Buhari’s fifth year: Lingering hopes and barriers

Buhari

Is Nigeria better off than it was five years ago?
As President Muhammadu Buhari marks the end of his first year of the second term and fifth year in office today, Nigerians who have invested their hopes in him are eminently qualified to assess his administration, evaluate performances in all areas and pass their overall verdict. Although reputation managers of the president and party acolytes have expectedly embarked on an image-laundering, assessing the five-year-old government is far beyond sycophantic loyalty expressed in flattering sentences.

Yesterday, the president’s chief reputation manager reeled out about nine thousand words worth of achievements noting that, “the president will not be distracted,” after all. Specifically, the presidency yesterday claimed salutary impact in all facets of the Nigerian life, just as it released a list of the successes since he became President on May 29, 2015.

In the statement made available to newsmen, the presidency said between May 29, 2015, when it was inaugurated for the first term, and now, the Buhari administration had made salutary impact in almost all the facets of Nigerian life.

The administration also claimed that, “the government swept into office on the wings of change, and that change has been wrought in nearly all phases of national life. Where the lofty goals are yet to be attained, it is work in progress, and eyes are firmly fixed on the ball. No distraction…”

The document claimed further, “The three umbrella areas on which government based its interventionist agenda are: security, reviving the economy (with particular emphasis on job creation, especially for youths), and fighting corruption. In these three areas, where we are today cannot be compared with where we used to be…”

To the opening question (whether Nigeria was better off than it was five years ago) therefore, the answer must, of certainty, be a mix of yes and no amid loud concerns about how the administration has managed COVID-19 pandemic. The numbers were still rising beyond 8,344 last night even as the administration was prepared to open up the economy amid worries about inadequacies in medical supplies to deal with the deadly disease.

Having taken off at a slow, even dithering, pace, the Buhari administration has plodded along, demonstrated good intentions but backed these up with much less action than expected. Expectations have not been met and the possibilities are not comforting. Hope has risen but only alongside relentless despair. Though darkness still reigns in Nigeria’s tunnel, the search for light is seen as too feeble.

In a list of achievements highlighted by the presidency, an administration which rode to power on a crest of incredible goodwill amidst a great thirst for change to be talking, among other minor issues of, “the Anchor Borrowers Programme (ABP) of the Central Bank of Nigeria, launched by President Muhammadu Buhari on November 17, 2015, has made available more than N200 billion in funding to more than 1.5 million smallholder farmers of 16 different commodities (rice, wheat, maize, cotton, cassava, poultry, soy beans, groundnut, fish), cultivating over 1.4 million hectares of farmland… ‘‘is desultory after five years.

Amidst the glaring incompetent leadership, profligacy of public officials, widespread insecurity, weakened institutions, dwindling economic fortunes and insensitivity to the people’s plight before the 2015 elections, Nigerians had high expectations and were willing to lay their trust in any government that would change this. Indeed, if Nigerians needed anything five years ago, it was a president and a government that could demonstrate in words and action high enthusiasm about fighting the root of all this: corruption.

In this regard, the disposition of Buhari, in words and action, to take the fight against corruption seriously has not been in doubt. He has also signalled a welcome departure from official impunity by setting some good personal examples and declaring obedience to the law, the guiding philosophy of his administration. The president’s and vice president’s prompt decision to slash their salaries by half and to reject expensive customised armoured cars was not only good for the fight to cut costs in government, it was a commendable symbolic expression of solidarity with Nigerians in the face of searing economic downturn in 2015. That gesture has turned out to be a mirage, after all, five years on. There is still no evidence that corruption war has been fought and won: a federal permanent secretary was suspended on corruption charges (more than N7 billion involved) only two weeks ago.

If the war on corruption had been successful so far, its value should have rested in high economic prospects for this nation. But, so far, on the matter of the economy, there is an opaqueness of policies as well as confusion and vacillation about the direction in which the nation is heading.

Indeed, the adjectives that characterise the former administration are gradually creeping in for the description of the economic policies of the Buhari government. The state of the economy is very bad. Inflation, high interest rates, debt burden, huge wage bill, unemployment, have been on the rise till the present. A critical economic infrastructure like power supply has also been deplorable, against all promises and expectations. Cost of living has risen in the face of increased electricity and fuel prices, and living standards for the majority of the people are at the lowest.

Nigeria’s economic decline is further aggravated by a poor oil market, characterized by low production, low pricing, and low sales. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has manipulated monetary policies with a view to strengthening the national currency but all to no avail given the government’s failure to enunciate any cogent fiscal policies. The result has been a naira on a free fall against all other currencies, set on a galloping slide down the abyss by dwindling foreign reserve and an opaque forex market.

Furthermore, the government’s oft-stated promise of aggressive vertical diversification from oil and gas to agriculture has lately come to be seen as a fluke. Whilst the agricultural plans seem ambitious and commendable in expression, they are also not clear in practical enunciation and are nowhere to be found in reality. The facilities and modalities for executing plans are not clear, even as there are no institutions for monitoring progress if any is made. Economically, therefore, few understand what direction Nigeria faces and while the economy remains in a bad shape, investors are fleeing.

Once again, there is so much promise. But this government does not just run the risk of losing the good will, expectation and trust of Nigerians, but has lost much support since inception. In recent times, members of the administration have carried on with so much haughtiness and lack of decorum in their responses to the complaints of Nigerians about their pains. Many have been insensitive, self-righteous and indignant as they respond to issues demanding caution, understanding and compassion. That’s when they are not heaping all blame for their obvious failings on the last administration, something Nigerians have become weary of hearing. Although the people’s trust and goodwill provide a receptive ear and heart to its policies, this government would appear to have taken the people’s loyalty for granted by the indecorous utterances of its officials.

While there has been marked improvement in the war against Boko Haram, the scorecard of this administration in terms of comprehensive national security and national integration is below par. In fact, the administration’s handling of widespread insecurity has swings between incompetent, insensitive and seeming complicity. The government’s reputation is certainly not enhanced by its poor response to the menace of murderous rampaging herdsmen and the increasing cases of kidnapping in many parts of the country.

Nigerians love Buhari and there is hardly a better evidence of this than their continued tolerance of even his actions and inactions that ordinarily should rouse them to protests. But he seems a bit oblivious of this depth of affection in all corners of Nigeria and remains cocooned in a very small world inhabited by only a few persons he thinks he knows and trusts. Hence the perception of many Nigerians that he is, sadly, too short in outreach, too insular, and has a horizon too limited for a pan-Nigerian leadership history has beckoned on him to provide. Hardly any set of appointments made by him has escaped criticism for its lopsidedness. And if anything, even recent appointments seem to suggest that the President has not heard from Nigerians.

In this regard, he should build institutions for the fight against corruption so that the anti-corruption drive would not be seen as an instrument for settling scores or personal vendetta against perceived opponents and enemies. Indeed, the main challenge in the years ahead would be to address the notion that Buhari’s anti-corruption drive appears one-sided, incomprehensive and opens itself up to accusations of intentions not so noble.

Meanwhile, the Legislative arm of government at all levels has not lived up to expectation. While the National Assembly often puffs and kicks, the state legislatures are mostly in disarray and are mere appendages to the executive. In the absence of a clear political roadmap, and a workable economic blueprint for the people, state governments have become so clueless about any form of sustainable development for them. It is a tragedy of the most lamentable order that the payment of salaries passes for an achievement, if not a miracle, now touted by governments.

All told, as the Buhari begins his sixth year in office tomorrow, he should pay attention to just one legacy issue: restructuring of the federation. As this newspaper notes here regularly, the present unitary structure that encourages indolence and lack of creativity cannot lead us to progress. It has continued and will continue to hold us down. The restructuring of the Police Force announced yesterday, for instance, is still a bridge too far from the model of restructuring that will save this administration from reproach.

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