The General In His Labyrinth, By Chris Ngwodo

 

Published in Premium Times

A year is a long time in politics. This time last year, President Muhammadu Buhari was basking in an approval rating of 77 percent according to NOI polls and could do no wrong. The presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, famously dismissed the new government’s critics as “wailing wailers” – discontents still reeling from the ouster of the Peoples Democratic Party from power. By June this year, Buhari’s approval rating had plummeted to 39 percent and the economy has slipped into recession.

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What has gone wrong?

Inflated expectations have met the pin-prick of reality. The soaring poetry of the campaign trail has been dispelled by the sobering encounter with the rigours of actual governance – rigours for which the new government has often seemed astonishingly ill-prepared – and which it seems to have initially underestimated. In the euphoric early days of the Buhari presidency, there was certainly evidence that some members of the administration believed too much in their own hype. In the president’s circle, there were those that seemed to believe that intractable and complex problems would dissolve into nothingness as soon as Buhari scowled hard at them.

Femi Adesina talked up the “the Buhari bounce” or “the Buhari effect” in an op-ed piece marking the president’s first hundred days in office. “When a new sheriff comes into town,” he wrote melodramatically, “disorder gives way to order. Chaos flees. Impunity is swept away. Laxity gives way to diligence and people change their old, unedifying ways. When you have a Wild, Wild West situation, the new sheriff comes and stamps his authority. Old things then pass away, behold, everything becomes new.”

When presidential aide, Garba Shehu wrote an ode to Buhari’s “body language” suggesting that his principal’s mere presence in Aso Rock had quickened the dead consciences of reprobate bureaucrats, galvanised pathologically dysfunctional institutions and caused electricity supply to rise “to unprecedented heights” – we were deep in the territory of magico-realism.

There is an argument that the All Progressives Congress was fundamentally unprepared to govern; that it was more prepared to stage a campaign of civil disobedience in the event that President Goodluck Jonathan refused to concede defeat. When Jonathan somewhat surprisingly and speedily conceded defeat even while vote-counting was ongoing, it placed the APC in a quandary by transforming the party’s challenge from that of making the country ungovernable for electoral thieves to governing it herself. The party’s ill-preparedness has been exposed.

Buharinomics and Its Discontents

It is true that like the butt of a cruel cosmic joke, Buhari has come to power once again after a period of epic official profligacy and public theft. Femi Adesina has often said that the Buhari administration could not hit the ground running because it landed smack in the muddy mire left behind by its predecessor. However, by late 2014, with oil prices in free fall, the downward trajectory of the economy was obvious. The Jonathan administration’s last budget was tagged a “budget of austerity.” There was indeed mud but a more serious group would have had boots.

It is also true that during the transition, the previous administration’s apparatchiks were less than forthcoming in transmitting handover notes to the incoming government ensuring that they came into office partially blind. These do not satisfactorily explain Buhari’s slack pace or his government’s policy incoherence. The misdeeds of the past administration can only serve as an alibi for so long.

The policy incoherence and inconsistence displayed by the administration stems largely from an ideological contradiction at its core. President Buhari is a statist with neo-socialist instincts. He believes that the state is the primary economic and moral driving force in a society and must commandeer all economic variables and interests into its equation of economic nationalism. But a fair number of his ministers are free market enthusiasts. Buhari’s policy instincts are rooted in the 1970s when economic nationalism was fashionable and the elites of the day proclaimed that the state must dominate “the commanding heights” of the economy. He still romanticises the era of a national carrier and state-owned corporations, a time remembered by subsequent generations as the era of wasteful and inefficient public monopolies.

These instincts led him to veto the plans of the minister of state for Petroleum, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu to privatise the national oil monopoly and refineries, and, also to delay the devaluation of the naira. As a result of this dissonance, the administration remains bereft of a clear, well-articulated economic direction after fifteen months in office. Policies have been announced piecemeal without serious effort to weave these policies into a coherent narrative that can engage the public.

Even when policies are announced, there appears to be a clear lack of unanimity in the ranks of officialdom on accepting them as the administration’s policies. For instance, the decision to float the naira ostensibly signalled a departure from the president’s preference for broad monetary policy interventions, but both Buhari and some of his ministers have poured scorn on the idea of devaluation even after it had been publicly embraced by the administration. Despite its stated policy, the administration, through the Central Bank, continues currency manipulations in a knee-jerk sporadic manner rather than by reason of a well-grounded and coordinated policy script. At a time when the government needs significant capital injections, these flip-flops telegraph uncertainty and a lack of seriousness to foreign investors and other watchers.

Recently, Buhari explained that he had excluded private sector players from his economic team because they might slant government polices to favour their interests. This prejudicial disposition may have foreclosed vibrant policy debate at a time when it is most needed. The economic team headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has had to belatedly initiate consultations with economists and financial experts. Instead of ad hoc consultations, the administration should have constituted an economic advisory council to broaden the range of counsel it is getting. Ideally, Buhari should have had such an economic advisory council in place long before taking office. The fact that there was apparently no such group only highlights the administration’s ill-preparedness.

The president also wasted an inordinate amount of time in constituting his cabinet – during which time Garba Shehu averred that, “He has appointed no ministers yet but the government is running smoothly.” On the contrary, that six-month delay cost Buhari valuable time, momentum and political capital. For a president taking office during an economic downturn, it was stupefyingly tardy.

Through its words, deeds and silences, the administration projects the impression that it is anti-business and anti-growth. Buhari himself telegraphs a disdain for free enterprise and a distrust of “experts” – especially those of the sort that he once claimed were “speaking over” his head. All this is strange because, as cabinets go, this administration has a fairly decent assemblage of competent individuals. People like Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Babatunde Fashola, Okechukwu Enelamah, Udo Udoma, Geoffrey Onyeama, and Amina Mohammed, among others, came into office with distinguished reputations earned in public service and in the private sector. They and others hired to give the administration its technocratic teeth have been blunted, inhibited by a principal whose micro-managerial tendencies and impassive reserve leaves little room or reward for initiative.

Don’t Shoot the Messengers

Buhari’s media aides are often blamed for poorly communicating and interpreting the president’s agenda. And while it is true that his media handlers have not been stellar performers, we must look deeper. The president’s communications team is poor but the president is also a terrible communicator. His indifferent responses to the army’s massacres of Shiites and pro-Biafra protesters in live TV interviews were appalling. His inability to react to mass murders carried out by terrorists (and only grudgingly doing so when virtually forced to by public outcry) reflects an emotional unintelligence.

Buhari’s lack of appreciation for the optics and sonics of crisis management has seen his stock fall in the public perception index. They have contributed greatly to the impression that he is cold, aloof, remote and uncaring. Messrs. Adesina and Garba may leave a lot to be desired but it is also surely, in part, because they have so little to work with. Serving as a messenger for someone with little or no message is a tough job. You do not blame the dibia for the oracle’s silence.

The administration is also suffering from unforced errors and self-inflicted PR own-goals. Its most vigorous reaction to the starvation of internally displaced people in the North-East has been to urge the international media to blame Boko Haram for the unfolding tragedy – a stance at variance with Buhari’s campaign pledge to “lead from the front” and to take responsibility for things that go wrong.

Much of the controversy over Buhari’s allegedly “lopsided” appointments is contrived and yet could easily have been avoided, or at least mitigated, if the president had demonstrated some sensitivity and tact. The fact that the president dismisses out of hand allegations of misconduct against his own officials while issuing blanket accusations against the previous administration makes his sermonising on graft hypocritical. His silence on the corruption scandals of his own administration has eroded the towering moral pedestal from which he took office. His reputation for integrity has lost its lustre.

When last year the presidency disavowed a widely circulated campaign “covenant” detailing actions that Buhari would take during his first 100 days, it foreshadowed what would become a pattern of casual pledge-breaking. These breaches belie Buhari’s image as Mr. Integrity. Integrity used to simply mean keeping one’s word.

The Demystification of Maigaskiya

The demands of statecraft have detonated Buhari’s hitherto larger-than-life persona and exposed his limitations – much to the distress of his most uncritical adulators. In essence, he is a septuagenarian who was dragged out of retirement, whose ideas of governance have not significantly evolved since the early 1980s; whose hibernation was punctuated by episodic presidential campaigns over a ten year period and who arrived at the historic triumphal climax of his decade-long quest for power possibly exhausted by the quest itself. The president once expressed regret that he had not won the presidency when he was younger. Nigeria is a dynamic, complex and challenging country to run and there is much to suggest that Buhari simply lacks the energy required to lead the country at an optimal pace.

The challenge is not just that Buhari is the oldest Nigerian ever to assume national leadership. It is that the institutional context in which he is operating now is vastly different from what it was when he was Head of State thirty years ago. The current presidency was created by his successor, General Ibrahim Babangida, and is a vast labyrinthine bureaucracy within a bureaucracy. The federal government has possibly tripled in size since 1985 and with this has come the intensification of the passive-aggressive organisational behaviour that can mangle even the most well-intended of presidential directives.

Voter’s Remorse

As many Buhari supporters wrestle with doubt and disappointment, supporters of the former president have found their voices and are now gleefully chiming “I told you so” in a fit of juvenile one-upmanship. Buhari’s uninspiring turn is enabling the blatant revisionist mythologising of his predecessor and his alleged exploits in office. A year is a long time in politics; it is even longer for an amnesiac electorate. In truth, Buhari’s gaffes cannot retroactively canonise Jonathan.

In the past year, Buhari has showcased the debilities that denied him the presidency in three attempts, despite his rock-solid cult following. Without the indignation of those who were scandalised by Jonathan’s inept statecraft, Buhari would never have been president. These swing voters, angered by the Jonathan administration’s cocktail of hubris and incompetence, tipped the scales decisively in Buhari’s favour. A big problem is that this lesson is probably lost on Buhari and his followers who attribute his three previous defeats to three different candidates to the opponents’ facility with rigging rather than his own unelectability.

The reversal of roles is profoundly ironic. Candidate Buhari’s qualities once glittered in comparison to the dour Jonathan but Buhari’s mishaps are now casting a halo of respectability around Jonathan that the former president never possessed while in office. In Jonathan and Buhari, we have two flawed political figures whose positives are exaggerated only when their negatives are compared. The mediocrity of the past administration has become the sole justification for that of the present one.

The real tragedy is not that Jonathan was voted out (that eviction was necessary) but that in two successive election cycles, the options were Jonathan and Buhari – a Hobson’s choice that highlights the paucity of alternatives and the political recession that is even more destructive than its economic counterpart. Here were two men whose campaigns ceaselessly emphasised each other’s unworthiness for the presidency but who nonetheless fastidiously avoided facing each other in presidential debates in two elections. The broader lesson is that our politics has to become a contest of ideas rather than a clash of personalities.

The fact that despite sixteen years in power one electoral defeat broke the back of the PDP and left it a fractious incoherent mess with a twitter handle is also instructive. Had it lost the election, the APC would likely have suffered similar fragmentation. The prospects of gaining power or losing it are insufficient foundations for building durable political movements. Presently, the self-righteousness and moral preening that tinged pro-Buhari polemics last year has abated, replaced by a raw unvarnished partisanship that does not pretend to be high-minded. It is now simply a case of swimming or sinking with Buhari having gambled on his presidency.

Conclusion

Two options lie before the administration. Buffeted by a non-responsive economy and mounting discontent, Buhari could retreat further into the gilded bubble of Aso Rock while being shielded by a fanatical personality cult and serenaded by the inevitable choir of sycophants. Under these circumstances, as his popularity ebbs, he could resort to more authoritarian measures to cripple a vocal civil society and crush the opposition’s potential resurgence. Alternatively, the president could reset his administration, engage more fluently with the public, demonstrate fairness in his anti-corruption campaign and prosecute the reforms that will unshackle the economy from state strangulation and recalibrate our federal architecture. The former possibility would be an unhappy re-enactment of 1985. It would be best for all concerned, including Buhari himself, if he takes the latter option.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, analyst and consultant.

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