Can Nigeria’s weak institutions survive under president Buhari?

Shortly after president Buhari assumed power in 2015 and following the crash of oil prices and the consequent pressure on pressure on the Naira – Nigeria’s currency, there were debates on whether to devalue the naira to reflect market realities or to maintain a fixed exchange rate regime with its unsavoury consequences. While the Monetary Policy Committee of the Central Bank – a statutorily independent body – was contemplating how to respond, President Buhari in far away France, in September 2015, announced his decision: “I don’t think it is healthy for us to get the naira devalued,” Buhari said in an interview in Paris with France 24 broadcast.

Expectedly, after the pronouncement and even before that, the CBN lost its independence to determine the country’s monetary policy and had to rely instead on reading the ‘body language’ of the president and taking actions that will conform to that ‘body language’. The apex bank kept dishing out funny policies to defend the naira until the centre could no longer hold and it was forced to officially devalue the naira.

Not done, one of his party’s governor – Nasir el Rufai pointedly ordered the apex to either cut the interest rate or have it cut for it by fiat.

Then, in December 2015, the Nigerian army killed over 347 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shiite minority group, after a minor altercation. Not satisfied with the killings, the army proceeded to the group’s headquarters, levelled it to the ground, killed as many of its occupants and arrested its leader, Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, his wife, and several members of the group.

A panel of inquiry later indicted the army for the killings, describing them as crimes against humanity. It also recommended that those responsible must be brought to justice. Not only has the president ignored the panel recommendation, he has continued to hold the leader of the group and his wife in detention since then despite the clear orders of several courts granting them bail.

Ditto the former National Security Adivser, Sambo Dasuki, being prosecuted for corruption. He has been granted bail severally by the courts but the government has refused to release him. In frustration, Dasuki approached the court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the courts on October 4, 2016, declared his arrest and detention unlawful, arbitrary and a violation of local and international rights to liberty. The court also held that both the initial arrest and the further arrest and detention of Mr Dasuki by the government even after he was granted bail by courts of law in Nigeria amounts to a mockery of democracy and the rule of law.

The government still refused to release him. The president was later to justify his refusal to obey the court orders by saying “where national security and public interest are threatened the individual rights of those allegedly responsible must take second place in favour of the greater good of society.”

Also, in November 2018, the Statistician General of the country, Yemi Kale, raised an alarm that his agency couldn’t complete work on the unemployment figures of the country because funds have not been made available to the agency. Analysts didn’t take him too seriously, arguing that the cash-crunch was common to virtually all government agencies in Nigeria as government revenue targets have not been met.

When the results were eventually released in December 2018 showing record unemployment, Kale was summoned and the president ordered him “to change the high unemployment statistics.” Although Mr Kale has so far called the bluff of the presidency, no one can say if he will retain his job after the 2019 elections.

Since coming to power, President Buhari has mounted an unusual assault on the country’s institutions – in the guise of fighting corruption – personalising power, undermining the independence and impartiality of critical security institutions like the police, the military and anti-corruption agency (the EFCC chairman goes about with the president’s re-election badge pinned to his chest as a sign of personal loyalty. The police chief has specialised in framing and openly harassing opposition politicians; and service chiefs were once commandeered to attend a campaign function of the president). He detests the slowness or rule-bound procedure of democracy that he often reminiscences his days as a military dictator where he issues orders and those orders are obeyed without question.

He seems uncomfortable with an independent legislature and judiciary and so tries to weaken, undermine and consequently place them under his control. He’s unsuccessfully tried the Senate President and his deputy for corruption. He’s gone beyond the legal requirements to invade and arrest judges that have delivered judgments deemed unfavourable by the government or some of its agencies. He’s even gone further to forcefully remove the Chief Justice of the federation against the prescription of the constitution. In matters of corruption, the president is, at once, the accuser, prosecutor and judge.

Ultimately, institutions are critical to the sustainable development of every society. They are needed, in the in the words of Ricardo Hausmann, to “protect the country and its people, keep the peace, enforce rules and contracts, provide infrastructure and social services, regulate economic activity, credibly enter into inter-temporal obligations, and tax society to pay for it all).” Consequently, societies that prioritise building and strengthening of these institutions are ultimately successful while those that depend on rule by philosopher kings, moralists and strongmen ultimately become poor and fail.

Sadly, at the end of the president’s tenure, Nigerian institutions may become weaker and dysfunctional than they were before he came to power.


Christopher Akor

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