Buhari needs to be pragmatic

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

These days, I find myself eavesdropping on conversations. Sometimes, it may be people venting their frustrations in the bus or taxi. Other times, it is in restaurants, the mosque, grocery store or just on the good old radio. Nigerians are not happy right now. Although recent rains have doused the hot temperatures somewhat, continuing power cuts and fuel scarcity make the relief a little fleeting. Never mind the rising cost of food, which even local produce sellers blame on the strong US dollar. To my chagrin this past weekend, the local shopkeeper in my neighbourhood did not have bread for sale. He tells me bakers are contemplating a strike as the price of a bag of flour has increased by one-third due to scarce dollars. He wondered aloud why the bakers could not just reduce the size of the loaf if increasing the price proved too difficult. These economic difficulties are due to bad policy choices by Nigeria’s current leader, Muhammadu Buhari. The scarcity of foreign exchange and fuel can be traced to his administration’s penchant for price control. The naira is depreciating in the parallel market because of speculation fueled by inappropriate pricing of the currency by the country’s central bank. Fuel is scarce because marketers stopped importing the commodity to avoid losses. With fuel subsidies stopped and foreign exchange needed to replenish supplies scarce, marketers have little incentive to fill the supply gap; especially as the regulated price provides meagre margins. Until a market-driven approach is adopted on all these fronts, the problems are likely to remain.

As we rode past the long queues for fuel in Abuja – Nigeria’s capital city – this past Friday, fellow commuters remarked about the needless suffering. Surprisingly, one of them said the inconvenience was a necessary cost before the ease expected to come – “after 16 years” – from President Buhari’s administration. My co-passenger did not finish his sentence. Still, we knew he was referring to past governments. He was clearly a “Buharist” – term used to describe ardent supporters of the country’s leader, as are many in northern Nigeria. Still, I was a little skeptical about taking his views as a reliable sample. However, when I saw the rapturous welcome Kano – city in northwestern Nigeria – residents gave Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo last week as he visited victims of the recent fire at a major market in the ancient city, I thought to myself perhaps the views expressed during my earlier commute was reflective of popular sentiments; at least in the northern parts of the country. Not that Kano residents did not complain about their economic hardships. It was simply that they remain hopeful nonetheless. Such is the trust they have in President Muhammadu Buhari. This does not surprise me. During my high school days in Kano, conversations among humble people were usually about politics and any time, every time General Murtala Muhammed – another much loved former head of state killed in a military coup in 1976 – and Major-General Muhammadu Buhari were mentioned, no one had a bad thing to say about them. This enormous goodwill made retirement for the former military head of state a little easier, as a grateful populace ensured he could walk unguarded if he chose to. And most of the time he did. He could go for walks in his hometown and not fear for his life. His former military contemporaries would not dare. This is why it is quite heartbreaking to see his administration flounder like it is currently.

About one year into his first term, President Buhari is increasingly running the risk he would not be able to fulfill most of his promises. At least, not if he is unwilling to be pragmatic and adapt to the very messy politics of Nigeria. There is actually now talk of a one-term Mandela type presidency. The old man is certainly not helped by significant divisions within his political party. Just before he left for his most recent trip to China – and this particular one is probably the most important since he came to power, he received details of the controversial 2016 budget passed into law by the Nigerian legislature. Such was the still shoddy form of the budget that the president was probably in so foul a mood he chose not to attend the emergency cabinet meeting he called to discuss the details. His displeasure was not totally warranted. Changes to the budget by the country’s lawmakers were not entirely mischievous, new information suggests. More importantly, the Buhari administration is yet to put in place a proper budget four months into the year. There is no excuse for this. The ruling party controls both the executive and the legislature. It is President Buhari’s responsibility to ensure that members of his party come to heel with his vision. In a democracy, it is not often the case that you are able to do this by just ordering people around. Much of the controversy around the 2016 budget is due to a departure from the practice of co-operation between the executive and legislature. There have always been issues with budgets. In the past, these were resolved internally. The president’s current troubles are due to his refusal to make deals with his adversaries. His intransigence on certain issues due to his personal principles has also been a constraint. Nigerian politics is not for honest men. In a country of very clever people, Nigerian politicians have to be extremely shrewd. That is, if they want to succeed. 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.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column. See link viz. http://businessdayonline.com/2016/04/buhari-needs-to-be-pragmatic/

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