No need for Buhari emergency powers

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Protect the old man from himself
Good men are rare. Leaders that are good men are scantier, more so in Africa – an old teacher of mine would disagree: she doesn’t think there is a dichotomy between leadership and goodness. Leaders are good men. I did wonder aloud though where she’d put those different shades of grey, that matters leaders sometimes have to grapple with, often take. A country of mixed fortunes, even during the best of times, Nigeria this time has the rather unusual good fortune of having a leader that is at least honest. Muhammadu Buhari means well for Nigeria. He has good intentions certainly. But good men are also human. There is a storied saying: ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ I have read varied versions of a likely ‘Emergency Economic Stabilisation Bill 2016.’ There is nothing in there that cannot be legislated into laws. Put simply, it is not necessary to grant President Buhari additional powers that he could abuse. Mr Buhari is likely nostalgic, by his own not so subtle admission in any case, of when he could simply issue decrees. One would not be totally wrong if one thought there is a part of him that probably craves the wide-ranging powers that an economic emergency declaration would enable him wield. This is no trifling matter. In my column of 16 August 2016 (“You are hereby directed to cut interest rates. Really?”), I highlighted the unabashed disposition of one of Mr Buhari’s closest eggheads, Nasir El-Rufai, governor of a northern state bordering the Nigerian capital, towards cutting interest rates via legislation. Shortly after, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) directed that banks should allocate 60 percent of their foreign exchange to manufacturing firms. The Nigerian leader’s preference for a strong naira is also well-known. And now there is talk of a bill that could grant the executive branch the very powers needed to do all these without prior legislative oversight or approval. Bear in mind, the highly controversial ‘War Against Indiscipline’ policy of the 1980s military dictatorship of Mr Buhari is set for a rebirth. Surely, it cannot be too difficult to see how these sequence of events is not necessarily coincidental.

Red herring is a fish too
There is a practice in government: when it is about to implement a potentially controversial policy, a media leak is engineered to test potential reactions. If the public backlash is deemed manageable, the policy gets the nod. A similarly well-known legislative practice is to bury potentially controversial laws beneath a deluge of minutiae in supposedly mundane laws. Thus, the fine print of any potential economic emergency bill should be thoroughly scrutinized; clause by clause. Nigerians must come out forcefully against any attempt at turning Mr Buhari’s democratic mandate into a dictatorship. Especially because this time, those who should know, prominent economists and the organised private sector, have chosen to hold brief for the administration; probably in good faith. Even so, they are mistaken. And to think that even as they know the factors – cronyism, nepotism, tribalism, rent-seeking, corruption, and sometimes just plain incompetence – that made past economic emergency measures fail, remain or have worsened, they would still elect to think that things could be any different this time, is a little depressing.

There is an American parallel. Then US treasury secretary Henry Paulson introduced a bill (with the exact same title) during the 2008 global financial crisis. Thing is, theirs was mostly for extra-budgetary spending. Not at first. Mr Paulson’s original meagre 3-page proposal would have granted him a carte blanche to spend as much as US$500 billion to purchase distressed bank assets without prior legislative appropriation. He would also have been immune from legislative and judicial scrutiny. Naturally enough, US lawmakers shut it down. Although what was eventually passed did allow for unprecedented extra-budgetary spending, about US$700 billion for a troubled assets relief programme (TARP), it made sure to require legislative oversight. What the Nigerian government is purportedly about to propose is even more far-reaching. And yet the circumstances are not nearly as dire. Some laws, it goes, designed precisely to guard against untoward executive discretion, are to be suspended for the duration of the planned emergency. Why not simply amend the laws? More puzzling, most of the recommendations of the purported bill that were let slip to the media, are currently within the powers of the executive branch to implement. Visa issuance reforms do not require legislative approval. Reducing the time it takes to clear goods at the ports is totally within the capacity and powers of the port authorities. The Nigerian president can, with the stroke of a pen, instruct the myriad agencies causing bottlenecks at the ports to take a hike. Physical inspection of goods, which increases the clearing time for goods at the ports to days, could be eliminated by simply buying and installing scanners. And how is it that such emergency spending – if haste were key – couldn’t be speedily appropriated for via a supplementary budget bill?

Reform for the long-run
More importantly, the advantage of dire circumstances is that you are able to get buy-in much more easily than during normal times. The Land Use Act, which grants the government an undeserved right to all land and thus stymies investment, needs to be reviewed. The Petroleum Industry Bill, dithering on which has led to an exodus of capital from the sector, needs to be passed with dispatch. Double taxation needs to be eliminated. Multiple agency inspections at the ports need to be abolished. There should not be preferential access to foreign exchange at the central bank. Authorities should take advantage of the challenging but propitious times to enact or review laws needed to put the economy on a sustainable growth path. Not short-term emergency measures. My fear is that the leadership of the legislature may be open to a deal with the executive, in light of its legal troubles. This would be a betrayal. So if it finds at any time that its resolve may waver, it should take heed in the saying that no good deed goes unpunished.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz.  http://businessdayonline.com/no-need-for-buhari-emergency-powers/

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