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Buhari's enemy? No, but I am his principled critic

By Olu Fasan

DEAR readers, please allow me to start this week’s column with a heartfelt “thank-you” to those who made my 60th birthday last week so memorable. My deepest gratitude goes to the Almighty God for making the day possible. Thanks to everyone who sent their warm wishes.

Special thanks to Vanguard, Nigeria’s best-read newspaper, for a befitting celebration of my diamond jubilee – a pre-birthday tribute on Thursday, July 23, and a two-page interview on my birthday. I am grateful to Eze Anaba, Editor, and Clifford Ndujihe, Political Editor, for giving my 60th a special coverage in this newspaper. Thank you!

What can I say about the iconic Uncle Sam, the illustrious publisher of Vanguard newspapers? When we spoke last week, he was effusive with praise. “You don’t know how much we appreciate you. We admire you; we appreciate you!” he said. Later, Uncle Sam sent me a text message: “Spring Chicken Boy, Happy Birthday!”

Then, he added: “Poser for your birthday: How come, Nigeria, a country with such brilliant thinkers like you, is retrogressing faster than its population is growing?” He concluded, touchingly: “Vanguard is proud of you!”

What an extraordinary man: high-spirited, sharp-minded and good-natured. Thank you, Sir, for the honour! As for the poser for my birthday, well, that’s a subject for another column. Today, my focus is on a different, albeit related, matter: my attitude towards President !

Why does that matter? Well, in my birthday interview, published in Vanguard on July 24, the political editor, Clifford Ndujihe, asked: “From your columns, your critics consider you as President Buhari’s enemy. What is your take on this?”

I was taken aback by the characterisation. Buhari’s enemy? No, I’m his critic, I said. Well, I want to elaborate on the subject in this piece! Truth is, I’m one of President Buhari’s harshest critics, but I didn’t arrive at that position lightly.

So, how did I get there? Context matters. During the 2015 presidential election, I argued that neither President Goodluck Jonathan nor General Buhari had the combination of values, vision and competence to run Nigeria. Thus, in the week of the presidential election, I wrote a piece titled, “Buhari or Jonathan: Whoever wins this week, don’t clink glasses” (BusinessDay, March 23, 2015).

But once Buhari won, I changed from a cynical to an advisory mode. I began to offer him constructive advice in my column because I wanted him to succeed. For instance, the first article I wrote shortly after President Buhari was sworn in May 29, 2015 was titled: “What Buhari must learn about the politics of reforms”(BusinessDay, June 15, 2015).

In that article, I drew the new president’s attention to three conditions under which he could undertake radical reforms and set out four things he must do to succeed.

There are three key hypotheses on the conditions conducive for radical reforms. The first is the crisis hypothesis. It says that an existential crisis is a trigger for radical reforms. In many countries, transformational change has emerged from the ashes of a crisis.

The second is the mandate hypothesis, which says that winning a mandate for change in an election creates greater scope for reforms. The third is the honeymoon hypothesis, which says a new government could take bolder reform measures when it still enjoys a honeymoon. These conditions favoured President Buhari. First, Nigeria faced existential crises politically, economically and socially.

Second, he won a mandate for change in the 2015 election. And third, after his election, he had a deep reservoir of goodwill at home and abroad. Everyone was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But President Buhari must, I said, do four things to succeed. First, he must have a grand vision of Nigeria’s future based on a recognition of its structural problems. Second, he must assemble a competent team of ministers.

Third, he must set out very early a bold and comprehensive programme of political, economic and institutional reforms. And fourth, he must side-line vested interests and engage directly with Nigerians.

I argued that if Buhari dissipated the honeymoon and goodwill and allowed vested interests to hijack his government, he would fail to deliver transformational change. But what did he do?

Well, he did exactly the opposite of what theory and evidence suggest. He ignored the urgency of Nigeria’s acute crises; abandoned his mandate for change; gave in to vested interests and, of course, wasted his honeymoon and goodwill.

Buhari had no ministers for the first seven months of his administration. At a time that Nigeria was facing an economic meltdown, Buhari behaved like Nero who fiddled while Rome burned.

“Who is governing Nigeria?”, one foreign magazine screamed. Eventually, he appointed his cabinet, but it was pretty run-of-the-mill. A country facing an economic meltdown would draw on the expertise of its best economic brains. But Buhari’s government had no credible economic team, let alone seasoned technocrats.

Of course, putting his personal predilections over technocracy, President Buhari began to take what a BBC  journalist described as “pretty hopeless decisions” on exchange rate and trade policy that worsened the economic situation. To date, Buhari continues to ignore calls, including from the IMF and the World Bank, for structural reforms.

Similarly, Buhari has done nothing to ease social and political tensions in Nigeria. His lopsided appointments, his seeming sympathy for the killer-herdsmen, culminating in his attempt to establish cattle colonies in the communities they terrorise, and his utter refusal to contemplate political restructuring are other indications of how badly he runs Nigeria.

President Buhari prefers making symbolic gestures, such as naming things after prominent people, to taking radical measures that would generate economic prosperity and engender unity and political stability.

So, that’s my case! I’m not Buhari’s enemy, but I’m his principled critic. As the Economist magazine once said: “The questioning of institutions and received wisdom is a democratic virtue.” That, precisely, is my attitude towards President Buhari and his administration!


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