Postscript by Waziri Adio
Tuesday, 5th September 2023, marks Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s 100th day in office as Nigeria’s president. In a way, it feels as if he had been in the saddle for much longer. This is understandable, given the key shifts and the series of expected and unexpected activities of the last three months. The take-off, for him and for the country, has been uneven—at turns smooth and bumpy, bright and dreary.
Beginnings matter: for tone-setting, for insights and projections, and for the opportunity to learn and reposition. As he approaches the 100th day mark at the helm of affairs, Tinubu needs to take a pause, reflect on the positives and the negatives of his beginning, and undertake early course-correction where necessary. For the sake of emphasis, Nigeria at its current state doesn’t have the luxury of time.
The Tinubu of the first four weeks surpassed expectations of even sceptics on a few fronts. He came out of Eagle Square raring to go. He went out of his prepared inauguration speech to decree the end of petrol subsidy, a ruinous policy that gulped $10 billion in 2022, benefited mostly the rich, the smugglers and corrupt government officials, and crowded out needed investments in health, education and other areas critical to poverty reduction and economic growth. He also signalled the end of the regime of arbitrage-ridden, multiple exchange rates. Then, he appointed a new set of service chiefs, and it seemed some careful thought went into the selection.
In those very early days, Tinubu largely appeared prepared and decisive. He got effusive admiration from his fan base and earned the grudging adulation of some of those who didn’t give him a chance or who had reckoned he was beyond his prime. A foreign news agency even labelled him as Baba-Go-Fast. The word reformer increasingly appeared next to his name in generous endorsements by multilateral development agencies and foreign investment banks. But before long, the mystique started falling apart. Another Tinubu quickly emerged: ponderous, overtly political, and curiously indecisive. Most people, including leaders, have two competing sides. But Nigeria, especially now, will be better served by a president who consistently puts on his better side, his A-game.
In this intervention, I will use three episodes to illustrate the unhelpful duality of Tinubu’s presidency so far, and conclude with a call for greater clarity and more decisiveness.
Let’s start with his two signature reforms: petrol subsidy removal and foreign exchange market reforms. Without a doubt, both policies were necessary for our public finance and the overall health of our economy. Tinubu scored massive points as a bold reformer for moving swiftly to end one and nudging the monetary authority to take action on the other.
However, these reforms—like most reforms—are not painless. It is a no-brainer that the removal of petrol subsidy would definitely lead to hike in costs of transportation and food, and spike in both headline inflation and food inflation. Also, removal of foreign exchange subsidy (devaluation or floating of the Naira) would not only lead to general increase in the prices of goods and services (because we import most things) but would also translate to further increase in prices of petrol, and subsequent hikes in costs of transportation and food. The removal of the two subsidies within a short space of time introduced two shocks, and both shocks introduced multiple pain-points for all. But the poor, who constitute a significant chunk of our population, are disproportionately impacted precisely because they have little room for manoeuvre. The rich irony is that those who benefitted the least from the wrong-headed subsidies are saddled with the bulk of the pains of reform.
The problem here is not the reforms themselves. Or that they should not have been introduced because of the accompanying pains. Let’s be clear: Nigeria was headed for the ditch, and the reforms helped in averting an accident that many can’t feel because it did not happen. Also, the problem may not be the near simultaneous introduction of two inflationary shocks on an inflation-weary system. There is indeed a reform school of thought that argues for taking and implementing all the difficult decisions early in the life of an administration.
The problem with the Tinubu approach is that there seemed to be little thought spared on how to meaningfully manage the consequences (beyond the usual negotiations with organised labour), on how to minimise the pains on those disproportionately affected, and on what to do if unforeseen complications set in or the expected gains do not materialise early or at all.
Yes, it takes quite some guts for Tinubu to announce that ‘petrol subsidy is gone’ at Eagle Square. It is a great use of the honeymoon window and that decisiveness should have been extended to what happens next. But there seemed to be no clear plan or strategy in place on what to do the moment after the announcement, by whom, when and how. The impact of petrol subsidy removal was immediate and far-reaching. On the other hand, there was little clarity or surefootedness in the immediate on how government would provide needed relief or how it will repurpose the savings from subsidy removal. The palliative plan had to be literally forced out of the president, and when it finally came in bits and pieces, the plan was—and is still— all over the place.
A more thoughtful approach would have aimed for better calibration, preferably with the reliefs frontloaded to coincide with and make the pains more bearable. The decisive Tinubu was absent on cash transfer to the most vulnerable. He folded too easily on giving cash to the poorest of the poor and allowed the governors and others with outsized voice to gratuitously rubbish the National Social Register. They eventually settled for CNG-buses, distribution of grains and rice, and other measures that pandered mostly to public sector workers. (By the way, government assuming that rice is what the poor need is not only unduly paternalistic but also counterproductive: it drives up the price of rice and grains because of surge in demand. This is a consequence that is clearly foreseeable with just a little attention to the forces of supply and demand.)
Also, a more considered approach would have favoured spacing the two reforms, allowing the consequences of one to settle in well before embarking on the other. Nigeria imports the petrol it consumes. Floating the exchange rate means that price of petrol will continue to rise anytime the value of the Naira weakens. How much and what frequency of price increase (and associated pains) can people tolerate? Is there a threshold to trigger circuit breakers? It is clear that not enough thought was invested into these critical questions. Now, there is a risk that petrol subsidy may re-appear.
In a related vein, it seems the floating of the Naira was done by faith. The assumption was that devaluing the Naira would automatically lead to improved forex supply. Even if a model had predicted this, the natural thing to do is to have a backup plan. Investors are known to be fickle, and they would not necessarily pour in here simply because we have devalued our currency. (As an aside, eliminating the corruption-prone, multiple official exchange rates and devaluation are not necessarily the same.) A more cautious and more deliberate approach would have leaned towards securing adequate forex supply before floating the Naira. As long as there is a supply crunch, which is the real problem of our forex markets, there will be pressure on the Naira at both the official and parallel markets.
Both the petrol subsidy removal and forex reforms that looked like genius moves less than three months do not appear so bright again. The lesson here is that courage and swift actions are good, but when not backed with a clear-headed strategy, they could pass for impulsiveness. It is important to rescue these reforms. Abandoning them now would set the country back by many years. It is not too late to proceed in a more methodical way.
The second episode I want to highlight is Tinubu’s handling and selection of his cabinet. Tinubu got some decent applause when he changed the security service chiefs and this was sustained when he appointed his first set of advisers. But it took him almost forever to send his ministerial nominees to the Senate and he sent the second and third lists after the constitutional deadline. A decisive Tinubu was absent on this front. He had more than ample time to put his list together even ahead of the deadline. He was declared the winner of the 2023 presidential election on March 1st. That effectively granted him a five-month window.
But the major issue is not just about sending his list late but more about the number and quality of his nominees. A late list would have been more tolerable if it creaked with sparkling resumes. Tinubu nominated 48 people to serve as ministers. This is a historic number and not a good look in any way given the dire state of our finances. To compound matters, not up to a quarter of the nominees have the statures, networks and antecedents that speak to the gravity of the moment. For someone with a reputation for assembling great teams, this is some form of self-demystification. The Senate confirmed 45 nominees who were later assigned portfolios. In another record, Tinubu undertook a reshuffle before inaugurating the ministers (and he just did same with the NDDC list).
The third episode I want to highlight is Nigeria’s response to the recent coup in Niger. I am one of those who believe that a coup in the subregion should elicit a strong response from Nigeria. I also believe that despite our internal challenges, Nigeria cannot afford to continue to be a bit player in the region, on the continent, and on the global stage. The fact that Nigeria leads ECOWAS at the moment also imposes an additional responsibility. I am fully with Tinubu on the need for Nigeria to be fully back on the international stage and for us to lead the process to firmly stop the coup contagion in our neighbourhood.
However, it is now clear that Tinubu could have steered ECOWAS towards taking a more nuanced approach. I have a feeling that the president is surprised by the reaction of Nigerians in the north generally, especially from the residents of the states that border Niger. Three gaps are evident here: one, not having a special adviser on foreign affairs on his team when the putschists struck in Niger; two, lack of a sophisticated understanding of the cultural and historical dynamics at play between northern Nigeria and Niger; and three, the failure to consult adequately within before taking a firm position. Increasingly, ECOWAS and Nigeria appear to be walking back. Hopefully a sensible solution can still be worked out for all concerned.
On the positive side, Tinubu has shown some strength in the last three months. He has appeared more healthy and more articulate than the Tinubu of the campaigns. As president, he is more accessible, more responsive and more engaging than his predecessor. He seems on top of the political process, though he needs to resist the urge to play too much politics. He has shown that he has the stomach for tough decisions.
But he needs to improve on his weak points. He needs to improve the quality of decision-making and the quality of advice he gets. It is becoming evident that his inner circle has little federal executive experience and that he is rusty for being out of executive position for 16 years and for lacking federal executive experience himself. He needs to speed up on the learning curve. And most importantly, he needs clear, robust and sustainable strategies for his key interventions. A strategic and surefooted president is what Nigeria needs at this very critical period.