There is every possibility that First Lady Aisha Buhari will take up more of the public space as her husband saunters towards leaving a legacy of eight years at the most influential position any Nigerian could hold. It is also quite probable that she will not avail her husband the honour of vetting her speeches or her thoughts as she splashes the waters around to erect her own legacies, or help improve his. Last week, at the National Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) General Assembly and National Executive Council (NEC) meeting at the National Mosque, Abuja, she was reported to have invited the nation’s attention to the need to ‘fasten our seatbelts and do the needful, or we will all regret it very soon because, at the rate things are going, things are getting completely out of hand.’ She did not exactly say her husband is blameless, but she was categorical that Nigerians are being let down by others who are also accountable for the needful. ‘The Vice President is here, some ministers are here, they are supposed to do justice to the situation. People cannot afford potable water in the country while we have governors.’ Then she indulged in that honoured Nigerian tradition of invoking God: ‘for those that are listening, we should fear God’.
It could be the case that the sobering ambience of the National Mosque had provided an appropriate setting for strong words regarding the general life of Nigerians which do not get much mention by those trusted by the president and Nigerians to alleviate poverty, but the VP who Mrs Buhari called up to do more had his own speech and concerns dampened morale even more. He wore his pastoral garb by acknowledging that while leadership is basically responsible for keeping the nation on the right track, citizens must not let religious differences stop them from being their brothers’ keepers. Then he warned: ‘We have religious and tribal tensions in this country. Many are beating the drums of ethnic and religious war, and we are at a historic juncture of our nation’. Osinbajo’s record on restrained speeches are better that the First Lady’s (although both have their uses), but both raised very serious issues that give character to Buhari’s administration and provide a glimpse into an uncomfortable future.
The poor management of the economy by the Buhari administration and governors show no signs that it will pull Nigerians out of crushing poverty by the time the second term of a president and a party that came to power on the promises of fixing the economy, fighting corruption and creating jobs is over. You could accuse Aisha Buhari of playing to a gallery by regularly poking at troublesome but popular matters, such as the quality and disposition of the President’s inner circle and glaring failures in leadership, but she will win awards for having a nose for populism and having the courage to raise matters that are rarely whispered in the Villa. Most people who know, but will be very reluctant to say publicly, will admit to the reality that we are running a virtually bankrupt economy. President Buhari said a few days ago that our massive assets in oil and gas leave very little left after we address our many challenges. We are borrowing massive amounts against a deeply uncertain future, while designing and implementing budgets that will win global awards as great annual works of fiction.
We subsidise refined petroleum at scandalous amounts, and have failed to fix any of our own refineries. Now we will raise taxes on both the rich and the poor so that we will make more money available to state governors to do as they wish. We have ‘closed’ borders against neighbours, not as part of a larger policy to protect our economy and national security, but as a knee jerk reaction that is adding more hardship on the lives of citizens and threatening livelihoods of Nigerians who live on their businesses in neighbouring countries. The administration is now involved in a crude management of a gimmick that border closure has made the nation self-sufficient in rice production, and millions are now living in new-found affluence as a result. At great pains, the administration now admits that the closure of borders is raising inflation, but has no answers for the incredible suffering of border communities who are deliberately starved of petrol while Nigeria Customs Service does the work of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nigeria Immigration Service, Security agencies and a host of other agencies that should be involved in sensitive matters of this nature.
The entire contribution of governors to economic growth is to undertake expensive trips to China and Dubai, and seek loans that may or may not materialize. Those among them who bother to explain will say that addressing security challenges and paying civil servants salaries have diverted funds from providing the potable water that Aisha Buhari says people do not have. Most have very poor understanding of the nexus between poverty, crimes and corruption, such is the scale of their isolation from reality of the existence of the people who voted in the elections a few months ago. The federal government is too removed from mass poverty to do anything about it. State governments erect one or two eye-catching diversions, try to pay salaries and pensions and wash their hands off basic welfare matters. The Governors Forum has already asked the First Lady to look nearer home for failures to redress poverty than at state capitals. Local governments now have a little more money with which they could improve potable water supply to desperately poor communities and reduce open defecation, but they merely provide more opportunities to feed huge local appetites for corruption. Between ineptitude, indifference and corruption, governments are daily deepening the pauperization of the mass of the population.
The historic juncture at which the nation stands which VP Osinbajo referred to is actually the creation of two basic manifestations of a significant character of our political economy. The first is the reality that direct control of state resources and indirect access to them have become the most assured means of accumulating personal wealth and political power. This creates the second: the competition for this control has become more and more desperate, and the recourse to ominous threats cries in the names of religion and region are merely arsenals used in this fight. Osinbajo should be very familiar with the current maneuvers around 2023. Entire regions or ethnic groups are having cases made for them to ‘produce’ the next president, or all hell will break loose.
The only unifying factor around all fractions of the Nigerian political elite is the desire to exclude all others in the race for political offices, while merit and inclusiveness are thrown to hell. Nothing here to do with management of poverty and insecurity, or taming corruption. The build-up to 2023 elections will deepen all the nation’s fault lines. Ethnicity and religion as well as massive, mostly stolen funds and violence will fuel a very damaging contest. Huge disputes among the elite and the existence of a severely alienated and poor population do not provide a solid foundation for resolving major conflicts. There is much in what the First Lady and VP Osinbajo said last week, but will those who should heed their warnings pay attention?
Abubakar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org