The real change
Before July 23, 2014, Muhammadu Buhari thought the Boko Haram insurgents were a bunch of near-harmless agitators calling for the killing of Western education in Northern Nigeria. He reportedly asked that the terrorists be wooed into an amnesty programme so that they would surrender their arms and amulets and make room for the outbreak of peace in the North East. He did not believe that Boko Haram was a dangerous animal that needed to be tamed. But on July 23, 2014 as the presidential campaign progressed he barnstormed across Nigeria like a prized race horse and the Boko Haram terrorists showed him the stuff they were made of. They killed 82 people in his campaign convoy in Kaduna. He escaped by the whiskers. He was severely shaken. That incident made him a convert to the view long held by many Nigerians that the gang was too dangerous to be treated with kid gloves. He became a believer.
From then onwards, his handlers presented him as a tough cookie, the courageous warrior who was the central figure that brought the Maitatsine riots to an end many years ago. They said he would, in like manner, bring the Boko Haram crisis to a closure and return the 219 girls abducted from Chibok Secondary School in Borno State to the warm embrace of their parents.
One girl, Amina Ali, has been brought home and a red carpet rolled out for her and her baby by President Buhari. But 218 of them still remain in the wilds, their fate unknown, their future uncertain. However, most of the captured territories have been recovered by the Nigerian Army working in close cooperation with the local hunters in the territory. Loads of abducted refugees, men, women and children, have been freed and are being cleaned up and rehabilitated in readiness for a return to a life of normalcy. But the work against insurgency is a work in progress. It will never end until all the guns have fallen silent and all the captured persons retrieved from the jaws of Boko Haram.
The second plank of Buhari’s agenda is the fight against corruption. He has shown exemplary courage in confronting this monster and as we wait with bated breath for more riveting stories about how our patrimony was misappropriated, we cannot fail to acknowledge this show of determination. We admit that you cannot tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it but Buhari has a duty to check the overzealousness of the operatives who have no qualms whatsoever about shredding the human rights of accused persons and their relations.
Retrieving some of the stolen assets particularly from foreign countries needs patience, hardwork and tact. It is also very time consuming. Nigeria has been chasing Sani Abacha’s loot for about 20 years now and there is no end yet in sight. The President has been criticised by people who think he should spend more time at home. I have no problem with his many foreign trips. Some critics have said he should send the Foreign Minister or our Ambassador in the appropriate country on such errands. The President, in my view, is the face of his country, the first diplomat and the first ambassador of his country. What President Buhari brings to the diplomatic table, no Minister or Ambassador can bring. He goes to every country with the legitimacy of an undisputed election, his personal charisma and the faith of his country in his sense of honesty and sobriety. Those are assets that hardly any other official can flaunt before foreign leaders.
Besides, corruption and insurgency have their tap roots in foreign countries. Looted funds are often warehoused in banks abroad. Some of the looters own property abroad and our government cannot put its fingers on this except with the cooperation of those countries. Even the insurgency battle is a global problem with Al Qaeda and ISIS linking up with our own Boko Haram. Some kind of international synergy is needed to acquire superior technology, armaments, intelligence and to be able to track the flow of money to these terrorists. I think, these foreign trips are necessary. But so are local trips.
Why did the President not visit Lagos as was widely advertised by the Lagos State Government? A spokesman says he had an ear infection. Okay, explanation grudgingly accepted. And why did he not go for the clean-up of Ogoniland? At the time of writing this column no explanation had been given so I have no idea whether he had a nose infection or a pain in the neck. But I think, his decision to clean up Ogoniland is a wise, strategic and environmentally prudent decision for which he deserves full marks. Any strategic thinker in his government should have encouraged him to personally go to Ogoniland, meet and greet the people who have suffered so much and then deliver a stirring speech on his government’s determination to change the face of Niger Delta for good. He could have talked about the losses of materials, men, women, children and the destruction of the ecosystem, and of inter-personal relationships. This is where the four elders called vultures were killed. This is where Ken Saro Wiwa and his group of eight were hanged.
This visit should have been his finest hour, an opportunity to bind the wounds and wipe the tears. It is an opportunity lost. He would have spoken from the heart directly and indirectly to the militants and the soldiers. He would have shown that he cares for the soldiers doing a difficult job in the creeks. He would have told the militants that he fought in the Niger Delta many years ago to preserve their oil rich territory, their rich culture and their rich traditions. He would have told them that there is a linking thread that binds him and them together and that that thread, like chewing gum, will be difficult to cut. He would have got a standing ovation and sitting down with the leaders of the region later to find the road to peace would have been less difficult.
The third leg of the tripod is the economy, which many economists say is at the verge of a recession. The price of crude oil has dropped drastically. About 800,000 barrels of oil is said to be lost daily to pipeline vandalism. Unemployment was 12.1 per cent in April 2016. Power generation fell drastically from 4,000 megawatts to about 1,400 megawatts. The statistics paint a grim and gloomy picture. But do the actions taken so far constitute a silver lining? Ten thousand policemen to be employed; 500,000 teachers to be engaged; Treasury Single Account and Bank Verification Number introduced; both rake in about three trillion naira; 5,000 hectares of land to be cultivated in 12 River Basin Development Authorities; thousands of ghost workers have been banished from the pay rolls; deregulation of the downstream sector likely to bring more money into federal coffers. But many economists complain that they do not know the direction of the Buhari government in economic matters. Does it plan to be self-reliant and less import-dependent? Will it stimulate local production and consumption of our basic needs such as food, clothing and building materials? Will it stimulate the processing of our agricultural products? Will it give oxygen to our manufacturing sector? These are some of the questions to which Nigerians yearn for answers.
This is a difficult time for the government. But it has to approach its problems with a positive mindset. It still concentrates too much attention on the past and too little attention on the present. I admit that the past often shoots its shadows into the present. But as it is often said if you keep looking at the door that is closed you will never see the one that is open. Let me refer President Buhari to what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said on May 22, 1932, when he was campaigning against President Herbert Hoover. This was the period of the Recession and America was in turmoil and Hoover seemed confused about the way forward. Roosevelt asked: “Must the country remain hungry and jobless while raw materials stand unused and factories idle?” He answered: “The country needs, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. Take a method and try it. If it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something.” The people believed Roosevelt. His presidency was inaugurated on March 4, 1933.
He did some unique things. Four of his senior cabinet members were Republicans, the opposition party at the time. He proved that he was party-free and could get the best men from wherever he could find them to build America at a difficult time in the country’s life. He signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935, obviously one of the revolutionary, signature achievements of his government. He stimulated the economy and asked Americans to look inwards for their salvation. His socio-economic package called the New Deal is an iconic programme that has been quoted by analysts in many countries. Americans appreciated his exertions and he became the first and only President to serve for more than two terms.
President Buhari’s government is driven by the public perception that he is an honest man, a man of simple taste, and that he may not steal their money. That is good but not sufficient as a driving force for good management of the country. Most people seem to be ready, based on good faith, to accept that the present pain the country is going through is temporary and that if all things are equal it may lead to permanent gain. That is part of the honeymoon package that Buhari enjoys. But honeymoons do not last forever.
Nigerians would want to see the real change, the change from sloganeering to a robust political, economic and social re-engineering of the country. They want it today, yesterday.