Whenever President Muhammadu Buhari looks back over the past seven and half years of his government, he must wonder why a man like him who was so popular but dreaded during his military government now receives bad press and attracts poor rating in the public sphere. No matter how he evaluates himself, Buhari must take full responsibility for the performance of his government, particularly his ministers who are virtually unseen in the ministries assigned to them.
There are two fronts on which Buhari’s image operates in the public arena. The first is the perception that the President is unable to manage a country as diverse and difficult as Nigeria. The second is the control that a group of self-centred inner cabinet members known as the “cabal” have over the government. These two factors and more have cast Buhari as an inexperienced President who is just hanging on, waiting for his tenure to end in 2023.
Many politicians are already so exasperated with the performance of the government that they can hardly wait for the starter’s gun to be fired before jumping on the presidential campaign train. Virtually every politician of high or low repute wants to become Buhari’s successor in 2023. What they overlook in their frenetic election campaign speeches are the enormity of the problems facing Nigeria, and how difficult it would be for the new President to put the nation on the right path to recovery within three years.
Right from the start of the first term, everything Buhari touched, every decision he rolled out, seemed to attract negative assessment in mainstream and online media. Buhari, we must admit, is not your classic charismatic President who commands widespread admiration and support across the country. Since the inauguration of his government in 2015, he has faced a cynical audience that quickly realised that the changes promised by Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) party during that year’s election campaigns have turned into some kind of fantasy, never to be attained. These and other low performance indicators relating to the government’s lack of integrity meant that Buhari’s public profile has suffered and continues to suffer.
Against the background of his low achievement record, Buhari has a tall mountain to climb to make any positive impact on citizens or to help his party to improve its chances for re-election next year. First, Buhari must change his style of leadership. Unfortunately, time is the big enemy. Second, he must drop some members of his “kitchen cabinet” whom he trusts so much that he does not believe they can make mistakes. Third, he must engineer or craft new policies designed to tackle major challenges (such as insecurity) and move the nation forward. So far, everything seems to be falling out of alignment. And that’s not good for Buhari’s image or any attempts to burnish his public persona.
Let us consider this fact. Under Buhari, most ministries lack an identifiable public face. The ministers appointed to manage the ministries are so invisible that secondary school students cannot recite, in their weekly civics’ classes, the names of federal ministers and their ministries. This is clearly a departure from the past when students found it easy to answer current affairs quizzes about the names of ministers and their ministries.
Ministers are appointed to transform government policies and programmes from the realm of ideas into the platform of practical, on-the-ground achievements. Ministers who cannot convert policy to action that would affect the lives of citizens have no business serving in government. They must fulfil responsibilities assigned to them. They must be hardworking, committed, and result oriented. These are the minimum tasks the ministers must perform. If the ministers lack the will to act, if they cannot deliver verifiable results, if they are incapable of holding public office, the ministers must resign or they should be sacked.
One of the serious challenges that continues to threaten Buhari’s government is the rapid collapse of national security, the breakdown of law and order, the failure of intelligence, and the emergence of diverse criminal groups operating freely across the country. Bandits, “unknown gunmen” and “gunwomen”, kidnappers, and various nationalist organisations have been striking indiscriminately and sometimes awfully close to the centre of government and often near the hub of the nation’s security network and infrastructure, including military institutions that ought to be impenetrable to bandits or terrorists. This is a clear challenge to the government and the security forces.
Over the years, people have asked the question: Is Buhari an unlucky President, an accidental President, or is he a man weighed down by the hardships of managing Nigeria at a time of rising insecurity and growing public demands on national leaders? Buhari must be aware that he has not impressed people with his style and speed of government. A good government must impact positively on the lives of ordinary people.
To be sure, Buhari has been criticised heavily not because of his region of origin or his ethnicity or his religion. None of all that. Buhari has been assailed essentially because he has paid little or no attention to insecurity and the fight against corruption. He has also been criticised because he failed to match his words with action every time he talked about his determination to overcome the intractable electricity sector, or to renovate worsening infrastructure.
Above all, I would argue, Buhari has been destabilised by his own undistinguished leadership methods, the lack of accountability and transparency in the way his government operates, his reluctance to drop from his cabinet inefficient ministers, the lack of any quick solutions to the deteriorating state of insecurity, and the common view that the government talks more but achieves little or nothing.
In public and private spaces, you will find that many people are disappointed and frustrated. They wonder when and whether Nigeria would ever rise from the ashes of failure to replicate its glorious years that would make life easier and widely appreciated by citizens. The current situation is appalling.
Buhari and his ministers must reflect energetically on the difficulties that have faced the government and the most effective way to deal with those challenges. Less than a year to the end of his second tenure, Buhari must organise the government to become more productive, more accountable, more transparent, more responsible, and to provide clearer direction for the nation. He must think about how to improve the welfare of Nigerian people.
Given that the government has less than a year to live, all these might seem like a tall order. Nevertheless, by the time he leaves office in 2023, Buhari will be judged, among other things, by the number of promises he made but failed to fulfil, and the number of meaningful projects he was able to complete and put into active service.
Buhari has noticeably fleeting time to make a difference and to change the way the public perceives him. Whether he would do so, considering his body language, remains an open question. Regardless of what happens, he must think quickly about the legacies he would leave behind when he departs the stage next year, particularly how the nation would remember him and his government. It is time Buhari stepped up to the platform of practical action. No excuses would do.
The overarching question remains: Does Buhari have time enough to transform Nigeria and the lives of the citizens? At a practical level, I do not think so. He had eight years to demonstrate his skills as an efficient manager. Six to nine months is not enough time for Buhari to commence work.