• Monday, December 04, 2023
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Jonathan vs Buhari: Hard choices in next month’s election

Nigerians will go to the polls on March 28 to elect the next president. It will not be an easy decision for most Nigerians. Every indication suggests that the race is close. But this is because neither the main candidate, PDP’s Goodluck Jonathan nor APC’s Muhammadu Buhari, inspires sufficient confidence about his ability to tackle Nigeria’s multiple challenges.

This presents Nigerians with two mutually exclusive yet inadequate options. A vote for Jonathan is for continuity but, frankly, the president would not win re-election in any mature democracy because of his government’s failure to improve the lives of most Nigerians. A vote for Buhari is for change, but what kind of change? There are many unknowns about the former military leader, and voting for him would require a leap of faith.

So, what should influence how Nigerians vote next month? Well, we should think carefully about which of the two candidates, on balance, offers the best prospects in terms of the issues that matter to the people of this country. As I have said previously on this page, the election should be decided on 3 criteria: competence, values and vision. First, which candidate would be more competent at managing the economy, especially given current challenges? Second, which would be more able to address the issues that are most concerning to Nigerians? And third, which has a better vision of the future of this country? Let’s compare the two candidates and their parties on the 3 criteria.

First, on economic competence, I believe, as I argued on this page last week, that APC’s spending plans are out of kilter with Nigeria’s current and future budgetary challenges. To suggest, as APC does, that the sharp and continuing decline in oil revenue would not affect its fiscal spending is misleading. In 2010, when the UK Labour Party, under Gordon Brown, lost the general election, the party’s Finance Minister left a note for the incoming minister. The note reads: “I’m afraid, there’s no money”. Even though he later said he was joking, the note set the tone for the new government’s deficit reduction policy. APC intellectuals have tried to justify their party’s massive spending plan by saying that it would stimulate aggregate demand and growth. Of course, expansionary fiscal policy could lead to growth, but at what cost to macroeconomic stability? As the World Economic Forum said in one of its Global Competitiveness Reports, “In the absence of macroeconomic stability, growth will be anaemic or, at best, volatile”.

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Last week, a BusinessDay report estimated that APC’s manifesto spending plan would cost N53 trillion over 4 years. Yet we don’t know where the money would come from. No party in any serious democracy makes unfunded spending commitments. For instance, the UK Labour Party has promised to increase spending on the National Health Service if it wins the May 7 general election, but also said it would fund the plan by introducing a “mansion tax” – a tax on any house worth over £2 million. APC’s economic plan needs to bridge the gap between aspiration and resources. A profligate APC federal government would harm Nigeria’s economic credibility with foreign investors and credit-rating agencies.

None of this, of course, is to suggest that the PDP government has a sterling record on managing the economy. After all, despite its overall economic success, it has failed in its 16 years in power to diversify Nigeria’s export base and create formidable fiscal and external buffers. But PDP is more in tune with the country’s fiscal challenges and the need to maintain macroeconomic stability. By contrast, APC leaders and intellectuals are fiscal activists, who would run large deficits.

What about the second criterion, values? Who is more in touch with the popular mood on the issues, such as corruption, poverty, inequality, and insecurity? I believe APC is stronger than PDP on this terrain. After 8 years in central government, 2 as vice president and 6 as president, it seems that President Jonathan is set in his views on, and approach to, these issues. For instance, his redefinition of corruption suggests he has no fresh ideas on how to tackle it. When he talks about poverty and inequality, he often refers to the number of billionaires and private jets in Nigeria. He believes that Nigeria has wealth but it doesn’t go round. Yet it’s the duty of government to ensure that wealth is fairly distributed. As President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron said in a recent joint article: “For economic growth to be sustainable and meaningful, it must reach everyone, not just a few at the top”. President Jonathan has not demonstrated enough commitment to make sure prosperity is shared broadly. And on security, he doesn’t seem to know what to do about the Boko Haram insurgency!

This is where the election of General Buhari would present a golden opportunity for a fresh start. I believe that for political, rather than military, reasons the Boko Haram insurgency would subside under a Buhari government. Furthermore, Buhari’s body language would send clear anti-corruption signals, but he would face two challenges. First, it’s counter-intuitive to increase the size of the state, as APC would do, and hope to fight corruption. This is because there is a strong correlation between bloated states and corruption. Secondly, a President Buhari would soon realise that fighting corruption as a military head of state is not the same as doing so as a civilian president.

It is interesting that Bola Tinubu, APC national leader, compared Buhari to Mandela, Ronald Reagan, General Eisenhower, and General De Gaulle, old men or retired military men, who saved their countries. But would a President Buhari be able to rein in his party’s governors and legislators, let alone those of other parties. How would he deal with powerful ministers? What, as a matter of fact, would be the relationship between a President Buhari and Tinubu? I suspect that Buhari’s leadership style would not be that different from Jonathan’s. He would appoint competent and powerful people as ministers, but adopt an essentially hands-off approach! Don’t bet on it: there could also be a divided APC in government because of oligarchical tendencies!
Finally, on vision: well, neither candidate is exactly a visionary. However, President Jonathan has shown some commitment to economic and political reforms, with his Transformation Agenda and the National Conference. By contrast, there is no evidence that General Buhari believes this country needs any significant political and institutional reforms, or that he would lead a government that significantly restructures Nigeria. He is a conservative on such issues. Even on economic reform, a Buhari government, being statist, would not promote liberalisation and competition.

So, on the 3 criteria of competence, values and vision, I would score President Jonathan higher than General Buhari on economic management and on vision, but would score Buhari higher than Jonathan on values. But this leaves Nigerians with no great choices. A ‘competent’ and ‘visionary’ leader that doesn’t share the values that matter to the people is not a good leader. Equally, a leader that has compassion and other values but lacks economic competence and vision would soon falter. Thus, if either candidate wins the presidential election, the winner must address his deficiencies. If President Jonathan is re-elected, he must vigorously pursue economic efficiency but combine this with equity and safety. If Buhari wins, he must support his values with economic hard-headedness and vision.

I wish Nigeria a free, fair and peaceful presidential election!

Olu Fasan