BY WAZIRI ADIO
By this time next year, President Muhammadu Buhari will have just four months left in office. Many Nigerians, within government and outside of it, in good and in bad faith, are dutifully ticking off the remaining months and days. Not a few people are already looking forward to the morning after 29 May 2023. From one of his recent statements, the president seems to be in this category too. Not that he has a choice, but he seems eager to move on to his second retirement, and to less-exacting things like taking extended rest, spending time on his farm, and attending to his grandchildren.
President Buhari is blessed with an unflappable mien. So, it is difficult to know if he is approaching the remaining 16 months with a sense of fulfilment or with some measure of anxiety. However, the fact that he has exhausted almost 85% of his eight years in office should give him a strong cause for pause. He came to office with wide and wild expectations. In almost seven years, the poetry of campaign has been given a short shrift by the laborious prose of governance. Even when ample accommodation is made for external headwinds and some landmark achievements, critics and supporters alike seem to agree that the Buhari administration could have done much more to meet the expectations of 2015.
Time is hopelessly running out. The president will not have another chance to make a different impression. In fact, he has been lucky to have a second chance in two different ways. Thirty years after he was kicked out of office by his military colleagues, he rode back triumphantly into the presidency with a halo: cast in the messiah mould, he defeated an incumbent to become president, the only Nigerian ever to do so. And four years later, he was re-elected as president. The only other Nigerian who has had the dual luck of being both military head of state and being voted president twice is President Olusegun Obasanjo. This is an honour many of his military colleagues and others covet but will not get, and not for lack of trying.
This rare luck, the expectations of his ardent supporters and even the disdain of his implacable traducers, and the limited time available to make good should propel some urgency and intensity. To compound matters, most of the remaining time will be dominated by the politics of 2023. There is a feverish battle aboard for the soul of the ruling party, involving not just the governors and legislators but also some within his government. This is not unfair or unexpected: people will have to think about their political future without the president. The party convention and the election of principal officers will be followed by what promises to be an epic contest for the presidential ticket of the party. Then, there is the not so small matter of general election in which the main opposition party will make a spirited effort to reverse the setback of 2015.
Every defeated incumbent or term-barred one with elected or soon-to-be-elected successor faces a lame-duck period, a period of distraction, lethargy, and limited influence. Given the informal but spirited flag-off of political activities, the lame-duck period has arrived very early for President Buhari. Beyond the fact that politics has now effectively crowded out everything else, there are specific political pre-occupations likely to limit presidential performance. The folks at the National Assembly are already consumed in the quadrennial battle to earn their return tickets (as usual, most of them are not likely to return, as the turn-over rate for national legislators has been remarkably high since 2003). Some members of the president’s cabinet and some of his key appointees have open or thinly disguised political ambitions, some are hitching their tents with the emerging camps, and others are busy trying to figure out what to do next. It is safe to say that most of them are distracted or tired even. This is the implementation context for the president’s remaining 16 months in office.
The sudden realisation of limited time may evoke three different reactions. The first is to continue at the current pace, with the hope that certain ongoing initiatives will come to fruition soon and history will take a fair, equal-measure view of things. The second is to attempt to do so much in the little time left. This could lead to the introduction of a slew of initiatives, driven by a concern that the judgement of history could be harsh and by the belief that there is still enough time to do many things. The third, a practical half-way house of sorts, will be to focus on a few ongoing areas with renewed intensity. I don’t think the first two approaches should be favoured, not just because of Buhari and his potential legacy, but because of Nigeria. The current pace will not cut it. And realistically, especially in the prevailing circumstances, there is little time left for any audacious reform, policy, turn-around, or legislation. On this basis, I will suggest that the administration should focus, with a laser-beam intensity, on just three things.
The first is improving security. Of the three agenda items that President Buhari ran on to get elected in 2015, fighting insecurity was the strongest. He was a soldier, a general and a former military head of state. That electoral promise spoke to his professional background and experience. At a time that Boko Haram posed a real threat not just to Nigerians in the North East but also elsewhere, it was easier for a significant number of Nigerians to choose a retired general over a civilian incumbent president whose handling of the threat was tainted by either denial or the mindset that Boko Haram was sponsored by people of certain regions and religions just to undermine him. But Boko Haram has not disappeared with the retired general in charge. To be sure, the capacity of the terrorist group to hold swathe of territories in the North East has been seriously diminished, and the siege has lifted on places like Abuja (where five major bombings occurred within two years and key government buildings were screened off). But Boko Haram is still there, with our gallant forces in constant push-back mode.
More disturbingly is that insecurity has gone beyond the North East, and more than at any other time in our history insecurity has become more generalised, more pervasive. The North West has become a major hotspot. Yes, there were incidents of cattle rustling in some parts of that zone and banditry in Zamfara State for a long time. In classic rendition of the broken window theory, what started as a localised problem in some remote villages in Zamfara has now spilled over into other states in the zone like Kaduna, Sokoto, Katsina (the president’s state) and even Niger State in North Central. Added to this, kidnapping has become widespread, especially in the North West and South West, there is an upsurge of clashes between herders and farmers, there is some sort of insurgency in the South East and a low intensity militancy is still ongoing in some part of the Niger Delta.
Given how central security is to practically everything, this is an area the president cannot afford to leave the country worse off than he met it. He should take this as his main thing for the time he has left in office. The good news is that this is not an area that will be too impacted by the distraction of politics. It is important to give our over-stretched armed forces all the moral, technical, operational and financial support they need to scale up assaults on the terrorists and sundry criminals harassing, abducting, maiming and killing our citizens. Nigerians are tired of tepid warnings or hollow promises. They want the full strength of the state to be brought against these criminals. Nothing should be off the table in this quest, including leveraging technology, using mercenaries, if necessary, further improving engagement with our neighbouring countries, enhancing policing of our borders, ensuring better coordination across tiers of government, improving intelligence gathering and acting on time on credible intelligence, and setting clear targets for and undertaking regular reviews with our security top-brass.
The second recommended area of laser focus for the president is on completing ongoing infrastructure projects. Though not one of the three campaign issues in 2015, or at best a subset of growing the economy, improving the stock of physical infrastructure in the country is one area in which the president, surprisingly, has earned his stripes. Either in restarting long-abandoned projects (like the Warri-Itakpe rail line) or completing the ones started by his predecessors (like the Abuja-Kaduna rail line) or starting and completing new ones (like the Lagos-Ibadan rail line), Buhari has done more for infrastructure than any of his predecessors in the fourth republic. This much his implacable critics will concede, even if grudgingly or with caveats. He is the infrastructure president, with tentacles not only in rails and roads, but also in electricity, health, water, aviation, and oil and gas.
Through enhanced budgetary allocations and special interventions such as the Presidential Intervention Development Fund, Sukuk Bonds, Road Infrastructure Tax Credit Scheme, the Presidential Fertiliser Initiative, the recently incorporated Infrastructure Company (InfraCo) and bilateral and concessionary loans from China etc., Buhari has enabled an increase in the quantum of infrastructure likely to impact quality of life, ease of doing business and even security in the country. However, some of the ongoing projects may slow down or fall off as politics takes centre stage. It will be important for him to ensure fund availability, insist on regular update and adopt a project management approach to the key projects. The following signature projects need to be completed: the Ajaokuta-Kaduna-Kano gas pipeline, the Mambilla River Power Plant, the Second Niger Bridge, the Loko-Oweto Bridge, the Bodo-Bonny Road, the Abuja-Lokoja-Benin Highway, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Ibadan-Kano Rail, the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri Rail, the Abuja-Kaduna-Kano Highway, and the East-West Road, among others.
My last limited agenda for the president is for him to ensure credible election next year. To be sure, presidents don’t conduct elections. That’s the remit of INEC. But the president has more than a passive role to play to ensure that INEC has all the resources it needs to undertake a credible election and to guarantee a fair playing field by preventing the co-option of state assets for electoral advantage. The first task for the president in this area will be for him to quickly sign the electoral act once the National Assembly concedes to his valid observation about imposition of direct primaries on political parties.
The second task under credible transition will be for the president to resist the temptation to force his choice on the country as his successor. The last time a departing president tried to do that was in 2007. It didn’t end well. The country is yet to live down the ripple effect that imposition created, and that attempt remains an indelible stain on the record of the perpetrator. Buhari can make credible election his parting and lasting gift to Nigeria. Despite the pressure that will be brought on him and the waning influence of a lame-duck period, he can do it. He should. History will be more than kind to him if he takes this right and honourable path.