigated are mostly those from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of former President Goodluck Jonathan. Glaringly, some politicians of the ruling party who held key public offices in previous parties before the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC) still carry the odium of corruption but are being protected by the Buhari anti-corruption machinery.
A combination of budget delays and unclear role profiles has given the Buhari cabinet a less than impressive outlook. Given the long wait to appoint this cabinet, public expectations heightened for an unusual level of efficiency from the team. That has not happened as majority of the ministers seem to have simply disappeared in the midst of bureaucracy and their imprecise job description. It would appear that the novelty and energy that the ministers should have brought to their job has been drowned by Buhari’s insistence on the supremacy of extant civil service rules. Even at that, there is what may be described as portfolio overload in some of the job profiles of some key ministers.

Concerns have recently grown about the President’s sense of judgment especially on economic issues. At first his talkative junior petroleum minister came up with a gasoline import and distribution policy that more or less made the state a virtual monopoly. Literally, the state through the NNPC assumed the menial role of gas station attendant; importing, distributing and retailing gasoline at the pumps with disastrous consequences. The government has neither the foreign exchange nor the capacity to deliver gasoline painlessly and efficiently. Scarcity and endless queues followed to the embarrassment of government and people. That foolish initial arrangement has now been replaced by a deregulation that should have taken place nine months back.

Meanwhile, the President still needs to define his economic direction and objectives more clearly as most of the major indices show red. Inflation has climbed from 9.5% to over 13%. GDP growth rate for 2016 is estimated at a miserable 2.5% and could drift into negative territory. People are too impoverished to buy houses, cars or even decent grocery. Retail figures are dwindling even in the open markets as inflation literally wipes out purchasing power. Unemployment of youth remains uncomfortably high. In the last three months, the unemployed figure as released by the Federal Statistics Bureau grew by 518,000. Foreign Direct Investment has declined by74.5% in the last six months as existing foreign investors cash out and bail out of Nigeria. In spite of foreign exchange concessions by the Central Bank, manufacturing continues to shed jobs and manufacturing capacity is not showing any significant improvement. These omens portend economic doom if not stemmed quickly.

The problems in Buhari’s handling of the Nigerian economy stem principally from a fundamental conflict between his conception of the national economy and the dominant economic behavior of Nigerians. On economic matters, Buhari is at best the equivalent of a regimental Sergeant Major. But Nigerians are essentially libertarians, natural adherents and agents of a free market. The president insists on controlling nearly everything: exchange rate, forex allocations, government bank accounts and even private spending on credit and debit cards. There is now talk of resuscitating a National Shipping Line, a national carrier airline etc., a return to the days of government control of the so-called commanding heights of the economy. While some of these measures may be justified by the fall in oil prices, it remains to be seen how re-nationalizing the economy under the central command of the state in this day and age can aid economic development and recovery.

The administration’s albatross remains the management of the exchange rate policy. Admittedly, the drastic drop in oil prices and the residual impact of past corruption has put immense pressure on Nigeria’s foreign exchange capacity. Yet the recourse to a dual exchange rate mechanism has created a credibility deficit and introduced distortions in the economy. Government has defined what is essential to be funded from the concessionary Central Bank foreign exchange supply at official exchange rate while other sectors are to resort to unofficial rate. While the government insists that it is opposed to formal devaluation, the currency has since devalued itself as the parallel market rate hovers along a sliding range between N325-N375 to the dollar as against the official N200. How long it will take before Mr. Buhari bows to market forces and bite the bullet of devaluation may be determined more by how far he can implement the 2016 budget without running to the IMF and World Bank for bail out loans.

Politically, Buhari is flying into turbulent skies. Between him and his ruling APC, there is a visible divide. Buhari cannot be described as a politician by most definitions. He was merely recruited by the APC to decorate its presidential ticket with qualities that the Nigerian public was hungry for. That shrewd calculation won the election but can hardly sustain a party in power for longer than one term. The core politicians in the APC are smarting from starvation from pork occasioned by Buhari’s anti-corruption stance. The president insists on being his own man and demonstrating that he is both in office and in power to the alienation of his party leadership.Nigerians can thus feel the hands of a strong president but are denied the mass appeal of a vibrant ruling party. The full meaning of this debilitating schism will unfold as we get close to 2019.

Initial reservations about Buhari’s nativist inclinations did him no good. At the initial stages of his administration, he tended to look mostly northwards in key appointments. This early primordial fixation has begun to recede as the president grapples with existential concerns that cut across sectional demarcations. Poor electricity, absence of opportunity, hunger and unemployment do not obey silly geopolitical calculations.

The presidential system thrives on televised image and instant communication. When during the presidential campaigns his image managers forced the man into a three- piece suit, it was the fashion equivalent of sacrilege. Far from being a celebrity president, Buhari cuts the image of the stern old school teacher disciplinarian devoid of fashion or glitz. That image inspires both respect and some trepidation but not necessarily admiration. He could never possibly hope to be charismatic. Cold, distant and taciturn, Buhari lacks that personal electricity that aids even less focused leaders. He is not helped by a less than fluent elocution. Therefore, where the public expects instant direct presidential responses to burning issues, Buhari responds with stony silence that could be mistaken for arrogant indifference. Only rehearsed statements by his media aides bridges a deadly communication gulf.

Therefore, Buhari could only hope to be loved through the success of his policies and programmes. He still commands a significant followership imbued with a combination of fear and respect. The fear is for his ability to enforce punishment for infractions. The respect is for a man who has retained his personal integrity and credibility in a country where corruption among politically exposed persons seems to be the norm. In Machiavellian terms, the mixture of fear and love in a leader is more weighted in favour of fear in Buhari’s case. Insulated from fear by the rights under democracy, more Nigerians tend to respect President Buhari almost to the point of idol worship. Idolatry in a leader can only lead to a personality cult, which will evaporate at the end of his tenure.

In a bid to enlist international support for Nigeria’s security and economic troubles, Mr. Buhari has scrambled the presidential jet and flown to so many countries. Arguments abound as to whether some of these trips are necessary for a president who has a Minister of Foreign Affairs. What is troubling is not the frequency of the trips but the absence of a foreign policy context for Buhari’s all too frequent external forays. Sooner or later, the administration will need to update Nigeria’s foreign policy in the light of the present economic and security challenges.

Ultimately, the Buhari tenure is very much work in progress. Perhaps his greatest achievement in the last one year is to have showcased his strengths and weaknesses and in the process starkly defined the challenges ahead. His historic vindication will depend on how quickly he course corrects and regains the support and confidence of Nigerians and thus justify confidence in his second coming.