Like Trump, Like Buhari

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Back Page By with Eni B, Email: eniola.bello@thisdaylive.com

An anonymous Op-Ed essay published by the New York Times and said to have been authored by a top official in the Trump administration has ruffled the imperious feathers of US President Donald Trump and, in the last one week, sent his aides scampering for cover. The anonymous author claims in the article that the country is bitterly divided over Trump’s leadership; that the Republicans might well lose the midterm elections to an opposition hell-bent on the president’s downfall; that many senior administration officials are working diligently from within to frustrate part of Trump’s agenda; and that the American president has continued to act in a manner detrimental to the health of the republic. Having read the article more than once, I see an uncanny resemblance of the issues raised to the Nigerian situation under President Muhammadu Buhari, except in one critical area – the “resistance” from within the administration. I will come to that in the concluding part of this piece. However, permit me to quote a sequence of excerpts from the essay isolating the troubling features of the Trump presidency, and situating them to the Buhari presidency.

“The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision-making.

“Although he was elected as a Republican, the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets and free people. At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, he has attacked them outright.”

Buhari was elected president in 2015 basically on the strength of his much trumpeted personal integrity and anti-corruption stance. Almost four years down the line, the claim to integrity and disdain for corruption cannot be said to stand on solid ground, perhaps because those who exercise real power in the administration are the president’s relatives and in-laws. Allegations of corruption against top administration officials are ignored or treated with kid gloves. Contending power centres work in different directions, if not at cross purposes, and because the president has mostly failed to provide an anchor, policy flip-flop is not uncommon thereby creating the impression that there’s no discernible first principles that guide decision-making. Security agencies not only undermine one another, they sometimes publicly confront each other without any sanction for bad behavior. Although Buhari started his presidential bid in 2003 as a conservative, he won the 2015 election on the platform of a progressive party. Although progressive ideals generally centre on change and improvement anchored on reforms, and although the first highlight in the manifesto of the ruling APC is constitutional amendment “with a view to devolving powers … to states and local governments in order to entrench true federalism…” Buhari has attacked, outright, the growing calls for restructuring, the elements of which are no more than what his party has espoused in its manifesto and campaign promises.

It is difficult to identify any game changing reform initiated and implemented by the administration. The Treasury Single Account (TSA) and other payment systems that Buhari and his aides love to make a song and dance of were initiated by the Jonathan administration. The Buhari administration initially cancelled the fuel subsidy regime, a short cut to easy wealth under President Goodluck Jonathan. But then it introduced multiple rates in its foreign exchange regime with the embedded currency susbsidy substituting one form of corruption for another. The APC (All Progressives Congress) pretty much flew to the 2015 election victory on the wings of lies, propaganda and hypocrisy, and its administration, in the last three years, has rolled in the mud of the same vices. It speaks to Buhari’s amorality that a cross section of politicians that helped him to win the 2015 election were top members of the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party), the very party the president has serially blamed for the country’s problems and used as an alibi for his administration’s under-performance, if not ineptitude. Indeed, it is a situational irony that there is no discernible difference between the APC and PDP in form, structure and content, despite the ruling party’s attempt to claim a moral high ground.

“In addition to his mass-marketing that the press is the “enemy of the people,” President Trump’s impulses are generally anti-trade and anti-democratic. … There are bright spots… But these successes have come despite – not because of – the president’s leadership style, which is …adversarial, petty and ineffective.”

As military leader in 1984, then General Buhari did not pretend to be a friend of the press. He had promulgated Decree 4 that empowered his military junta to jail journalists (two journalists were indeed jailed) for publishing stories that though may be true, the government could find embarrassing. Buhari’s return to power in the 2015 election did not change his distrust of the media. Having been elected president in 2015, one of the Buhari administration’s first actions was to use the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) to force top media owners to refund some money his immediate predecessor legitimately paid out as compensation for the seizure of some newspapers and disruption of media operations in Abuja by security agents in order to avert a class action from the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria. That early attack on the media in the name of fighting corruption was not an isolated incident. The judiciary also came under attack with midnight raids of some judges’ residences. Many opposition politicians in the PDP were accused of fraud running into billions of Naira, indiscriminately arrested and unduly detained. After all the hot air, there has been little or no progress in terms of prosecution and conviction. Taking a second look at the whole drama, it wouldn’t be wrong to conclude that the administration’s early show of force was no more than an exhibition of Buhari’s anti-democratic tendencies. For an activist judiciary, a virile opposition, an independent media, and a dynamic legislature are key institutions required for building a strong democratic culture. Buhari not only attempted to hamstring the first three in a strategic sleight of hand using corruption as a weapon of blackmail to get the peoples’ buy-in, he also tried to weaken the legislature in a long and withering legal battle against the leadership of the National Assembly. At every opportunity, he blames journalists for his administration’s policy failure, and the media’s refusal to accept his divisive, unhelpfully defensive, one-dimensional narrative of herdsmen’s murderous exploits in some parts of the country. Buhari is manifestly anti-business. His administration makes no conscious efforts to cultivate the business community, or involve corporate leaders in policy decisions, or generally improve the business environment. Any wonder why unemployment is growing in leaps and bounds, or why Nigeria is now the new poverty capital of the world! Buhari’s adversarial inclinations would always goad him to denigrate the country he should be the No.1 salesman before world leaders, by either calling the youths lazy, or accepting without protest that Nigeria was “fantastically corrupt.”

“From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims.”

There’s no question that many senior officials at Aso Rock and the MDAs would have privately expressed their shock and disbelief at some of Buhari’s comments and actions. After all, millions of Nigerians expressed their disbelief when he made a distinction between “the 97 percent” that voted for him and “the 5 percent” that did not in rewards and conduct paradigm; when he accepted without question that Nigeria was a fantastically corrupt country; when he said the country’s youths were lazy; when he expressed surprise that Abdulrasheed Maina, on EFCC wanted list for pension fraud, had been recalled to service and promoted; when he said he wasn’t aware the police Inspector General Ibrahim Idris disobeyed a presidential order to relocate to Benue State; when he reinstated Executive Secretary Usman Yusuf of National Health Insurance Scheme, suspended by Health Minister Isaac Ajewole on allegations of gross misconduct; when he pleaded with the people of Benue State to embrace herdsmen that had been killing them and destroying their farms; and when he made dumb comments on scores of other issues or opted to hide behind the veil of silence for inaction. The tragedy though is that, unlike in the US, top Buhari aides instead of “working to insulate their operations from his whims,” would rather take advantage of the internal disconnect to advance their personal agenda.

“The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us. We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility.”

President Buhari has taken Nigerians for a joyless ride in the last three years. He seems to enjoy the perks and glamour of being president, yet has failed to apply himself to the rigours of the office. Detached and distant, some of his aides naturally appropriated the powers of his office, exercising presidential duties in his name and with little consideration for public good. It is a measure of how badly he has performed that scores of politicians are gunning for his seat. And the language of discourse is indeed very low. Very few in the crowd of presidential aspirants have thought through the problems ailing the country and worked out solutions to them. We have allowed our emotions to be caught by the hook of the so-called anti-graft war; hence public discourse is driven by bitterness and anger and name-calling and hate and blackmail.

“There is a quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put the country first. But the real difference will be made by everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favour of a single one: Americans.”

I did state at the beginning of this piece that it would be a tall order expecting any quiet resistance from within the Buhari administration to arrest the ever-widening division along ethnic and religious lines. Most Nigerian politicians and public officials are too greedy to be bothered about public good. The last three years has adequately shown that Buhari does not have the vision, knowledge, capacity, capability, tolerance, social skills and emotional intelligence to lead Nigeria at this time. There’s no question that Nigeria cannot afford a second term for Buhari as the health of the republic is already endangered. The HSBC, in its latest reports on Nigeria, was only stating the obvious that another four years of Buhari in the saddle will stunt the country’s economic development. The conditions for Buhari’s defeat in the 2019 polls are so ripe that the main opposition coalition, as The Economist Intelligence Unit rightly pointed out in its latest research, should win. Unfortunately, w e cannot trust the motley crowd of career politicians who retire to bed in APC and wake up in PDP, or vice versa, to help birth a new course. We the people would need to rise above politics, break out from the prism of all delimiting labels, elevate our discourse and chart a different course.