In hindsight, President Buhari’s handlers will rue the Arise TV interview. It presented to viewers a man who looked trapped in a time warp. It removed the mystique around a taciturn ruler, revealing an insular president, stuck in the past, with self-preservation as his sole preoccupation.
The interview clarified that those ruinous policies which have sent Nigeria into a ditch – including putting a noose around the naira, banning Twitter, wasteful energy subsidies, the militarisation of the Southeastern region, earning notoriety for the mundane task of cattle rearing, and elevating nepotism to the status of state policy – is all Buhari, the President, and Presidency.
Duplicitous image launderers, political opportunists, and shameless intellectuals are complicit in this distortion of reality. They packaged a man trapped in a time warp as the future.
The young people conned into this time-warping charade, now understand why many right-thinking persons considered Buhari unfit for office.
That interview presented Buhari unvarnished. The dystopian reality it revealed is that the ship of the Nigerian state is steered by a man staring unblinkingly at the rear-view mirror, a mind frozen in the time of cattle grazing routes, of a bloody civil war where the winner looked as bad as the loser, of military generals turning a broadcast station into a shooting range.
The first question about his security plans, provided an opportunity for the president to a terrorised nation to offer reassurance. To lay a grand vision, show how resources are being deployed to troubled regions, the challenges involved in the task, successes recorded.
After stating his government’s efforts at ensuring food security – shutting the borders and ordering Nigerians to grow what they eat – Buhari took the interviewers back to the time when he “collected people, put them in cages and say they are guilty until they can prove themselves innocent…,” The nostalgia was so unmistakable in his voice, it was surreal.
“But what happened? Eventually, I myself was arrested, detained and they were giving back what they had looted,” Buhari said.
The palace coup that removed Major General Muhammadu Buhari in 1985 did a number on his psyche. In Karl Maier’s book, This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis, Babangida had this to say about motivations behind military coups:
“You see, we were smart people. We don’t intervene when we know the climate is not good for it or the public will not welcome it. We wait until there is frustration in society. In all the coups, you find there has always been one frustration or the other. Any time there is frustration, we step in. And then there is a demonstration to welcome the redeemers. We have not done it without collaborators in the civil society — collaborators in the media, collaborators among people who have the means.”
On August 27, 1985, mid-level military officers, led by Ibrahim Babangida, hijacked Buhari’s government and hurled him into prison. Buhari had emerged as head of state on the promise of fixing the economy, one year later, it was worse. Asceticism didn’t compensate for invalid economic ideas.
So Buhari’s mien may have been jocular during the Arise TV interview, but his actions speak to self-preservation as the subtext of every policy.
The use of soldiers to disrupt protests, the reluctance to fire his previous set of incompetent security chiefs, efforts to gag the free press and shut down criticisms online, the quiet “easing out of corrupt people,” holding on to wasteful petrol subsidies indicate that self-preservation trumps acting in the country’s best interest.
“And I will not change…” Buhari said. While many have faulted the president’s comments, few doubted him.
Rear-view mirror leadership is marked by an obsessive fixation on the past, a nostalgia for how things were, and a stubborn resistance to change.
Buhari’s longing for the old police institution, his reductionist view of the workings of traditional institutions, and the subtle appeal to return to the bucolic settings of the 1950s exemplify a rear-view mirror mindset and ignorance about the current structure of the country he presides.
In a previous national address, he told those pushing for restructuring to take it up with their lawmakers. His government has rejected the idea of state police yet he speaks as if the governor he told to go and handle the security situation in his state controls the police.
The peculiar problem with Buhari’s rear-view mirror mindset is that he is ruling Nigeria in 2021 with the vision he had of how the country should be run in 1983. That he could persuade supposed progressives from the South West to buy into a medieval vision, speaks more to their crass opportunism than Buhari’s sagacity.
His carefully cultivated myth of integrity fuels a cult following in Nigeria’s poorest northern region where six years later, their fortunes have only worsened while they chant his name in worshipful reverence.
In the interview, President Buhari expressed his repudiation for the religious extremism in the North east but is helpless in dealing with the security challenges.
“You know what is happening in the North East and the South South, I too was almost overwhelmed by what is happening in the North West…” he said.
Buhari was the clearest on the question about open grazing following the ban on the practice by 17 governors of southern Nigerian states.
“What I did was ask them to go and dig the gazette of the first republic, there are cattle routes and grazing areas. Cattle routes are when they are moving up country North to South or East to West, they have to go through there.
“If you are getting to stray into any farmer’s farm, you are arrested. The farmer is invited to submit his claim, the Alkali or the judge will ask them to pay, if they cannot, the cattle is sold and if there is any balance, you are given, and people are behaving themselves,” the president said.
The president’s statement to recover grazing routes in 2021 drawn up over half a century ago, in a country where deforestation, urban development fueled by rising population, and many several agricultural programmes have overrun, betrays not just an unwillingness at being rational but an aching lack of empathy.
“But those sophisticated ones, they are good with AK47. So, from other areas, people rush to Nigeria, and Fulani from Mauritania and Central Africa, look the same, so they think they are the Nigerian ones,” Buhari said suggesting an infiltration by criminals, he added:
“I assure you that we are trying to resuscitate these cattle routes, grazing areas, and make them accountable,” he said.
Advocating for ranching to mitigate constant clashes between herders and farmers now posing a risk to the country’s food security would be the statesmanly thing to do, but you have to be a statesman to think like one.
Much of the interview dwelt on insecurity, revealing how fraught the situation is and how ill-prepared the president appeared. He talked about “speaking to them in the language they understand,” issuing threats, where action would suffice.
But according to English writer Charles Colton, those who are the loudest in their threats are the weakest in their actions. Buhari’s threats have done little to dissuade marauding terrorists mauling citizens in their farmlands, raping women, and killing children.
“We have given the police and the military power to be ruthless and you watch it in a few weeks’ time there will be a difference because we told them that…” the president said.
Weeks later, nothing has changed.
Buhari could not hide his disdain for the Igbos when asked about his government’s discriminatory policy against people from the South East region in the military. He said that they have to earn their positions.
But it is not so much the position that has to be earned but his trust. On 15 January 1966, a group of young, idealistic, army majors, mostly Igbos and Christians, overthrew Nigeria’s democratic government in a violent military coup.
In their folly, the coup plotters killed prominent northerners, including the four highest-ranking northern army officers, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, and Northern Region Premier Ahmadu Bello. Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the ranking Igbo officer, suppressed the coup, seized power, and did little to hold the mutinous soldiers accountable. Northern elites interpreted the coup as an Igbo-led conspiracy to subjugate and dominate them.
Six months later, northern soldiers staged another even bloodier counter-coup against their Igbo colleagues, of which Buhari participated, slaughtering thousands of defenseless citizens in an orgy of violence that bordered on lunacy.
Since then, Buhari and his ilk have held the Igbos in suspicion which is why he demonstrated more affinity to Nigeriens than fellow citizens.
Buhari’s tribalism is ingrained. “It’s hard to divorce the man from the whiff of ethnic supremacy,” said Cheta Nwanze, a social affairs commentator in a blog post.
Fear of the past paralyses the economy
When the interview finally got to the economy, it was clear why under this president, the country has seen two recessions, double digit inflation, worsening unemployment, and rising poverty.
Nigeria spends over N150 billion monthly funding subsidising petrol for largely well-off citizens in mostly Lagos and Abuja, at the expense of building schools, hospitals, and roads. The bulk of the petrol is smuggled outside the country and sold to Ghana, Cameroun, Togo, Benin even as far as Sudan.
Buhari admitted that Nigeria’s petrol is being smuggled to other African countries but rather than remove the root cause – subsidy, he said:
“Nigeria will say this is their oil and they will push you out of wherever you are, even if it is a presidential villa.”
It is telling that the fear of “being pushed out of the presidential Villa” restrains the president from removing wasteful fuel subsidies. “So what we want is to try to get the cooperation of customs, immigration, and these border guards so that it cannot be taken in substantial amounts,” Buhari said showing the priority is cutting down on smuggled volumes.
However, this plan fails to factor in complicity by corrupt border guards in the lucrative petrol smuggling business across the borders of which are as porous as a spaghetti strainer.
“Customs are doing quite well, because we’re confiscating tankers, selling the petrol and the tankers, and the people who are disposing of this, they do not complain. They do not talk to anybody, they do not say that the government has taken away the tanker then sold their petrol. So, we are doing it,” Buhari said.
To satisfy this president that you’re keeping the borders safe, simply organise a show of seizing a few tankers and he awards you a medal!
But setting the bar of competence below the ground is having a devastating impact on the nation. Nigeria’s petrol consumption has risen to over 100 million litres daily from 35 million litres in 2015 despite people becoming poorer.
A furious Mele Kyari, the head of NNPC, recently threatened to send the Department of State Security (DSS) after any marketer caught moving products outside the country.
In April, the NNPC could not make any remittance to the Federal Accounts Allocation Committee ( FAAC), reducing states’ statutory allocations from oil sales while marketers make a killing smuggling petrol imported by the NNPC outside the country.
Asked about Nigeria’s unsustainable debt, the president criticised the previous administrations’ wasteful expenditure when oil prices were $100 per barrel.
As crude oil rises above $75 per barrel, this argument is becoming trite. Despite rising oil prices, Nigeria’s foreign reserves are shrinking and its debt is ballooning.
Buhari’s government is spending a fortune on infrastructure but these are not tolled raising questions about how they would be maintained by successive governments.
Basic economic indicators show that while the Nigerian economy was wobbly when he became President in 2015, six years later, it is cratering under him.
About 10 percent of the population were unemployed in 2015, today it is at 33.3 percent, inflation stood at 9 percent when he took office, it is now at 17.93 percent (May). The dollar exchanged at $1/N200 in 2015, today it is over $1/N500.
Every other economic indicator, food inflation, economic growth, business confidence, income per person have plateaued under this president.
Granted, Buhari came to power when oil prices were declining. His threats to unleash the army in response to the Niger Delta agitation in 2016 worsened the situation because Nigeria’s production suffered even as prices recovered.
Insisting on keeping the petrol subsidy tap on starved vital sectors of critical revenues and shut off investments into refining and the downstream sector.
Despite several government reports on reforming the civil service, the unwieldy structure continues to balloon the cost of governance.
Electricity subsidies only worsened the epileptic power situation because they removed incentives for investments and encouraged bad behaviour by recalcitrant DisCos.
Putting the naira on crutches left the stock market flailing and sent investors scampering. Failure to reform the oil sector and pass the PIB gifted other regions investment dollars Nigeria could have had a fighting chance at securing.
Relying on debts rather than encouraging private capital through market-led policies crimped the economy. Rabid and vindictive regulations by government officials presented Nigeria as a no-go area in the eyes of foreign investors.
Sacrificing competence for nepotistic appointments, he shut out intelligent people from his government and ceded the space to men whose best ideas were popular in the last century.
It’s this mindset that led to banning Twitter in a country where half of the population are under 20, that justifies cows destroying farmlands some of which got money from the billion-naira intervention fund of the Central Bank, and bequeath the nation a craven set of lawmakers and an insipid judiciary.
A few good appointments like Damilola Ogunbiyi at the Rural Electrification Agency (before leaving for another role), a new finance and tax laws, review of company law, mini-grid regulation, and some projects like the Siemens power deal have mercifully given the country something to cheer about.
On his legacy, Buhari said, “I would like Nigerians to try and spend time comparing when we came, what the economy and security was like, where we were, where we are heading, I hope Nigerians will be fair to me,” he said.
Buhari hopes his legacy would be kilometers of tarred roads and rail tracks, and rice pyramids. But that these would be a leader’s bequest in a country only a short crawl away from implosion is evidence of serious poverty of ambition.