Buhari: The renewed debate on underperformance -By Ayo Olukotun

Filed under: Political Issues |

Ayo Olukotun

 

On a far more serious and fateful level is the fact that the Presidency itself has turned out, mostly by acts of omission, to be a sort of refuge, a sort of protected haven for corruption. As I write these words, the case of the (former) Secretary to the Government of the Federation, is still sitting on the desk of the President awaiting action…” Harvard University Professor, Biodun Jeyifo, The Nation, October 15, 2017

As a columnist, it is part of my tour of duty to read newspapers, foreign and national, for the purpose of teasing out salient trends and opinions in Nigeria and around the world. In a country like ours, where the culture of opinion polling, popularity rating and evidence-based research is poorly developed, the opinions of leading newspaper columnists, radio and television commentators, serve as a rough and ready bell weather of the public pulse and mood swings. The views expressed in the opening quote by renowned literary scholar, Prof. Biodun Jeyifo, whose weekly column is itself a poster indicator of the globalisation of the Nigerian public sphere, is by no means an isolated example of an emerging critical interrogation of President Muhammadu Buhari’s underperformance.

The jury is coming in hard and fast with the verdict, that even when we allow for constraints of presidential ill-health and an inherited oil price downswing, the scenarios of change projected by the Buhari administration are slowly dissolving into a frustrating clime of unfulfilled expectations; a once beckoning utopia is receding into a false dawn; the promised land is blanketed by a wilderness of underperformance, double standards, infirm purpose, and endless bickering among departments and top personnel of government. Part of the problem, as Dr. Lasisi Olagunju reminded us recently, is that the government is its own opposition; most of the damaging bad news is furnished by insiders through sensational “leaks” to the media. Argued Olagunju: “We have a government that is opposition unto itself, rolling from one self-induced controversy to another…how about the spectacle of a riotous glass house family, stripping one another for their neighbours to watch?”

In a sense, what we are witnessing is the price tag of open government, in which there are few hiding places for transgressors; but in this instance, open government has become open subversion of government by aggrieved insiders getting their pounds of flesh against other insiders. Those who lost out in the war of spoils- sharing and in the race for the juiciest morsels, for example in the opaque oil sector, are raising the alarm against the favoured sons. Whistle-blowing has turned on its apostles in savage feuds ravaging the interstices of the Buhari administration. To be clear, unity is not unanimity, but how much leadership, how much policy dividends should one expect from a cabinet so often at odds with itself? As everyone knows, the cracks and crevices of the administration are reflected in the ruling party, where a South-West faction is in open defiance of the centre, on matters such as restructuring and the prospects of a second term for Buhari.

Divisions and open revolts are not uncommon in Nigerian politics; what is baffling and clearly unproductive is the scale and intensity of these conflicts, as well as the impression of a choir singing in discordant tunes without a controlling maestro to produce a blend. Is it not disconcerting, to give an example of policy anxiety, that the country has re-entered the debt treadmill on an unprecedented scale, by contracting more debt to pay off earlier debt? The recent request made by the administration to the National Assembly for an additional loan of $5.5bn suggests that the country is embracing debt slavery, whatever the unconvincing justification, at a runaway level. Already, the chickens are coming home to roost with a country forced to set aside almost 33 per cent of its budget for debt servicing. This is the price a country pays when it refuses to tackle fundamental issues of economic redirection, and cannot muster the discipline to cut its cloth according to its size.

Change which was the anthem that heralded the administration to power should have meant a parting of ways with the easy spending profligacy of previous regimes. But the administration has not exhibited the courage to take those key decisions, some of them requiring constitution amendments, that should have made this to happen. The renewed debate about underperformance does not suggest that the government is totally bereft of achievements; what it does emphasise, however, is that the administration is punching far below the projected agenda of national renewal and a decisive break with the past.

Let us go back to the issue of the fight against corruption, the flagship of the government’s reform programme. The struggle is not exactly dead, but it is withered and wearied, waiting for new life to be breathed into it. Take, for instance, the example given by Jeyifo of the high profile case of the suspended Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Babachir Lawal, as well as the mystery of heaps of currency notes lodged in a private house in a case involving the suspended Director General of the National Intelligence Agency, Mr. Ayo Oke. In retrospect, and considering the tardiness of government in taking further actions on these cases, it would appear that the flurry of activities including a probe were meant to douse or chloroform public outrage. It would have been a demonstration of gravitas to have concluded, by now, those matters, to the extent that they represent critical benchmarks for assessing Buhari’s anti-corruption programme.

Similarly, on several well-publicised cases, mainly involving the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, bouts of activities and seeming moral energy have been followed by long lulls and judicial reversals, as a result of inertia and lack of follow through.

What we find, therefore, is that on this very important subject, which foreshadows Buhari’s place in history, solid achievement, as opposed to symbolic gestures, has eluded us. Do you want to consider areas of social protection and quality of life? Apart from somewhat cosmetic and thinly spread interventions such as N-Power, the whole department of human development, measured by health, education and social infrastructure is in a shambles. Interestingly, this is where citizens, many of whom care little for the faces of their governors or President encounter the state. Needless to say that with most of our public hospitals including the Aso Rock clinic badly dishevelled, with uncompleted road projects littering our cities and country side, with quality education increasingly becoming a distant, mutilated dream, the government wears the face of an absent, distracted or do nothing parent.

What then can be done? Buhari should begin to create a fresh narrative of governmental vigour and policy focus, in place of the current drift. He can best do this by keeping his house in order, beginning from the Presidency and the cabinet which sometimes resemble, in their discordance, houses of commotion. The President should rejig his cabinet, in order to prioritise policy delivery, and in the same breath should not shy away from taking fundamental decisions that can lift the country out of the current doldrums.

 

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