Buhari: Leading in Turbulent Times


President Muhammadu Buhari’s undoing is his style, which is not lockstep with the challenges of the new age, writes Magnus Onyibe

President Muhamadu Buhari’s face can sometimes be deadpan and inscrutable. That is not surprising. As an ex-soldier, he is supposed to be stern, so, wearing a straight face that belies no emotions and leaves no clue is not unexpected. At the inception of his administration, most things that appeared to have gone awry in the twilight of the immediate past administration started falling into place.

Electricity supply ramped up from about 3,500 megawatts to about 5000 megawatts. Petrol queues that dogged the path of the previous administration up to its last day, suddenly disappeared and Nigerians even started to queue up to board buses – bringing back memories of the public order and discipline, reminiscent of the days of War Against Indiscipline, (WAI) – measures introduced during Buhari’s first coming as military head of state in December of 1983.
In public and private sectors, hitherto comatose activities started moving so smoothly, that the President’s men and supporters attributed the sudden turnaround to his ‘body language’ and clear evidence that a ‘new Sherriff’ was in town.

Femi Adesina, presidential adviser on media and publicity, waxed lyrical in an article he referred to Buhari as the ‘new Sherriff’ in town. Unfortunately, the embarrassing 2016 budget ‘padding’ controversy was perpetuated under the ‘Sherriff watch’ until public uproar forced him to intervene.

Garba Shehu, special assistant on media to the president was also celebratory of the president as he also ecstatically in several articles extolled the virtues of his principal, praising him to high heavens over his superlative accomplishments, even when no single tangible policy that could impact positively on the citizenry had been formulated.

Fast forward to the eve of Buhari’s departure to London for an anti-corruption conference convened by UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron. Shehu wrote another article laced with commendations to the effect that his boss was being courted all over the world because of his accomplishments in the fight against corruption.

But the ink on that articles had hardly dried only for the British pm to ‘burst his bubble’ in a gaffe, where he referred to Nigeria as a ‘fantastically corrupt’ country, in spite of the much vaunted efforts and claimed successes in the fight to tame the corruption monster by the administration.

Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohamed, who is reportedly the current butt of many jokes within the social media circle, in his attempt to demonise the former ruling party, failed woefully and ended up de-marketing Nigeria and Nigerians, to the consternation of innocent Nigerians in diaspora, who are currently bearing the brunt of the negative labeling arising from the often hyped and exaggerated allegations of corruption.

Following the present economic meltdown, which is reflective of sound economic policy deficit besetting the current regime, Nigeria is now virtually tottering on the verge of a recession according to the latest figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). As a result of this development, the present regime has now inadvertently become a victim of her own negative propaganda, because practically all aspects of economic life in Nigeria are now in a state of decline.

For instance, which foreign investor would put money in an economy that the authorities have officially admitted is a cesspool of corruption and one in which uncertainty reigns supreme as government has failed to come up with clear cut fiscal policy direction, one year after assumption of office?

Let’s face it, there is also corruption in the Vatican as evidenced by the recent sacking of a top official for corrupt practices, but the Pope would not mount the podium anywhere in the world and say, yes there is corruption in the Vatican and his mission as a Pope is to wipe out corruption. That would be sanctimonious indignation. Buhari’s sanctimoniousness is hurting instead of helping the Nigerian economy.

Before the dawn of the current reality, it was almost felt that the president’s spokesmen were right because truly, without saying a word, some of the oil/gas barons, who scammed the system through fuel subsidy, but out of their own volition started supplying cargoes of fuel that they claimed were outstanding in the contracts via crude-for-refined products swap.

We even heard that others in the oil and gas industry voluntarily paid huge sums of money that they declared as outstanding in their custody into government coffers. The Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG), even joined the bandwagon by remitting over $2 billion into the federation account. This was money that they had held back from the previous government, and which thankfully enabled Buhari to utilise in bailing out some states that were unable to meet their financial obligations.

In fact, it was so wonderful to behold the situation whereby a nation in which accountability was an anathema, suddenly becoming more rules conscious and compliant. Evidently, the days of chastity did not last for long. Today, the joy ride, which the initial positive developments reflected are now behind us as the bubble has burst.

Let me put some flesh on the bones by digressing a bit: until last week, fuel queues had become badge of dishonor worn by Nigerians; they only abated with fuel pump price jumping from N86 to N145; electricity power supply has dropped to all time low of less than 1500 megawatts, while tariffs have hit the roof and forcing hapless citizens to resort to the use of generating sets as alternative to public power supply.

GDP growth rate has plummeted from 2.11% barely one year ago to – 0.36% and unemployment rate has climbed up to 12.7l% from 10.4%; the naira exchange rate with the USA dollar fluctuates between N320-400/$1; and crude oil production/export has been hovering around 1.5 million barrels a day from 2.2 mbpd production quota as approved by OPEC. And to cap it up, inflation is now 13.7 as at end of April, up from about 12.6 last year.

What the economic indices above indicate is misery as evidenced by the atmosphere of doom and gloom which are now pervasive in Nigeria. So to those, who nursed the false and erroneous impression at the nascent stage of this administration that it was the fear of Buhari, through his ‘body language’, that was boosting electricity supply, keeping fuel flowing in petrol stations, and making exchange rate stable, they were wrong.

The truth is that it was actually the momentum built up by the previous administration which was working extra hard to earn votes during last general election, in order to return to office that was still sustaining the economy even after its exit. It was therefore not surprising that in the absence of further policy directives by the new government, the previous momentum lost steam resulting in economic slowdown and subsequent degeneration into the current melt down.

Arising from the foregoing, the new Sherriff in town and body language hypothesis were purely myths that have been demystified by current realities. Fortunately, all is not lost yet, as there is still plenty of time to recaliberate.

Of all the series of events that have happened since the return of Buhari to power, the enlistment and empanelling of a transition committee headed by former super permanent secretary, Ahmed Joda to supervise the smooth transfer of power from the outgone administration to the present was quite epochal and significant in my judgment.

However, the decision not to implement most of the proposals in the 800-page recommendations of the 19 man committee has turned out to be the Achilles heels of this administration and the assertion above is made without malice.
As I can recall, the committee, which comprised of accomplished technocrats and experts from both the public and private sectors, had seven people from the North, five from the South-west, three from South-south, two from the Middle-belt and two from South-east, worked assiduously hard for several weeks combing through the handover documents from the outgone administration.

In the course of the exercise, they must have read through files detailing what informed certain policy decisions, challenges encountered in implementation, before adopting some and discarding others after the reviews.

The Single Treasury Account (TSA) and Zero Based Budgeting (ZBB) that were unimplemented initiatives of the former regime but now adopted and operated by the present government must have been discovered in the course of the exercise. The case for the removal of the obnoxious fuel subsidy policy, which the panel also proposed, and government initially rejected, must have also been identified at the same time, ditto the floating naira exchange rate.

Similarly, the sale of valuable oil/gas assets to raise funds were also proposed, but the president, perhaps based on his unbridled love for the masses, rejected those proposals, insisting that he had not been convinced by the arguments that the poor would not be negatively impacted, if fuel subsidy was removed; exchange became flexible and some oil assets were sold.

Furthermore, the president also stuck to his gun on the issue of naira devaluation and choosing instead to peg the naira at N197/$1, even though reality indicated that rates are much higher in the parallel market. The authorities have also been averse to selling public assets ostensibly due to the belief that it would produce private oligarchs, even though Saudi Arabia is more or less doing so now to bail herself out of the prevailing global recession arising from the sharp drop in crude oil prices.

Considering the positive outcome of the TSA and ZBB policies on accountability and transparency in the management of public funds so far, not heeding to earlier calls and sound advice from experts for the removal of fuel subsidy until last week, failing to float the naira/dollar exchange rate and refusing to sell off some oil assets to raise funds, appear to me as the major factors responsible for the current economic paralysis that Nigeria is now mired in or contending with.

By omission or commission, Buhari’s leftist and inflexibility rooted in his military dogma might inadvertently be a clog to Nigeria’s progress, particularly with respect to managing the economy. In military culture, backing out or retreating is a sign of cowardice. Therefore, it is an option a warrior does not consider. As a military general, Buhari personifies and wears that principle as a toga.

Not too long ago, history was made when a media man, Adamu Ciroma, tapped to head the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) was mistakenly announced as the candidate for Central of Nigeria, (CBN) governor position. As a military man, who can never reverse himself, General Sanni Abacha, then military ruler, did not change the posting simply because it is not in the character of the military to do so.

Buhari also revealed his tight grip and control over the Nigerian economy, when he unequivocally asserted during media interviews that he would not devalue the naira and thereafter went ahead to cast aspersions on his predecessors in office, who devalued the naira. Without a doubt, Buhari’s pronouncement might have sent jitters down the spines of foreign investors.

He also openly spoke against accepting IMF loan and foreclosed the removal of fuel subsidy until a few days ago, when deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry was announced while he was attending a conference in Britain. Such rigidity makes investors skittish, particularly Foreign Direct Investors, (FDIs), who cherish the flexibility to be very mobile with their investments.

Little wonder, it is only Aliko Dangote, Jim Ovia, Femi Otedola, Tony Elumelu, Mike Adenuga, Samad Rabiu, Tunde Folawiyo, Sayyu Dantata etc that are now investing locally, perhaps out of patriotism.
We need not be reminded that Buhari loves Nigeria and he is really on a mission to revive the decaying economy and put the country on sustainable growth path.

Having said that, it would appear the president is yet to come to the realisation that the skill sets deployed in managing Nigeria some 32 years ago are now outdated.

During his presentation at Chatham House, UK before his landmark victory at the polls in 2015, Buhari made the following declaration: “I cannot change the past but I can change the present and future”. He continued: “So, before you now is a former military ruler, who is ready to operate under democratic norms”. He then described himself as a “converted democrat, who had realised the futility of one party rule after the collapse of the Soviet Union”.
By and large, Nigerians believed Buhari wholeheartedly hence he was elected by about 2.5m votes more than the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan. Now, it’s time to walk the talk. In a 21st century digitalised and globalised world of capitalism and open government, not only is there no room for one party rule, one man rule is also unacceptable.
The president must realise that Nigeria’s role, politically and economically, has become more significant globally and applying analogue policies towards solving problems that need digital solutions, is tantamount to recommending that a patient ingests panadol analgesic to cure either cancer or HIV AIDS syndrome.

The president must therefore take a second look at the recommendations in the report that the transition committee he set up at the inception of his administration handover to him and use it as a blueprint for administering Nigeria. Surely, a lot of effort was put into the mandate of putting the report together and there must be more nuggets of economic wisdom like TSA and ZBB that could be harnessed and converted to policy gems by this administration.

As we commence the second year of his four years mandate next month, it would serve the president better, if he sticks to his pet project of fighting corruption and recovering looted funds (more quietly) which is his unique selling point (USP). He must leave the daily management of the economy to the cabinet, which he has carefully assembled after a search that took the better part of six months.
In other words, President Buhari must repose confidence in his ‘dream team’ cabinet, which I referred to in a previous article as ‘Cleanest Dirty Shirts in the Laundry’ by not micro-managing them. I’ve no doubt that if the president relaxes his strong hold on economic policies and other programmes, there would be a lot more to celebrate during the second anniversary of his administration next May 29, 2017.
-Onyibe, a development strategist and former commissioner in Delta State is an alumnus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA

Nigerians believed Buhari wholeheartedly hence he was elected by about 2.5m votes more than the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan. Now, it’s time to walk the talk. In a 21st century digitalised and globalised world of capitalism and open government, not only is there no room for one party rule, one man rule is also unacceptable…The president must realise that Nigeria’s role, politically and economically, has become more significant globally