Tinubu and the Scarcity of Optimism


In  more  sensible places, President Tinubu’s job approval rating is so woeful that he should have been job hunting by now. In the United Kingdom, the opposition would have called for snap elections to test his popularity and probably throw him out of 10 Downing. In the United States, his party faithful would have been so embarrassed as to defect to the other side of the aisle with their votes. An engineered congressional revolt would either make him sit up or show him the exit door through an impeachment process. These consequences are very remote in Nigeria’s brand of democracy because we are Nigerians. 

In a classic twist of irony  and mass mockery, this presidency is riding on a political slogan –“Renewed Hope”- that literally laughs at the people and deprecates its very authors and vendors. Yet the mockery of that slogan lies at the very heart of our experience now. At a time when an administration is supposed to be renewing our hope in the future, we are experiencing the most drastic erosion of the basis of all hope. At a time when a government is supposed to be renewing our hope in government, the machinery of government has been turned into a cult of deceit. At a time when the political class is supposed to be reinforcing  our hope in the nation, the very foundations of our nationhood are being eroded by a combination of incompetence and self delusion. As a result, optimism, the very intangible glue that holds nations together with each democratic transition is in dire scarcity among most Nigerians. Show me a collection of Nigerians at home or abroad, in the city or in villages and the shortage of optimism becomes the standard greeting. It is a series of rhetorical  questions thrown by everybody at everybody: Where are we going? Where is this country headed? What is the agenda of this administration? What will happen to us? So, what next? 

Among Nigerians of nearly every class, tongue or faith,  it would be a hard search to find too many people who are still optimistic about anything, both about the prospects this government, their own personal lives or those of their businesses  or indeed the very future of the country. The youth are either petrified or are fleeing in droves to other lands. The elderly look back at better earlier days and sometimes break down in tears about promises broken, good times gone by and a sweetness turned into bitter bile. Paradise in peril! Traditional rulers have turned into prophets of doom or professional counselors on the dangers of allowing the population of the poor to overwhelm those who can still find the next meal. The other day, the Chief of Defense Staff had cause to caution fellow Nigerians against the growing habit of raining curses at our fatherland. When people are hungry, frustrated and angry, they can curse even their parents and even mouth abominable heresy!

On the sad faces of their parents, even our children confront the bleakness of the present and are speechless when it comes to asking about the future.  There is hardly anyone left to run to for reassurance. Irrespective of their position and the direction of their prayer compass, our clergy are getting tired of urging patience and perseverance among their faithful. A nation of inconsolable pessimists. That describes Tinubu’s Nigeria at the moment.

But democracy feeds on optimism. When a democratic outcome dims the prospects of optimism and blurs the horizon of hope, democracy itself becomes bedeviled and imperiled. When elections approach, the electorate is fed on one key diet by campaigning politicians: optimism and hope in a better future. People are told that the coming election is an opportunity to replace declining hope with a new optimism. Incumbency retreats, satisfied that it has done its best. Aspirants mount the rostrum to preach grounds for new optimism. It is optimism about the nation and about the prospective leadership of the nation. The campaign mobs echo the anthem of optimism and the democracy wagon rolls on.

In the dying days of the Buhari administration, the campaigns were fed by an unusual hunger for renewal and perhaps some optimism for a reprieve from the Buhari heist. Anything would be better than Buhari. After eight years of Mr. Buhari’s  virtual locust invasion in the name of governance, people expected and fervently hoped that whatever replaced the clueless Daura general would be better. 

No one dreamt of higher poverty figures. No one expected a rudderless economic environment. No one expected a higher rate of insecurity. No one expected the continuation of an economy bedeviled by debts and lacking enlightened management. Indeed, no one expected a nation literally overrun by enpowered killer herdsmen of doubtful nationality. Worse still, no one expected a totally indifferent national leadership inured to all feeling and compassion for the sufferings of the people. Of all things, no one expected that in our life time, so many Nigerians will become hungry and very angry as to die on queues for rice!

A prevalent note of some optimism pervaded the 2023 presidential campaigns. People looked at the three major political gladiators and concluded that even the worst of the bunch would be better than the incompetent Buhari. The mood of the electorate was to guide Mr. Buhari out of the China shop and hopefully fix the broken parts after his untidy exit. 

Democratic succession is a ceremony of optimism. People hail the winner and minimally hope that a better leadership will inspire confidence in a better government and a better nation. 

Afterall, Tinubu had run a tolerably progressive and effective government as Lagos state governor. He had improved revenue collection, patched the worst roads, summoned the courage to confront and reduce Lagos’ refuse heaps and generally deployed propaganda to market his efforts. His administration fed on a large diet of populist propaganda sustained by the political loyalty of ancient lineages and cells of vicious thugs and urban cult squads. 

Even if Mr. Atiku became the winner, there was something to refer back to. Mr. Atiku Abubakar had mostly one asset in his resume: he had been the deputy to the bullish Obasanjo who ran a tolerably enlightened federal government. Obasanjo had drastically reduced our nation debts internal and external, reformed the banking system, introduced a modern payment system and digitalized telecommunications. He had fired up the optimism of Nigerians and their faith in the future of the nation because individuals could make some money for themselves. A man who had been in the room where these decisions were taken deserved a second look and a chance to try his hands at the wheels. That was Atiku’s flag and appeal.

Mr. Peter Obi of the fledgling Labour Party came in from a cold anonymity. An Onitsha Market trader who had been a successful two term governor of Anambra state, Obi  came with a decent moral pedigree that is rare in Nigeria’s brackish political culture. A strange new kid on the political block, his appeal to the youth to ‘take back your country’ resonated with Nigeria’s bulging youth population. Obi reached out to the youth and urban poor with a trenchant new message. On election day, the nation showed they had heard him and his results upset the apple cart of national ‘politics as usual’. The echoes are still reverberating.

Then the system anointed Mr. Tinubu. Irrespective of the divergence of popular opinion that greeted Bola Tinubu’s emergence as President of Nigeria, the minimum irreducible expectation by February last year was that come May 29th, we would herald a new more hopeful Nigeria since nothing in anyone’s imagination contemplated a worse nightmare than the Buhari interregnum. No one could fairly deny Nigerians their democratic entitlement to optimism then. 

From the entrance gate of power at Eagle Square, the man set out to inaugurate key policy measures aimed ostensibly at reversing the toxic trends of his clueless predecessor. But ironically, each bold policy move by Mr. Tinubu has produced the direct opposite of its intended objective. He has taken off a troublesome petroleum subsidy and inaugurated sporadic fuel scarcity and unaffordable gasoline pump prices. He has unified the Naira exchange rate and driven the Naira to its lowest exchange rate since it was introduced on 1st January ,1973. He has initiated a food security initiative but hunger has emerged as a national security threat of epidemic proportions for the first time in our national history. 

The virus is not in the very policies themselves. It is instead in the methodology and embarrassing lack of method in the man’s policy madness. Key policies were announced ahead of the setting up of a functional government. Major initiatives have been announced and bandied ever before any systematic thought  was given to their consequences by any group of enlightened minds. A president that set out as a swashbuckling conquistador had no horsemen to back up his charge. 

He announced his signal reforms ever before he chose a cabinet. And when the cabinet came into place, it was an over bloated rough and tumble assembly of (48?), an inchoate assemblage of odd men and anonymous women most of them with neither background, tested skills nor pedigree. A cabinet of political debt collectors was the first let down of the Tinubu government for a nation full of optimistic expectations. 

Tragically, Mr. Tinubu has allowed the impression to grow in the streets that he is less than competent and prepared for the office of President. Contrary to this growing street perception, however, President Tinubu has been quite busy. The man has been working for Nigeria at least in his estimation and those of his devotees and acolytes. In all fairness, he has periodically unleashed a hailstorm of uncoordinated policies, actions and responses in all directions to qualify as a busy chief executive. The uncoordinated things he has said about our national problems is even more copious than what he has done. And yet, the nation seems stuck in a swamp, neither making progress nor retreating to past safer shores. Even worse, Tinubu’s job approval rating seems constantly in the red. A shrinking percentage of Nigerians appreciates his exertions. 

None can deny that Tinubu has taken some positive actions and indicated positive directions. He plans a students loans scheme to assist indigent university students. He has dished out money to state governments to buy and distribute rice palliatives to hungry and poor Nigerians. He has called state governors to support the setting up of state police formations to help tackle insecurity. He has found money to reduce the Central Bank’s foreign exchange exposures to foreign airlines and the banks. He has unleashed EFCC, police, army and DSS goons to chase after Bureau de Change operators in the streets of Abuja and other major centres as if to physically chase down the rampaging exchange rate with little effect. He has suspended an errant thieving minister, sacked and began prosecuting a former Central Bank governor and sent sniffer dogs after other major thieves. The main bastion of corruption, the NNPCL, remains largely untouched and hardly even mentioned. He has approved the construction of some major highways and rehabilitation of others.

In this avalanche of executive actions, there is clear evidence of a president who wants to work for the nation. And Tinubu likes to be praised and appreciated. But that accolade is not quite as readily forthcoming as he would have liked. Lagos is a small constituency  and his impact then could be felt and seen at a glance. Nigeria is a diverse behemoth with large problems and elephantine appetites and expectations. Mr. Tinubu’s efforts may not meet the desires of the Nigerian public square. No one can say also that Tinubu has shown the mental grasp of the Nigerian situation that the office of president requires. His solutions are too eclectic and peripheral. His choice of key personnel is too pedestrian and xenophobic. Outside his Yoruba home base, Mr. Tinubu seems to be devoid of friends of substance outside the charmed circle of political merchants. In these respects, he compares rather miserably with either an M.K.O Abiola or an Olusegun Obasanjo. 

Worsening social and economic conditions have shredded Tinubu’s best efforts so far. People are very hungry and angry too. Most are watching themselves slide into unbudgeted poverty. The miserable semblance of a middle class that used to decorate our urban landscape has vastly evaporated. People who used to drive cars now commute to work in buses. The well heeled who used to own multiple cars as a show of their affluence, have shrunk to one or two functional fuel -efficient boxes. A crushing exchange rate has forced people with children studying abroad to begin bringing them home in trickles.  Holiday schedules are being watered down.

With these problems ravaging the nation, Mr. Tinubu is unlikely to find enough cheer leaders at the ringside. And somehow, the national epidemic of hunger and hardship is beginning to eat away his solid Yoruba South West support base. If that persists and grows, he may have difficulty aspiring to a second term in office. More consequentially, the Northern mob support that helped him on to power is badly hit by the present hunger and hardship epidemic. They are not likely to chant “Sai Baba” at his future rallies unless he can find food for the hungry and cash for the impoverished and more pork for their politicians. 

It ought to worry Mr. Tinubu and his handlers that in spite of his best exertions, the critical mass of the Nigerian nation  is yet to either fall in love with him or see him as a symbol of hope and national cohesiveness. He is still seen by the social media mob as an embodiment of the ‘trouble with Nigeria’, a power usurper and illegitimate occupant of the Villa. Worse still, he still continues to carry the moral burden of his untidy resume and grisly background.

The only way to improve his job approval rating and mass appeal would be to erase the multiple problems currently threatening the livelihood of most Nigerians. To begin to do this, Tinubu must use his first anniversary in power to push the re-start button: a new cabinet of problem solvers, a think tank of non-political experts, inauguration of a target-driven administration and a more nationalistic outlook. 

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