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Buhari’s green shoots of dynamism must have a strategic focus

There have recently been some signs of dynamism in President Muhammadu Buhari’s leadership. Recently, he approved the implementation of the Oronsaye report on rationalisation of government agencies, eight years after its publication. And two weeks ago, he appointed Professor Agboola Gambari, an internationally-renown bureaucrat, as his new chief of staff to replace the late Abba Kyari, who died from COVID-19 on 17 April.

These developments are, of course, inchoate, which is why I call them “green shoots”, and there are no guarantees they would blossom and lead to transformative change. Besides, they are coming very late. Imagine if President Buhari had brought in Professor Gambari at the start of his government to organise his later dysfunctional presidency. Imagine if he had approved the implementation of the Oronsaye report very early in his presidency in 2015.

Well, neither the Oronsaye report nor Gambari’s appointment is my focus here. Rather, my aim is to argue that President Buhari is running out of time to leave an indelible legacy, and that unless he gives his new-found dynamism a strategic focus his presidency would be a missed opportunity to be transformative. But Buhari is in a race against time!

The Buhari administration’s only strategic attempt at economic reforms was the publication of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP, in 2017. Given Nigeria’s serious economic mess, several local and foreign commentators called for the plan and said that it would “make or break” Nigeria

This week, President Buhari will be five years in power. Specifically, this Friday, 29 May, he will complete the first year of his second term, and thus has three more years in office! But, according to the theory of presidential election cycle, the last year of a presidential term is usually about politicking, not governing, as a president focuses on securing his re-election or on ensuring his party retains power after him. Thus, the Buhari administration will, by 2022, be neck-deep in the politics of the 2023 presidential election. Which means that President Buhari effectively has only two years to govern, that is, to do anything not driven by populism or short-termism but long-term positive consequences.

So far, his government has lacked such strategic focus. He has done nothing of a legacy type, of a history-making nature. The Oxford Dictionary defines a history-maker as “a person who influences the course of history or does something spectacular or worthy of remembrance.” The truth is, by that definition, President Buhari’s five years in power have been absolutely mediocre, utterly lacklustre. It is hard to look at economic governance, political governance and institutional development and say, objectively, that President Buhari has been a transformational leader; that if Buhari left office today, he would leave an indelible legacy.

Of course, Buhari’s staunch supporters will disagree vehemently. The arch-Buharists, who are behind the “Buhari Legacy Project”, will refer to his “feats” in infrastructure development. They will say “the railways are coming up; roads are coming up”. Indeed, President Buhari is reportedly spending N270 billion on maintenance, repairs and restoration of over 50 bridges across the country; he is also borrowing heavily to invest in the repairs and maintenance of other physical infrastructures, such as rail lines and roads. So, to Buhari’s supporters, his legacy is infrastructure development.

But the truth is, just as previous leaders are hardly remembered today for the infrastructure projects they initiated or completed, Buhari too would not be remembered in, say, 10 or 20 years, as a great leader who repaired roads and restored bridges. The question, then, is: what would he be remembered for?

Well, as I said earlier, he has, so far, done nothing spectacular or game-changing that is of a legacy type. A true legacy is something that influences the course of a nation’s history, that fundamentally and positively transforms the way it is governed. It’s about structural reforms that bring about transformative change and social progress. As Professors Paul Collier and Tim Besley said in their report on state fragility, “great leaders build institutions.” So, true legacy is about institution-building!

Of course, physical infrastructures are absolutely important and critical to development. But governing is more than simply awarding contracts for infrastructure projects, paid for with taxpayers’ money or with borrowed money. Debt-laden infrastructure development is not good government. In any case, the World Bank says that Nigeria would need sustained expenditure of almost $14.2 billion per year over the next decade to address its infrastructural challenges, and that the country currently spends about $5.9 billion.

So, how can President Buhari claim that Chinese-funded infrastructure development, which is nothing near what the country needs to address its infrastructural challenges, is a spectacular achievement? How can making Nigeria a pawn in China’s debt-trap diplomacy be a worthy legacy?

The truth is that no government can fund infrastructure development alone, either with taxpayers’ money or through borrowings. Elsewhere, major infrastructure investment is done by the private sector, while the government creates the right incentives for such investment. So, why has President Buhari not created the right economic environment to incentivise local and international investments in Nigeria’s infrastructure development?

Why, despite persistent calls by the IMF and the World Bank, has his government refused to undertake structural economic reforms to make Nigeria’s economy internationally competitive and attractive to foreign investors through privatisation of state-owned enterprises, including in the oil sector, and liberalisation of the economy?

The Buhari administration’s only strategic attempt at economic reforms was the publication of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP, in 2017. Given Nigeria’s serious economic mess, several local and foreign commentators called for the plan and said that it would “make or break” Nigeria. But since the ERGP was launched amid fanfare in April 2017, it has not made Nigeria but, rather, has left in its broken state. The ERGP set several targets to be met “by 2020”, including growing the economy by 7 percent, creating 15 million jobs and increasing FDI inflow from $3.1 billion to $10 billion. But, to date, none of the targets is remotely near being met, and the document itself is gathering dust in the dustbin of history!

The truth is that President Buhari does not believe in structural reforms. Being self-willed, he trusts his own personality and judgment rather than strong and independent institutions. As a result, he only addresses the symptoms and not the causes of problems. For instance, he fixates on poverty, corruption, insecurity and social tensions but ignores their underlying structural economic, political and institutional causes.

Nothing illustrates this personality-rather-than-institutional-based approach to governance better than an exchange between Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and former Governor Peter Obi during last year’s Vice-Presidential Election Debate. The exchange, in relation to the government’s anti-graft war, went thus:

Obi: “You can’t leave your shops and be chasing criminals.”

Osinbajo: “If you allow criminals to steal everything there will be no shop.”

The difference between these two perspectives is instructive. While Osinbajo was personalising the war against corruption, Obi wanted to institutionalise it. And Obi was right.

The truth is that, using the analogy of shops, major supermarkets put security guards and CCTV cameras in their stores to prevent or catch thieves, while focusing on serving their customers and selling their products in order to make profits. Their managers don’t leave their core operations to chase thieves. Surely, with effective and independent anti-corruption and law enforcement agencies, the president doesn’t need to make fighting corruption a personal crusade at the expense of properly running the country. But President Buhari has ignored the much-needed public sector and institutional reforms.

Then, what about political reforms? Truth is, Nigeria can’t make real progress under its current flawed politico-governance structure; it needs to be restructured. Yet, five years in power, President Buhari has done absolutely nothing about political restructuring.

All of this is why Buhari’s new-found dynamism is interesting. It needs a strategic focus, and must bring about fundamental economic, political and institutional reforms over the next two years. Otherwise, President Buhari would leave office in 2023 with absolutely no worthy legacy!

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