Six years on, Buhari has failed woefully as president of Nigeria

There is no point pretending to be what I am not. And truth is, I’m not a fan of President Muhammadu Buhari. No, not Buhari as an individual, who, I believe, is a good man; but Buhari as president of Nigeria. That latter Buhari, who marked his sixth year in power last week, on May 29, is, sadly, an unmitigated failure!

Ouch! That sounds too direct and irreverential in the Nigerian context. But the guiding philosophy of this column, any column I write, is, to borrow the words of the Economist magazine: “The questioning of institutions and received wisdom is a democratic virtue, and a sceptical lack of deference towards leaders is the first step to reform.”

Think about it. No serious-minded columnist would genuflect to a president with untrammelled and unbridled executive powers, whose behaviour, policies, actions and inactions can adversely affect the lives and wellbeing of over 200m people and the fate of a nation, and who lives in a bubble, in an echo chamber, surrounded by sycophants.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece titled “Buhari is Nigeria’s most arrogant yet inept leader” (BusinessDay, January 14, 2019). I stick with that view. Of Nigeria’s democratic leaders, there were only two categories: the incompetent but humble, like Shehu Shagari and Goodluck Jonathan; and the competent but arrogant, even egotistical, like Olusegun Obasanjo. Buhari represents a third category: both incompetent and arrogant!

Truth is, President Buhari is utterly clueless, lacks leadership qualities, and bereft of imagination and problem-solving skills. Yet, he’s unbelievably arrogant and stubborn

Truth is, President Buhari is utterly clueless, lacks leadership qualities, and bereft of imagination and problem-solving skills. Yet, he’s unbelievably arrogant and stubborn. He runs Nigeria like a personal ruler, a monarchical president, surrounded by self-serving minions, totally aloof and removed from the people.

Let’s start with the basic issue of political leadership. In his best-selling book “How to win friends and influence people”, Dale Carnegie argues extensively that the only way a leader can influence people is by talking about what they want and engaging with them. That, indeed, is what, worldwide, presidents and prime ministers do: they are sensitive to the feelings of the people, they set up focus groups and read opinion polls, they consult and engage to find common grounds and the right way forward on issues.

But not President Buhari. I mean, how many times in the past six years has he left Abuja to directly engage and listen to Nigerians, meet traditional rulers, elder statesmen and other prominent Nigerians across the country in order to win hearts and minds and forge a consensus on any national issue? Well, hardly ever! He is holed up in his gilded presidential palace in Abuja where everyone must come and meet him.

His aides say that’s his style; he doesn’t like to talk. Yet, he “talks” regularly through them with incendiary press statements that gratuitously insult Nigerians and inflame tensions across the country. Did Buhari sign off those disdainful press statements from Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina, his spokespersons? It’s hard to know as he is not talking himself!

But if Buhari is naturally reclusive, taciturn and tongue-tied, why was he desperate to become president of a tension-prone, multinational, multi-cultural and multi-religious country that needs a unifying, visible and engaging leader? Buhari was so determined to be president he ran for the office four times. Yet, thanks to his heroic complacency, his utter lack of ambition and urgency, and, of course, his unwillingness to engage and learn, Nigeria has significantly regressed from the country he took over six years ago in 2015.

It’s hard to avoid a comparison between President Buhari and US president Joe Biden. In 2015, when Buhari became president, aged 72, he said he wished he were in his forties. He moved at such a snail’s speed that Nigerians nicknamed him “Baba Go Slow”, a moniker he relished. But Biden became president at 78. Yet, his transformational leadership, his high ambition and sense of urgency and his high-octane and results-focused actions belie the fact that he is a near-octogenarian and put Buhari in the shade. Indeed, Biden’s first 100 days in office outmatched Buhari’s first two years!

President Buhari’s performance over the past six years has been so appalling that many of those who actively contributed to his campaign and helped him become president in 2015 have publicly expressed deep regrets about the role they played in his victory.

Writing in his Vanguard column recently, Dr Dele Sobowale said: “I wake up each morning these days begging the Almighty for His forgiveness; for my contribution towards making Buhari’s presidency possible in 2015” (Vanguard, May 17, 2021). Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, another erstwhile loyalist, said that Buhari turned out to be “dangerously looking as if power was an end in itself, and governance was all about the personal convenience of the leader”, adding that by his second year in office, “it was clear that Buhari was not the solution. Indeed, he looked more like the problem.” (Vanguard, October 7, 2020).

But, in truth, history is simply repeating itself. While criticising Buhari in 2016, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar rightly said: “We have a president who doesn’t learn from the past.” Simply put, since Buhari became president in 2015,his leadership style and policy orientation have largely been path dependent, following a well-trodden, yet misguided, path that first became obvious when he was military head of state in the mid-1980s.

Recently, following the death of Lt-Gen Joshua Dogonyaro, a former chief of defence staff, some newspapers published the coup speech he gave when Buhari was overthrown as military head of state on August 27, 1985. Reading the descriptions of the style and substance of Buhari’s military regime and comparing them with the style and substance of his civilian administration today, it’s obvious that hardly anything has changed.

Think about the following words used to describe Buhari in the coup speech: “stubborn and ill-advised unilateral actions”; “energies were directed at imaginary oppositions rather than to effective leadership”; “the nation’s meagre resources are being wasted on unproductive ventures”; “government has distanced itself from the people and the yearnings and aspirations of the people have been ignored”; “the government is drifting”, and “the economy does not seem to be getting better.”

I mean, which of the above words, used 36 years ago, do not resonate today? Hasn’t Nigeria’s economy been subjected to stubborn and ill-advised unilateral actions over the past six years? The Economist recently wrote a piece titled “Nigeria’s economy: Stuck in a rut”, pointing out that GDP per person “has fallen every year since 2015”, thanks to misguided policies, such as import bans, border closures and rigid exchange rate policy.

What about excessive borrowing and wasteful spending? President Buhari’s administration has borrowed and spent significantly more than any of his predecessor’s. Yet, unemployment, poverty, insecurity, etc, are at unprecedented levels.

Recently, this newspaper published data showing that, at an average of N1.3trillion, Buhari’s security appropriation was the highest since 1999. Yet, Buhari said last week, “insecurity is hindering my plans for Nigeria.” So, what happened to the massive security spend?

And where his so-called “plans for Nigeria”? Is the much-vaunted infrastructure investment that has trapped Nigeria in unsustainable debt and yet hasn’t not contributed to economic growth or job creation? Or is it the wasteful spending on agriculture, which has not led to increased agricultural export or stopped food inflation from rising to 23%, “the highest in two decades”, according to the Economist?

Yet, with six years gone, Buhari has barely two years left in office. But what can he do in two years? Well, his best legacy project is to build a national consensus for restructuring Nigeria. The spinoff from that would stabilise the polity and help the economy. Otherwise, he risks an eternal legacy of failing twice in power!

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