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Questions Buhari’s second-last Independence Day speech failed to answer

At this point in President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency, when he has spent six-and-a-half years in power and has just about one-and-a-half years left, he should be showing how his administration has transformed Nigeria and the lives of Nigerians. In particular, he should have used his Independence Day speech, on October 1 this year,his penultimate, to answer, with incontrovertible evidence, this question: “Are Nigeria and Nigerians better off today than they were in 2015?”

Unfortunately, President Buhari’s speech did not answer that critical question. Rather, it was full of empty rhetoric, outlandish claims of achievements, a litany of excuses for failure and spurious new initiatives.

George Orwell famously said in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ that political language is designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. That’s what President Buhari’s speech did: presenting mere activities and projects as solid achievements when their tangible outcomes are dubious.

For instance, President Buhari claimed credit for infrastructure and legislation, such as the controversial Petroleum Industry Act. But, leaving aside their deep flaws, the infrastructure projects and legislation are mere enablers, not drivers, of progress. A government can build roads, bridges and railways as well as pass legislations, but without the right policy environment, the right human and institutional capacities, the physical infrastructures and legislations would not, in themselves, transform the nation.

In the end, governments are judged not by roads, bridges or pieces of legislation; rather, by how their policies, supported by infrastructure and legislation, help to stimulate economic growth, generate prosperity, create jobs, tackle poverty and guarantee the protection of lives and property. None of these is happening in Nigeria, which remains “the poverty capital of the world”, and gripped by economic collapse, insecurity, political and social tensions, and other woes.

Yet, President Buhari was self-praising. “A lot been achieved in the last six years on many fronts”, he said, adding: “But critics misdiagnosed incremental progress as stagnation”. How can “a lot” be “achieved” and yet progress is “incremental”? In any case, did Buhari promise “incremental progress”? No. Before his election in 2015, he promised “transformational change” on national security, the economy and corruption. Yet, six-and-a-half years later, what Nigeria has seen is not transformational change, not incremental progress, not even stagnation, but utter deterioration: things have gone far worse!

Read Also: Weak construction sector growth contradicts Buhari’s Independence Day speech

Take the economy. The fundamentals were still relatively strong when Buhari assumed office in 2015. But under his government, the economy is comatose: exchange rate, interest rate, inflation, foreign investment, non-oil export, unemployment, poverty, debt – name it – have reached their worst levels in decades. As always, Buhari blamed the economic condition he inherited and the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, he resorted to hyperbolism, saying: “Since the civil war, I doubt whether we have seen a period of more heightened challenges than what we have witnessed in this period”.

Of course, blaming COVID-19 for Nigeria’s parlous state is a convenient but baseless excuse for policy failure. As the managing director of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, once said: “Countries that have been building strong fundamentals and diversifying their economies are in a better position” to deal with the economic impacts of COVID-19. Nigeria was not in that position. As the World Bank pointed out, the economic condition that President Buhari inherited in 2015 was made worse by wrong policies. So, instead of blaming COVID-19, President Buhari should accept responsibility for mismanaging Nigeria’s economy.

What about national security? Well, in 2015, insecurity was limited to the North-East and North-West. But under Buhari’s administration, the whole country is insecure, as murderous bandits, kidnappers and herdsmen militias spread across Nigeria, killing, maiming and ravaging with impunity. The Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short, best describes the state of Nigeria under the Buhari administration.

Recently, Professor Wole Soyinka told the Financial Times: “Even during the civil war, I do not believe we devalued humanity as much as we do today”. He described Nigeria as “a society which is “actually eating itself, sort of self-directed cannibalism and the total deterioration of our humanity”. That shouldn’t be happening under President Buhari, who promised to make Nigeria safer; to protect lives and property!

Then, take the third element of Buhari’s manifesto promise: corruption. In the early days of his administration in 2015, Buhari was described as the “new Sheriff in town”, whose body language alone would fetter corrupt officials. Yet, later that year, his first budget was marred by claims of “budget padding”, and his government was subsequently dogged by corruption allegations, forcing him to sack, reluctantly, some of his top officials. Truth is, Buhari has failed to hobble corruption. Indeed, according to Transparency International, corruption perception has worsened in Nigeria, which ranked as the second most corrupt country in West Africa in 2020! And that’s despite the so-called anti-corruption war!

Yet, despite the litany of failures, President Buhari audaciously declared in his Independence Day speech: “No government since 1999 has done what we have done in six years to put Nigeria back on track”. Really? When I read that statement, I couldn’t help thinking that President Buhari was taking the mickey out of Nigerians, basically insulting the people.

The best government since 1999? How preposterous! Where, for instance, was Buhari when a post-1999 government freed Nigeria from debt peonage? President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government negotiated a 60 per cent write-off on Nigeria’s official (Paris Club) debt, about $35bn, and paid off the rest, leaving Nigeria debt free. President Buhari’s administration has not achieved that great feat; instead, it has, perversely, returned Nigeria to debt peonage!

Last week, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, said in a speech: “It is immoral to stack up debt for future generations”. But Buhari does not share that view. In 2015, Nigeria’s external debt was $7.35bn. But over five years, under his administration, Nigeria’s external debt rose to $23.57bn in 2020 and is rising!

Every economist knows that the biggest worry about debt is the cost of servicing it. Which is why debt service-to-revenue ratio is a more important indicator of debt burden than debt-to-GDP ratio? Yet, under Buhari, Nigeria is spending 97 per cent of total Federal Government revenue on debt servicing! It is unbelievable!

Of course, economic growth is central to everything. But growth is anaemic; non-oil exports have collapsed; and foreign investors have virtually abandoned Nigeria. Recently, the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission, NIPC, said that only 7.65 per cent of the $203.89bn foreign investment inflows expected between 2017 and 2020 were realised; in other words, 92 per cent or $188.29bn of investment opportunities were lost.

Yet, despite all these – a comatose economy, worst in 38 years; the worst security situation in decades; the worst social and political tensions in decades; entrenched corruption; and deepening poverty – President Buhari said his government has “put Nigeria back on track”. It’s utterly provocative!

Indeed, the whole Independence Day speech is full of provocative statement and empty rhetoric. For instance, he told Nigerians “to get vaccinated”, but where are the vaccines? He said Nigeria is on its journey to “pharmaceutical independence” – of course, he knows that is wishful thinking! He said he’s “refocusing” the civil service “to provide world-class service to run our country” –after six-and-a-half years in office, with just one-and-a-half years left!

Of course, he repeated the banal statement that “Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable”, while doing everything to destroy the fragile unity that exists. President Buhari is interested in intimidating Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho, separatist leaders, while ignoring leaders and sponsors of Boko Haram terrorists, murderous bandits and killer-herdsmen militia. He is playing ethnic politics with Nigeria’s unity and security.

President Buhari’s penultimate Independence Day speech did not show a leader who has transformed Nigeria butone who’s leaving the country worse than he met it. Anawful legacy!

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