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Buhari, the tortoise, and the iron that grew cold

Buhari, the tortoise, and the iron that grew cold

“Strike while the iron is hot” is a popular dictum. A Google check of the meaning of this aphorism reveals a lot, but let’s stick to just two.

The first, from http://www.urbandictionary.com, says: “Act quickly while the opportunity is still available. Blacksmiths working iron by hand heat the iron in a fire to red-hot making it malleable. The smith removes the iron from the fire and shapes it with blows from a hammer. They need to work quickly before the iron cools. Once the iron is cool, it becomes brittle and the opportunity to hammer it into shape has passed.”

The second, from https://en.wiktionary.org/, says: “1. (literally metallurgy) To strike a hot piece of metal, especially iron, with a mallet or other tool before it cools, while it is still hot enough to be shaped. 2. (idiomatic) To act on an opportunity promptly while favorable conditions exist; to avoid waiting.”

We shall return to this matter later. For now, let us share a story.

One of the popular English textbooks used in most primary schools across South-Eastern Nigeria in the mid to late 1980s was Day By Day English Course. It was a series published by Longman Nigeria Limited and had, if I remember very well, Pupils Books 1 to 6. I can’t remember much about its authorship now, but the story is that in one of the series, I think Book 5, there is a poem about the tortoise that goes this way:

“Have you ever seen a tortoise / Crawling slowly on his way / Slowly crawling, slowly creeping / Fifty yards in half a day?

“Why so slowly, o so slowly / Does he creep from place to place / With that very, o so very / Tired look upon his face?”

As Nigerians across different social cadres continue to vent their frustrations over the hardship that has practically become their daily meal in the past months since the coming to power of the Muhammadu Buhari administration, my mind goes back to May 29, 2015, Buhari’s inaugural speech. After listing “enormous challenges” facing Nigeria – insecurity, pervasive corruption, the hitherto unending and seemingly impossible fuel and power shortages, which he identified as “the immediate concerns” that his government was going to tackle “head on” – Buhari expressed confidence that “we can fix our problems”, “modernize and uplift Nigeria”, and that the task may be daunting but “it is by no means insurmountable”.

“With depleted foreign reserves, falling oil prices, leakages and debts, the Nigerian economy is in deep trouble and will require careful management to bring it round and to tackle the immediate challenges confronting us, namely, Boko Haram, the Niger Delta situation, the power shortages and unemployment especially among young people. For the longer term we have to improve the standards of our education. We have to look at the whole field of medicare. We have to upgrade our dilapidated physical infrastructure,” Buhari said in his inauguration speech.

Read Also: Inaugural speech by President Muhammadu Buhari at his swearing-in on May, 29, 2015

“No single cause can be identified to explain Nigerian’s poor economic performance over the years than the power situation. It is a national shame that an economy of 180 million generates only 4,000MW, and distributes even less. Continuous tinkering with the structures of power supply and distribution and close to $20bn expended since 1999 have only brought darkness, frustration, misery, and resignation among Nigerians. We will not allow this to go on. Careful studies are underway during this transition to identify the quickest, safest and most cost-effective way to bring light and relief to Nigerians,” he added.

He further said he would frontally tackle unemployment, notably youth unemployment, which features strongly in the manifesto of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).

“We intend to attack the problem frontally through revival of agriculture, solid minerals mining as well as credits to small and medium-size businesses to kick-start these enterprises. We shall quickly examine the best way to revive major industries and accelerate the revival and development of our railways, roads and general infrastructure,” President Buhari said.

“I cannot recall when Nigeria enjoyed so much goodwill abroad as now. The messages I received from East and West, from powerful and small countries are indicative of international expectations on us. At home the newly elected government is basking in a reservoir of goodwill and high expectations. Nigeria therefore has a window of opportunity to fulfil our long-standing potential of pulling ourselves together and realizing our mission as a great nation,” he further said.

And he ended on a confident and optimistic note: “We have an opportunity. Let us take it.”

Buhari’s speech raised the hopes of not a few Nigerians, even the cynics. Analysts began to highlight the opportunities in the economy, pointing to quick-wins that the administration could tap into to retain its goodwill among the populace while working on the longer-term issues.

Mary Iwelumo, a partner in PwC Nigeria and head of strategy and operations, PwC West Africa, writing in May 2015, noted the fresh wave of optimism that was sweeping across the country as the newly-elected president – a man known for his zero tolerance for corruption and whose major campaign promises centred on “improving developmental indices (poverty reduction, employment, security, etc.), tackling corruption, insecurity and diversifying the economy” – prepared to take over the reins of power.

On the back of the outcome of the 2015 polls and subsequent events, Iwelumor wrote, “Nigeria saw its stock index rise by 8.3 percent and its currency, the naira, rose by 7 percent against the dollar in the parallel market”.

“Suddenly, the business environment is showing a bullish stance after months of lull and inactivity. In coming months, better economic indices such as lower exchange rates in the official market would imply lower costs for businesses and companies would be more willing to meet financial obligations,” she wrote.

But immediately after his inauguration, President Buhari and the APC, the party on whose platform he rode to power on a change mantra, became like the tortoise in our Primary 5 Day By Day English Course. Buhari, apparently unprepared for and overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead, began to crawl slowly on his way, doing fifty yards in half a day with very tired look upon his face. Nigerians quickly gave him a nickname – ‘Baba Go-Slow’.

We began to hear excuses, tales of an empty treasury, bandying of gargantuan figures allegedly stolen by officials of the immediate past administration, too much talk and little action on anti-corruption, how the new government was unable to work because of lower oil prices, and how even world-best economists from Harvard and Cambridge would not be able to turn around Nigeria’s economic fortunes if invited.

But while the Buhari administration dithered, Nigeria’s economic woes multiplied. Today, the story is that of widespread scarcity and of prices that have hit the roofs – scarcity of food, foreign exchange, petrol, electricity, water, essential goods and services, and virtually everything.

Opeyemi Agbaje, a renowned public policy analyst, wrote recently that the petrol scarcity, for instance, is simply a consequence of incompetent policy and missed opportunities and that the country was by-and-large mentally prepared for downstream petroleum sector deregulation by May 2015 with global oil markets ideally suited for the policy as well.

“So far Buhari’s only clear policy anchor is anti-corruption, and while there is a lot of motion, momentum and rhetoric on that front, ten months into the administration, there is yet no single conviction. The anti-corruption agencies’ strategy appears to be long on propaganda and media trials, but significantly short on the careful forensic investigations and evidence gathering that facilitate successful criminal prosecution. Meanwhile, as we fight the past corruption of PDP administrations, the current FX regime (with a N120 arbitrage opportunity between official and real exchange rates) has created probably the largest officially-sanctioned corruption scam in Nigeria’s history,” Agbaje wrote in a recent article.

“On the economy, the results are an unmitigated disaster. We did not have a cabinet for seven months and we yet do not have a rational economic policy framework; there is no 2016 budget as at April 5, 2016 and minimal economic activity as the economy is starved of resources, petrol and electricity; unemployment and under-employment are rising rapidly even according to official data, as GDP growth slows to just above 2 percent, with per capita incomes falling and poverty increasing; and foreign direct and even domestic investment are grinding to a halt. We are unable to take simple policy decisions regarding output, subsidies, markets, taxes, exchange rates and investment, and the policy and economic outlook has weakened significantly,” he said.

Rafiq Raji, managing director of Macroafricaintel Investment Limited, a Lagos-based Africa-focused macro research and investment consultancy, was also unequivocal in stating that the economic difficulties Nigeria faces today are due to Buhari’s bad policy choices.

For Sam Ohuabunwa, a renowned industrialist, the president’s inaction on a number of very crucial fronts is to blame for the hardship in the country today. He specifically pinpointed the following areas: no action on deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector, no firm decision on subsidy, no action on the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), no action on the need to enthrone a progressive foreign exchange pricing policy, no action on privatization in the last one year, no action on the Agriculture Transformation Agenda (ATA) and the Industrial Revolution policy introduced by the last regime, no action on the increasing menace of the Fulani herdsmen, no action on the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, and slow action on the 2016 budget.

This brings us to our opening dictum: strike while the iron is hot. Clearly, the Buhari administration has allowed the iron to get cold. Now it is trying to hammer a cold iron into shape, which requires harder labour, is more time-consuming, and may not necessarily achieve the desired result – or any result at all. Is it possible to put the iron back into the fire to re-heat and start the process afresh? Maybe. Some analysts have spoken about rebooting the country. This may be possible, but I am no longer confident that it can happen under the present Buhari administration. Meaning that we may have to wait until another administration comes in 2019 before anything can get better, because President Buhari and those around him seem at a loss regarding where to even begin.

In concluding his recent piece, Rafiq Raji said, “President Buhari is courageous, honest and has the will and intention to do good. Unfortunately, that is not enough. He has to be pragmatic as well. While his anti-corruption stance is laudable, it should not take all of his time. His primary priority should be how to reboot the economy, create jobs and return Nigeria to the path of prosperity. And in this regard, time is the resource he has little of, not money.”

This also brings us to the concluding verse of our tortoise poem: “It’s not because he’s lazy / Or because he’s old and slow / If you were carrying a house / How quickly would you go?”

That President Buhari is carrying the Nigerian house – or rather the broken pieces of the Nigerian house – is not in doubt. This house needs great intellect, tact and speed to rebuild. Time is of great essence. Does he have the capacity to rebuild this house? If not, why did he accept to carry it in the first place?