By Olusegun Adeniyi
Let me begin with an apology to my non-Yoruba readers. The adage that forms the kernel of my intervention today is “Òrìṣà bí o le gbè mí, se mí bi o se ba mí.” It is often used in the land of my father—to borrow a famous phrase from THISDAY editor, Shaka Momodu—especially in moments of desperation that we currently face in Nigeria. A Yoruba adage is always difficult to translate into English without losing the embedded lessons, but this one is a supplication to the gods who promised so much yet, at the end, delivered little or nothing. And here goes my crude interpretation: ‘Deity, if you cannot improve my material condition, please do not worsen my plight’ or more appropriately, ‘please, leave me as you met me’.
I see no better expression to describe how many Nigerians feel today about President Muhammadu Buhari. After eight years in office, his promise of ‘Change’ now sounds so hollow that nobody in the administration is bold enough to use that phrase again. But the immediate challenge is the most troubling. While Nigerians have for decades been conditioned to buying fuel in the black market due to the way we mismanage our affairs, things are currently so bad that we are using money to buy money (Naira notes) to enable us to queue for fuel and pay for other services. Meanwhile, online payments are not working effectively at a time the system is supposed to have gone cashless!
Gradually, the economy is being crippled, the livelihoods of people are being systematically destroyed and we are sleepwalking to anarchy. In rural communities across the country, most of the stories one hears are heartbreaking. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has had to admonish the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on “the hardships caused by disruptions to trade and payments due to the shortage of new bank notes available to the public.”
From markets to eateries in urban centres, transacting any business requires first buying Naira notes at scandalous rates. And you must pay before service. On Sunday, respected lawyer and security consultant, Dr Charles Omole shared an experience on Twitter that is representative of what most people are going through. “I went out with friends last night. I tried three different (bank) cards, and all failed. I tried to transfer twice from two different banks, both failed,” Omole wrote. “In the end, I gave the manager my card and we agreed to speak tomorrow to sort out payment. Five electronic payments in one night.”
With the epileptic services on virtual payment systems, ‘Book me down’ is now a common phenomenon at Abuja eateries for people with name recognition. The not-so-known are going ‘pantless’ and ‘braless’ in banking halls to demonstrate the level to which they have been dehumanized simply to access their own money. Desperation is also pushing many into violence in theatres across the country. And with opportunistic criminals taking advantage of the situation to loot and maim, many bank branches are shutting down.
At the rate Nigeria is going, we may soon have to resort to trade-by-barter as a means of exchange, although some border communities in the North have adopted CFA francs that is, under normal circumstances, not a legal lender in Nigeria. And for those who cannot see beyond their obsession with the 2023 general election that may change nothing (we have had many elections in the past), we must let them know that this is beyond petty politics. Nigerians are finding life rather difficult today because of the scarcity of Naira notes. Even if we concede the fantasy that this whole thing was orchestrated to checkmate vote buying, punishing ordinary people for the sins of politicians is multiple jeopardy.
President Muhammadu Buhari came to office in 2015 with a pledge to fight corruption. It required no rocket science to know where to confront the demons: putting an end to the multibillion-dollar subsidy racket in the downstream sector of the petroleum industry and tackling illicit cash transactions. Regarding the first, Buhari was vehement during his campaign that subsidy was a fraud, asking most memorably, ‘Who is subsiding who?’ The moment he got to power, not only did he sustain the scheme, but the subsidy budgets continued skyrocketing such that today, we are borrowing trillions of Naira annually to pay for a commodity that is only available on the street at scandalous prices to motorists. In abdicating responsibility on the issue, the president has pushed removal of subsidy till after his tenure in which case his successor would have to carry the can.
When in January 2012, the then CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, launched the cashless policy in Lagos as a pilot scheme, the pledge was that it would go nationwide by 2013. While that deadline did not materialize, nobody can discount the fact that online payment has deepened in the country in the past decade. So, we can see that his successor, Godwin Emefiele was not re-inventing the wheel with his Naira redesign policy. The problem was timing: On the eve of a major election without adequate guarantee for the availability of the new Naira notes to be swapped for old ones. The window given for the implementation is also ridiculous. Most Nigerians saw these new Naira notes for the first time only mid-January. Yet, these scarce new notes were expected to have replaced all the old notes by month end!
I will not blame Emefiele. Although the CBN Act 2007 gives enormous powers to the apex bank Governor, it also recognizes that certain decisions would have political repercussions. That explains why Section 19 of the Act empowers the apex bank to issue the national currencies in “such forms and designs and bear such devices as shall be approved by the President on the recommendation of the Board.” So, the man who bears ultimate responsibility for the crisis at hand is the president. Without his approval the CBN would not have acted on the issue. He is also the one to whom Nigerians look to fix the problem. Having created incentives for bad behaviour with the scarcity of Naira notes (by accident or design), scapegoating the banks offers no solution. In any case, how many bank managers would the security people arrest?
The main concern now is that the social disruptions created from the non-availability of Naira notes and the current fuel scarcity may have also emboldened anti-democratic forces to plot all kinds of extraconstitutional power schemes that can only lead our country down the path of chaos. At his campaign rally last week in Ekiti State, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu confirmed that there are indeed sinister plots to scuttle the election in a bid to foist on the country an interim government. “They want to provoke you to violence, so that election will be disrupted and postponed, and they can cunningly introduce an interim government, that’s their plot,” Tinubu alleged without elaboration.
For the generation too young to understand what the idea of ‘interim government’ is all about, Reuben Abati’s column on Tuesday explained how, in the early nineties, General Ibrahim Babangida imposed on Nigerians a conclave of politicians headed by a hand-picked leader, the late Ernest Shonekan. While that political fortress built on quicksand collapsed within a matter of weeks, the conditions for the crisis that followed had been firmly laid by annuling the presidential election and dragging the judiciary into partisan politics. In Abuja today, many can draw a parallel with the past, given the questionable rulings now emanating from our courts. There are notorious Judges from whom you can seek a perpetual injunction that a pregnant woman should not be allowed to deliver her baby and it would be granted by their court!
So, how is President Buhari completely missing from this discussion? Quite simply because he has chosen to be. His statement following a meeting with the APC Governors last week said nothing. It is typical. In January 2018, I wrote that the president has most often looked aloof and distant when the occasion demanded his intervention. “Yet, what Buhari and his handlers fail to appreciate is that whenever human emotions are exhibited in a leader, people take hope. A tear for the distressed, a sigh of contrition in moments of mistakes, one heartfelt utterance of genuine grief when people are hurting are some of the attributes of a genuine leader—it is not about taking all tidings with equal indifference, as Buhari does most times” I wrote.
I have taken time to study this president since 2015. Nothing illustrates his disposition to power and the office he holds better than the legendary photo of him picking his tooth. Three years ago, I had an interesting conversation with a top northern politician in the APC. I told him that from my reading of the president, he is someone who “could walk away from power” without showing interest in who succeeds him. “Where does that happen? Walk away from power at the highest level of government?”, the politician retorted. “I can tell you authoritatively that President Buhari is very much interested in who succeeds him.”
When the APC presidential nomination drama started last year and President Buhari met with the party’s governors asking that he be allowed to pick his successor, the man called to remind me of what he said three years ago, and I agreed he was right. “In keeping with the established internal policies of the party and as we approach the convention in a few days, I wish to solicit the reciprocity and support of the Governors and other stakeholders in picking my successor, who would fly the flag of our party for election into the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2023,” the president told the APC governors in his address read at the meeting held on 31st May last year. And perhaps for emphasis, he reiterated: “We gave governors re-election tickets or opportunity to pick their successors; allow me pick my successor.”
Although there were suggestions at the time that the speech was out of character for Buhari and that the idea was probably conceived by power mongers who wanted to use him, I conceded to the APC top notch who told me the president would be interested in who succeeds him that he knew what he was talking about. Four days ago, this same man called me to say: “Segun, you were right about our man. You said he would walk away from Aso Rock without a care about his successor. That is precisely what he is doing right now. He is literally walking away from power without any interest about what happens after him.”
A leader uninterested in who succeeds him is not necessarily a bad idea. Especially in a milieu where politicians plot succession not to advance the public good but to feather private interest. But the danger, especially in our kind of environment, is that characters around such a leader could become undertakers for all manner of subversive schemes while pretending to be serving his interest. We saw that on the eve of the APC primaries when members of an amorphous group sat and decided that the senate president, Ahmad Lawan was the ‘consensus’ presidential candidate. This was after Buhari had publicly repudiated his earlier plea to be allowed to nominate his successor.
Briefing the media on 6th June last year, the APC national organising secretary, Sulaiman Argungu said the party’s national chairman, Abdullahi Adamu, had announced Lawan as the consensus decision during the national working committee (NWC) meeting held that morning. This was just 24 hours to their national convention. Had the APC Governors not come out forcefully to challenge that planned imposition by a shadowy group who operate in the name of the president, Lawan (who came a distant fourth at the convention) would have been foisted on the APC as the ‘consensus’ presidential candidate. From what the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai has been saying, it is the same people who tried (and failed) to manipulate the APC presidential nomination process that are now plotting to subvert the coming general election, in pursuit of another sinister agenda.
While there is nothing to suggest that President Buhari is interested in staying beyond 29th May, these desperate men (no sign that any woman is among them) benefit immensely from his stewardship. Those influence peddlers who have advantaged themselves at our expense are the dangerous people to watch out for. With the judiciary already being dragged in to give black market orders, those who say we have entered the 1993 road to June 12 may also not be far off the mark. It is precisely for this reason that a quick solution must be found for the scarcity of Naira notes.
Before I conclude, let me also lend a word of caution to those who forget that regardless of whether their presidential candidate wins or loses, life will not end on February 25. Partisanship has reached such an abnormal level that if anybody asks you, ‘Who do you think will win?’, it is not an honest question. They are asking you to validate the person they want to win. And if your response is not in tandem with their expectation, you could become an enemy. For that reason, I have decided to keep my own counsel while waiting for the election to come and go. I am also not investing any emotion in the outcome of the poll because whoever wins, the challenges ahead are quite enormous.
However, in crucial elections, every citizen has a right to choose whoever they want. The people can also disagree on those choices without being disagreeable with one another. Daniel Darling, author of ‘A Way With Words’, admonishes that we should always strive to ensure that an election or politics do not get between us and our most important relationships. “This doesn’t mean we don’t speak out; this doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions; this doesn’t mean we don’t stand up for what’s right. But we do it in a way that honors the people around us.”
To return to the issue of the day, those who conceive or imagine the idea of interim government seek to impose arbitrary rules on our country. That these dark forces are said to be around President Buhari is why we should all be concerned. These grave allegations are not coming from members of the opposition but rather the top echelon of the ruling party. More worrisome is that insisting on the continuation of a controversial Naira redesign policy has only compounded the woes of the people. We risk civil disorder at a very delicate period.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court gave the president and CBN a lifeline to retreat from a policy that is evidently not working as planned. The Council of State meeting scheduled for tomorrow is now very crucial. Whatever may have been the intended benefits, the cost of this CBN policy in human and material terms is becoming increasingly difficult to justify. Something must give; and very quickly too.
All said, I believe the Yoruba adage, “Òrìṣà bí o le gbè mí, se mí bi o se ba mí,” will serve the president. Incidentally, without knowing it, Abati spoke to this same adage in the last line of his column on Tuesday, and I adopt his proposition: “The minimum that President Buhari is obliged to do is to leave this country as he met it – a civilian democracy, even if badly wounded.”
Amity in Simon Okeke’s Amichi
When he turned 70 in January 2006, Chief Simeon Okeke hosted prominent Nigerians to a big reception in his community of Amichi, Nnewi South Local Government of Anambra State. But the ceremony also carried some historical symbolism. The chairman of the occasion was then President Olusegun Obasanjo. As a Colonel in the Nigerian army in January 1970, Obasanjo received the instrument of Biafra’s surrender from the late Colonel Philip Effiong, in the same town of Amichi and same family compound. And because of that, prior to Obasanjo’s return journey to Amichi 36 years later as a civilian president, the late Chief Ojo Maduekwe had volunteered to draft his (Obasanjo’s) speech “and the title of that speech will be ‘New Amity in Amichi’,” according to Okeke’s recollection.
Given the activities of ‘Unknown gunmen’ in most parts of the Southeast today and the deep-seated angst over Biafra, I don’t know how much ‘amity’ is still left in Amichi and it is just as well that Okeke’s book being publicly presented today in Abuja is about ‘Policing the Nigerian Police’ and not on that hot potato issue. The 87-year-old estate surveyor and respected statesman was the chairman of the Police Service Commission (PSC) between 2001 and 2006 and the book documents his experience. It is a rich collection that adds to the literature on national security in our country.
Born on 7th January 1936, Okeke had in 1961 secured a federal government scholarship to study at the College of Estate Management, University of London. Today, he is a foundation member and Fellow of the Nigeria Institution of Estate Surveyors & Valuers (FNIESV), Fellow of the Royal Institutions of Chartered Surveyors of Great Britain (FRICS) and Member of the International Real Estate Federation (FIABCI) and Commonwealth Association of Surveying and Land Economy (CASLE).
In Okeke’s book, one can see the genesis of the seemingly intractable war of attrition between PSC and the office of the Inspector General of Police (IGP) that is being fought both in the media and the court. The book also documents the issue of poor remuneration and other challenges facing the rank and file in the police while highlighting possible solutions. With the foreword written by veteran journalist, Ray Ekpu who served in Okeke’s PSC along with others, it is a book that I recommend for those who seek a deeper understanding of the challenge of policing and how to tackle insecurity in Nigeria.
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