Buhari and a template for real change

I closed my more recent intervention on the Nigerian situation in the media a little above one year ago on the note that the omens were bad. It doesn’t require expertise of any kind to know that the situation today is much more challenging than it was then, and arguably more than it had ever been in the history of the country. The economic stress that a preponderance of Nigerians are going through today is much more than we had seen in several years. The country is much more divided now than at any other time in its recent history. Desires for secession, always conveyed in hushed tones since the end of the Civil War, are now proclaimed from the rooftops, with all manner of makeshift currency designs circulating on the Internet. Human lives have suddenly come so cheaply in the hands of marauding gangs operating with impunity across the land. Most of the state governments are locked up in a salary logjam that is nothing if not a clarion call on us to rethink the future of our State and society. The attendant desperation on the part of folks across the country that are owed salaries for months is unspeakable.

A good percentage of the population believe, either correctly or otherwise, that it has been left out by the incumbent government – essentially by the nature of the latter’s rhetoric or posturing, but also, in not a few instances, by its acts and policies. The huge political capital with which President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) breezed into office about a year ago is greatly eroded. Its most advertised programme of corruption-fight is greatly diminished by what increasingly has become a circus show, seen by many as a veritable platform for vendetta.

Ever factitious, the political elite, including those in the ruling coalition, are either at each other’s throat or seething with anger and angling for an opportunity to do each other in. In the context of the ‘fantastically corrupt’ faux pas of David Cameron, I do not really know if the global profile of Nigeria is any better than what it had been. If anything, the country’s characterisation in more scholarly narratives as a fragile state is now settled. The unraveling of such a state, at any time, does not come as a surprise to anybody. Most importantly, the youth of the country that should ordinarily be its most important resource base, is completely disoriented and knocked down. The mediocrity that most of them spew on social media platforms is a roaring testimonial to the disaster that lies ahead for the nation if some focused intervention to improve on their overall capacity for critical thinking and great visioning is not quickly undertaken.

Yet, all is not lost. On a professional trip to Honolulu, Hawaii, several years ago, I was awed by how great hotels lined up the Waikiki beach, and the attendant swinging tourist economy that goes with all of that. l also noticed that there is nothing in the natural landscape of Waikiki that we could not get from our own countless beaches, emblematising the fact that what basic raw ingredients we need to build a modern economy of happy and motivated people exist here in abundance. There is nothing that is required to turn around the hand of Nigeria’s clock that is not readily available within Nigeria. What we lack, evidently, is the will and right attitude to get things done. The big question is, where do we go from here? I propose that if we agree to take at least three critical steps, Nigeria would witness a turnaround that could make it the basis of pride for all Nigerians, all Africans and indeed, the African Diaspora too. It would rapidly become a reference as to how a uniquely dynamic, but largely misgoverned people could pull back from the precipice, and give a new meaning to national development possibilities.

I opt to be charitable that warts and all, if this government is willing to move as appropriate, it could call up the requisite elements to make it the driver of this change process. I talk here of real change, not change in the context of what was latched onto to win election in 2015, the type that we are also now seeing in motion in the Brexit disaster that an inattentive electorate has carelessly imposed on the global political economy. It is apposite to understand the dynamics playing out here for proper context vis a vis the first critical step that Nigeria must take.

If the truth must be told, and without any attempt to diminish the main contradictions underpinning such sub-national agitations as are currently wracking the country, the President has not done enough to bring the country together after the very divisive 2015 election. I pointed this out before. There was an appropriate route to take after his victory and the graceful manner in which his predecessor conceded defeat. It was for Mr President to put a lid on all politicking, call to order his key aides adept at permanent campaign, rally the entire nation, and set at the task of national integration. That would not have stopped him from prosecuting those who committed infractions under the previous regimes. Extant voyage of campaign-after-election is quite distracting. So also damaging of national unity is what I call the ‘Buhari Doctrine of Justifiable Exclusion.’ This is the Doctrine under which the President, rather curiously, tried to provide a philosophical basis in his 95% vs 5% electorate rule, for putting together a kitchen cabinet that is as non-inclusive as they come. This has created a strong basis for alienation, particularly of the Igbo that were completely left out, providing the trigger factor for the resurgence of Biafra. Significantly, rather than abate, this trend would seem to have been entrenched. Nigerians are doing the counting.

The President has a duty to manage these intense divisive forces very carefully. This, certainly not by any precipitate deployment of force as some hawkish elements with doubtful national commitment would seem to be canvassing. The fact that the military is still bogged down in the Northeast should advise a more pacific approach to handling of the newly emergent flashpoints across the landscape. So, the first critical step is for the Federal Government to rebrand into a truly national and wholly inclusive enterprise.

The second critical step must be based on the realisation that it is impossible both in theory and praxis, to make a highly heterogeneous polity like Nigeria function effectively on the basis of a unitary constitution the type that we have. I am persuaded, after more than 30 years of focused intellectual engagement on this issue, that for as long as we employ this highly suffocating constitutional arrangement, for so long would the country continue to ramble. It does not matter for how long we manage to keep Nigeria together in its present spatial definition, the truth is that the present structure has no capacity to engender or promote development. It does not make for genuine national unity. It cannot be the basis of a renascent Nigeria. It is arrant shortsightedness on the part of our past governments to have either assumed these fundamental realities away, or moved too slowly in the direction of the imperative. Whosoever is of the view that all we need is to be a little more patient for the situation to get better, should take a look at Haiti, independent since the dawn of the 19th century, still yet, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. If we do not summon the courage to do the needful, my hunch, informed by deep introspection, is that in a hundred years time, Nigerians would still be faced with the same challenges we whine over today! For nations, longevity does not necessarily translate to development. The implication of all these is that we must restructure to grow.

Now, I was a delegate to the National Conference in 2014, and I feel proud of the work we did there, which work is not in any way diminished by the attempts of several people today, including most recently the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), to pooh-pooh the whole idea. The intensity of engagement at that Conference, and the profundity of its Report, certainly would not support the type of assessment I understand the SGF made. Let us accept without conceding that the SGF’s (and I assume, his government’s) narrative on the nature of the Conference is correct; I do not believe that detracts from the quality of its Report. At any event, nothing suggests that the 2014 Confab Report alone must be the blueprint for the type of restructuring of governance structure the nation needs. If it chooses, the present government could assemble its own team, but not just of people with the right type of education and exposure, but also the appropriate vision, to do for it its own restructuring manual. If what the team comes up with is inclusive and far-reaching enough, with reasonable timelines, Government itself would find out that it could have used the Confab Report, given its thoroughness, breadth and depth. The important thing is that the business of restructuring be done with, in the remaining three years of the Buhari government. I am certain that such demonstration of selflessness contingent upon restructuring Nigeria along the lines of the National Confab Report would cast PMB in the image of President F. W. de Klerk of South Africa. Realising that apartheid was going to shipwreck his country, de Klerk refused to be carried away by the allure of office. He retooled South Africa to snatch victory for a nation that was already in the throes of a calamitous crash. He got the Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic effort.

I was stunned when Vice President Atiku Abubakar’s latest intervention on the restructuring debate was met with strident attacks from his party and the presidency. Such haste at throwing away what objectively is the only way out of permanent crisis and economic non-performance for our nation is rather unfortunate. It was clearly ill-advised. I recall that at the National Confab in 2014, Atiku got a paper circulated that pushed the argument for restructuring so persuasively and became a useful compass for several delegates. Inviting such a person to preside over a committee to advise Mr President on the direction of restructuring that the nation needs, I do not think would be a completely bad idea. The point to remember in all of these is that the prevailing structure does not admit of stability and development. It has to be done away with, if not sooner, certainly later. The hope is that further delay would not be at great cost to the nation.

The third leg of my recommended template is on the fight against corruption. It is trite that corruption has to be fought. Yet, I do not believe that war on corruption should substitute for governance. The government still has to put in place a holistic and comprehensive economic policy constructed on a clear philosophy that people can relate to, away from what increasingly looks like management on ad-hoc basis. Or what does one make of the President’s own continuing strident criticism of currency devaluation that his government just approved? Governance and corruption-fight are not mutually exclusive. There must be a demonstrated commitment to, and capacity for multi-tasking – the art of constructively doing several things at the same time – otherwise the war on corruption would seem to be the only page the President is capable of opening in a book of encyclopedic proportions.

What is more, government must demonstrate that it understands that at best, corruption is a symptom of some deeper social malaise that itself must be confronted. The goal is to emplace enduring structures that would constrict the room for corruption. If you leave the root of a problem and manage only the symptom, no matter how vigorously you try to do this, not much is going to be achieved at the end of the day, as the history of Nigeria itself has demonstrated. To the extent that the current war on corruption does not seem to factor in what lessons of history there are to learn, it is ahistorical. Once upon a time, when President Buhari was military Head of State, a similar war was unleashed on corruption. That war did not end corruption in Nigeria, otherwise there would not have been a basis for the current war. The implication of this is that more enduring methods of prosecuting the war on corruption have to be evolved beyond the dramatisation we have seen thus far. This is by putting in place enduring structures and institutions against corruptive tendencies and opportunities for rent-seeking, an example of which is the concept of Bank Verification Number (BVN).

May I also add that much as stealing of public funds is condemnable, I see the tendency to look at corruption only in this narrow sense as reductionist. I belong to the school of thought that suggests that there are more sublime but no less damaging dimensions of corruption that must be tracked. Perpetrators of such must also be called to account. As it is now, what should ordinarily have been a veritable platform for mobilising all Nigerians behind this Presidency is being made to look increasingly like a war directed only at opposition elements. The virulent media trial and ‘conviction’ of supposedly corrupt elements, and from a section of the political class, is a stain on the war on corruption. Same for the tendency to marginalise the rule of law in the process. Government knows what to do to correct this impression, if indeed it is a wrong one.

I had penned this treatise conscious of the penchant that is abroad in political circles today at casting aspersion on perspectives that do not seem to go down well with many political practitioners. The advocacy here would also certainly not ingratiate those who are incapable of big dreams for the fatherland. I am, however, persuaded that if Mr President peruses this and gives it a thought, gets some of his trusted aides with broader outlook and courage of their conviction to think through them, and subsequently agrees to work on them, we may be on the path to a new beginning. This would be consistent with his party’s change mantra, and ultimately cast PMB historically as a president who demonstrated courage to take his country by a new route when that on which it had walked seemed headed to nowhere. I do not have any doubt in my mind whatsoever that this is the only platform on which PMB would make himself a permanent fixture of Nigeria’s history, not by extant war on corruption, which by the very way it is being conducted is bound to come to grief soon after his tenure.

To conclude, I take lessons from the story of the Titanic and its most awesome rendition in that classic motion picture of the same name. Therein, the proud captain of the world’s most compelling ship when it was asked of him the possibility of his monstrous machine ever sinking, thundered, ‘Never!’ Similar to the late Obafemi Awolowo’s metaphor of the ship and the rock, rendered years ago, I can feel it that Nigeria is racing on, like the Titanic, headed for the iceberg. It requires of the President to stand up and be Nigeria’s own de-Klerk whose ingenuity and courage delivered a ‘Rainbow Nation’ of great promise from the pangs of death that apartheid represented. Mr. President, the time to act is now!

Professor Mimiko is a former Vice Chancellor of the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba in Ondo State.