By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Reforms succeed when leaders are trusted, open-minded
Fuel prices have risen. The naira now trades freely, almost. All government revenue now goes into a single account at the central bank. And this is Nigeria. A country where lesser sins would have been unforgivable. And yet Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, has done all these without so much as a whisper – so to speak. Even as labour unionists smell blood, they face an unusual adversary this time: a popular president. Problem; he may have begun to get carried away. Otherwise, how do you explain his increasingly flagrant disregard for diversity in his government? Oh wait a minute, we Nigerians call it ‘federal character.’ I have heard such surprising arguments like it does not matter where a government functionary comes from, insofar as services get delivered: constant and reliable power supply, potable water, good roads, etc. That is short-sighted. Actually, ‘federal character’ is a borrowed concept. From the private sector no less. And there is probably nowhere else where merit carries the day like in business. An overwhelming amount of research studies show businesses do better if they have a diverse staff pool. And these are studies that rely on observations of globalised international firms. In any case, government is the most important entity in any country, more so in Nigeria. The folly in President Buhari’s disregard for the federal character of Nigeria is becoming palpable. Who can he send to the southeast to pacify agitators? Certainly not anyone that commands the reverence of people from that part of the country. And the Niger Delta? Even if militants disagree with one of theirs if in government, they are likely to allow him audience if he is highly regarded in their community. Not that one reckons ministers do not have much clout, but Nigerians, an extremely intelligent people, can tell when a functionary does not have real power.
Increasing Buhari insularity would cost country more
As Nigerians are emotionally invested in Mr Buhari, a betrayal would be shattering. Hardened citizens would be hard-pressed to believe in “changee” after that. Mr Buhari has to succeed. For if he fails, the costs to him would pale in comparison to that on the mismanaged but wholesome country that was handed over to him. Nigeria has held in spite of everything because unconsciously we have learnt to pull our resources together as a people. No better place to see that in action like in our local markets. I don’t know that I have ever met a Hausa or Fulani automobile spare parts dealer. Have you? And it would be a rarity indeed to find an Igbo man selling beef. You are likely to find the textiles section of our markets dominated by Nigerians of Hausa or Yoruba extraction. It is not the government that does this. There is an economic rationale. Cattle is mostly bred and slaughtered by northerners. Others who try do not have to fear for their safety. They simply won’t succeed. Northerners simply have the comparative advantage in that business. Of course, that could change as the need for pasture, more abundant in the south, may lead to voluntary synergies. For automobile spare parts, well when they are not imported, they are made in the southeastern parts of the country. If others tried to do that business, they would fail as well. Same reasons. What is the point one is trying to make? Nigeria is great and would be greater only if its diversity is harnessed for the betterment of the whole. President Buhari does himself and the nation a great disservice by relying only on advice from his kinsfolk. Northerners are trained to guard their dignity, revere their leaders, and never show weakness. Because most northerners grow up in polygamous homes, they learn early to be politically savvy, and thus do well in politics, the civil service and business. Southwesterners are trained to be diplomatic, self-preserving, and respectful. They thus do well in the diplomatic service, academia and commerce. Southeasterners have a reputation for being street and book smart. When not traders, they are to be found in the intelligentsia. To reach the great heights we seek as a country, we must harness our diversity. And if there is any place where that diversity should be writ large, it should be in government.
Nigeria belongs to all of us
When that which is in the full glare of citizens is not representative of what we are, it creates dissatisfaction. It feeds the narrative of marginalisation, dissent, and those other extremes too extreme to mention. In a fast-paced and smaller world, insularity and peace rarely flock together. If you must be insular, then you had better have the power of coercion. Or may be you are insular because you believe you do. Well, power is given by the people and belongs to the people. And it is not possible now to simply point a gun at a people and expect they would just forward march. These are not the days of ‘NTA network news at 9,’ ‘Radio Nigeria at 7,’ and ‘Tales by Moonlight.’ True, President Buhari is under tremendous pressure from his kinsmen. Every northerner is always wary of being able to return to his village and live safely. And Mr Buhari must really loathe the possibility that he could return home after his service an unpopular man. Even so, he needs to apply wisdom. If you have the army, spy, police and paramilitary chiefs hailing from just a section of the country, it does not require a stroke of genius to deduce that the commander-in-chief does not trust anyone else to secure him. If Nigeria were his family business, we probably would not care. Alas for him, it is not. Change must start with him.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays).