A respectable reboot

I am delighted to learn that in 2023, General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) will not be seeking a third term.

In ‘A Letter from the President at New Year,’ he told Nigerians he will be “stepping down,” instead.  They are not the same thing.

That the issue is even in discussion tells a story.  Nigerians do not believe their ruler’s claims because his credibility is shattered.  Remember: among others, he swore he would only serve one term.

And for that one term, he said he was going to CHANGE the country, beginning with his first 100 days. After four and a half years, only the furniture in the presidential palace has changed.

In his letter, the general repeated the clichés he has marketed forever: he would fight corruption, improve the economy and combat insecurity.

Well, everyone knows that these are now among the world’s best jokes.  Corruption marches on, energized and fortified by Buhari’s widely known vitamins, and his policies protect the nation’s top kleptocrats, not the nation.

As for the economy, it continues to travel in the other direction, with high inflation and unemployment.  The insecurity in the land is so bad that even the first family is surrounded by a forest of 200 policemen, as publicly admitted to by the First Lady.

But Buhari is a man of promise; that is: he loves to make them even when it is clear he has neither the intention nor the capacity to fulfil them.

Nonetheless, three of the new promises—and one he didn’t accommodate—are of great interest to this writer.  The first concerns his admission that “elections are the cornerstone of (our) democracy.”

I commend his decision to help strengthen the electoral process in Nigeria and the region.  Hopefully, Buhari can begin from Nigeria, where he can guarantee an impact that will be an example to the rest of Africa.

Let him begin by focusing on campaign finance, towards establishing laws and practices that would grant all politicians a level playing field at elections rather than leaving it to the richest and most unscrupulous.

The truth is that we can never have real democracy if elections are left, as they are now, to be manipulated and financed by ruthless godfathers for people who then become pawns in their hands.

There is no shortage of critical contributions to this subject. Buhari may want to remember that his party, the so-called All Progressives Congress, swore allegiance to the recommendations of the Justice Muhammadu Uwais report, saying it would implement them to improve the nation’s electoral process and enhance the independence of the electoral commission. Had the party been faithful to that declaration, Africa would be learning from Nigeria by now.

The same lack of character is what has exposed the general’s laughable anti-corruption ruse.  The government could have used the same criteria developed by the Uwais Commission to restructure the anti-corruption bodies so that their leading officers emerge through a competitive hiring process mediated by an independent judiciary. The reason is that you cannot preach democracy or accountability, or establish them “with immediate effect.”

The second: Buhari reiterated his Democracy Day intention to liberate 100m people from poverty. Again, he issued no details and announced no strategy. But time is running out: we are now just 10 years from 2030 when our Agenda 2030 pledges fall due.  Liberating the poor is a major challenge, particularly in a society where the political elite appropriates everything to itself.  Again, you can’t legislate against poverty, and you certainly cannot abolish it “with immediate effect,” alas.

Third, Buhari strangely alluded to something he called the “Nigerian Decade of prosperity and promise for Nigeria and for Africa” (sic), but did not elaborate.  What is the description and content of this decade?

And now for the promise the general didn’t accommodate.  He spoke a lot about his government’s plans, including in the railway sector, citing “tangible progress” in 2020 on the Lagos-Kano line, the forthcoming commissioning of the Lagos–Ibadan and Itakpe–Warri lines, and commencement of the Ibadan–Abuja and Kano–Kaduna all in the first quarter.

But he studiously said not one word about the Lagos-Calabar rail, one of the biggest rail projects in our continent’s history. First signed by China and Nigeria in 2014 for nearly $12bn, the deal was revised by the Buhari regime and re-signed in July 2016 for nearly $1bn less, and was to be completed in two years.

This is a project with major implications for the Nigerian economy, but why does Buhari demonstrate no interest? And why does Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi speak less and less about it?

Speaking of Ministers, the general began his second term by cutting them down to size—and away from himself—by routing them through the Secretary to the Government (SGF) if they are to consult with him.

Three months ago, he unveiled new rules under which they are to travel abroad.  In what was positioned as a “cost-cutting” measure, he declared that they make no more than two trips a quarter, only to very important events, and with limited budgets and entourages…unless the President himself approves more trips.

The decision is well-intentioned, but all it achieves is make the SGF and the Head of Service more powerful, and the Ministers more distant from the president.  And it means that favoritism will play a key role in a government already floundering under the weight of the General’s well-known nepotism.

Still, two trips per quarter mean a Minister can travel eight times per year, or a minimum of 344 for the entire cabinet, which is a lot.  But while the new rule may confine a Minister to Abuja, it does not mean he would work more. And work ought to be the defining justification for a Minister’s trip in the country or beyond.

But let us talk about cost-cutting for a moment.  Everyone knows that the consumption and waste questions are baked into the psyche of Nigerian public office, and that few Nigerian officials really bother with the public interest. It is why this new measure, were it serious, should have been with the participation of the other arms of the government as well as the states.

It is why even anti-corruption “warriors” abhor accountability, and why—for instance—Nigerian government leaders never read the annual report of the Auditor-General. If there is anyone who claims to have read one such report since Buhari took office, for instance, he ought to resign and be prosecuted for lying.  Because nobody can read those reports and not weep in public.

But I suspect Buhari wants respect.

Where to begin is to stop going to sit on the floor in another country when he should be standing upright in his own. Apart from the inferiority complex which it spells, no world leader respects another who is content to spread himself before foreign doctors and nurses, including under anesthesia.

In 2020, stopping all medical tourism by all officials would be a respectable restart.

[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials].


•  @SonalaOlumhense


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