Nigeria can’t prosper with its president’s ‘small means’ ethos

Federal Executive Council, FEC

The vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, is President Buhari’s man Friday. He is loyal, and always takes it upon himself to vouch for Buhari before Nigerians. He tells them about Buhari’s selfless love for this country; he tells them that Buhari goes to bed every night thinking about Nigerians. Recently, he was telling Nigerians about Buhari’s modest means and his probable descent into further poverty. Addressing his party’s campaign volunteers, Osinbajo said: “When I looked at his (Buhari’s) asset declaration form in 2015, I said to him, ‘Mr President, I am so much richer than you, it is an embarrassment’”. He then added that Buhari “is probably poorer than when he became president in 2015”.

For a start, it’s not clear why Buhari would be poorer, given that, as president, he is fully maintained by the state, with a salary and other emoluments, and that his 2015-level assets could be legally managed to increase in value. Surely, the Nigerian Constitution doesn’t envisage that a president would leave office poorer than he entered it. But the undertone of Osinbajo’s statement was clear. Basically, he was saying that Buhari is a man of modest means, who doesn’t care about financial matters, who is not concerned about making money or creating wealth. For him, living modestly, with limited means, is a virtue!

In 2015, Buhari declared that he had N30m in his bank account, in addition to five homes, two mud houses and farms, as well as 270 cattle, 26 sheep, five horses, a variety of birds, shares in three firms, two underdeveloped plots of land and two cars. The BBC said at the time that Buhari’s assets were “a fortune for the vast majority of the population but probably the equivalent of loose change for the many working in the dizzy world of Nigerian politics”. The BBC was right. With 92.1% of Nigerians living at below $5.5 a day and nearly 90m (about 45%) living in extreme poverty, Buhari is not poor by the standards of most Nigerians. But he is a ‘pauper’ by the standards of most Nigerian politicians.

However, saying that Buhari is poor by the standards of the average Nigerian politician or retired general doesn’t mean that every wealthy Nigerian politician or retired general is corrupt. Surely, the vice president, who declared N94m and $900,000 in bank accounts, in addition to four houses, one of them in the UK, is not corrupt. So, it’s quite possible, philosophically, for Buhari to be wealthy without being corrupt. But, that’s the point: Buhari doesn’t have that philosophy, that wealth-creation worldview. For instance, when Osinbajo expressed his embarrassment at being so much richer than Buhari, the president’s reply, very instructive, was: “I am only a soldier; you are a big lawyer”.

First, allow me to digress. Why does Buhari, a retired general, always insult his fellow soldiers by associating them with dullards? Not long ago, he said “I am a very slow reader”, and then added, “maybe because I’m an ex-soldier”. In another comment, referring to the vice president, Buhari said:“youth and intellect are squarely behind him, while age and purely military experience is behind me”. Note the word “purely”, as if someone with a military experience can’t have intellect. Why, despite the evidence to the contrary, does Buhari always think that an ex-soldier can’t run a business successfully and be rich or can’t read fast and understand complex and technical arguments? Of course, most soldiers are intelligent and aspirational, many of them autodidacts, but desiring to better themselves. Money making and wealth creation are certainly not dirty words to most ex-soldiers.

But, apparently, they are to Buhari! He retired from the army at the age of 41, following the overthrow of his military regime in 1985. Yet, 30 years later, at the age of 72, when he became president, all he had in assets were small enough to embarrass his vice president. Buhari blamed that on being an ex-soldier, but, in truth, the problem is philosophical; it’s about the lens through which he views the world. Put simply, Buhari is a socialist or even a Marxist, who values modest means and a Spartan lifestyle. He sees himself as the hero of the poor, and has built a cult following around what the journalist David Hundeyin recently described as “the socialist politics of envy”, which shaped the outcome of the recent presidential election, in which Buhari successfully set the poor against the rich, with the message that, as Hundeyin put it, “poverty is a virtue because only the ‘corrupt’ are able to live well”. Sadly, the poor are often beguiled by populists claiming to be fighting for them.

Osinbajo once said that “the common man is Buhari’s priority”. He said President Buhari once told him: “Look, I have been a salary earner all my life. I have never done any business; the only thing I have ever done is government work, either as a soldier or as a head of state”. Now, think of it. Here is a president who has never run a business in his life, who has always been maintained by the state, but who wants to help the common man. How would he, philosophically, want to do that? Of course, he would favour a statist approach of social interventions and use socialist policies as a tool of governance.

However, as experience shows, that’s bad economics, which would perpetuate poverty. Socialist governments like to tax and spend to “help” the poor, but they always fail all over the world, as is happening in Venezuela. The truth is that the poor cannot grow an economy; they don’t have the means. But the middle class are the engine of economic growth; they have the discretionary income and provide the stable consumer base that drives productive investment. Which is why any government that truly wants to help the poor must focus on expanding the middle class. But socialist governments and leaders, like Buhari, hate the aspirant middle class, whose desire for living well, they regard as elitist.

But, according to Aristotle, politics is primarily concerned with“the actualisation of human flourishing”, and “the pursuit of the higher good of living well”. And, asThomas Jefferson said, “the care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate object good government”. So, any government whose policies are not generating prosperity and improving general welfare so that its citizens can flourish and live well is not a good government.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being ascetic, provided it’s not in opposition to wealth creation. Bill Gates is the world’s second richest man, yet he lives modestly, wearing a $10 watch. The spirit of capitalism, as Max Weber said, requires modesty but also ceaseless capital accumulation. After all, how would society be better off, generating jobs and ensuring good living, if it’s not creating wealth, if it’s not allowing money to manifest its “prolific, generating nature”, as Benjamin Franklin put it?

But Buhari’s asceticism rejects the capitalistic ethos, both personally and in terms of policies.Yet, this is dampening business dynamism and damaging investors’ confidence. Even worse, it’s making material poverty acceptable to poor Nigerians, most of who voted massively for his re-election. But no nation can prosper with an anti-wealth worldview. Buhari must show that his ascetism embraces the spirit of capitalism!



Olu Fasan


  1. Remi Adeyeye says

    I personally thank God Mr. Buhari remains president of Nigeria. I don’t think acceptance of material poverty by poor Nigerians is a key problem for Nigeria. I think greed, public theft, a congress dedicated to open squandering of public resources on themselves are more the problem than the acceptance of poverty by poor people. I think elites who seem to think of Nigeria in a context devoid of the need to address issues of human dignity for the vast majority of the people are more the problem. I think banding about “capitalism” without addressing the basic needs of ordinary Nigerians for good sanitation and health is more the problem. Mr. Buhari needs help. He needs the contribution of all Nigerians, particularly the “enlightened” ones, not abstract writings oozing from the pens of those whose minds appear to have been irredeemably corrupted.

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