For months now, the Buhari administration has gone relentlessly hammer and tongs after its predecessor for been respnsible for every conceivable problem facing Nigeria today. Blaming everything on Jonathan presidency, including massive corruption and the current economic woes, seems to me the most popular poison to demonize the government you succeeded. Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as President might have permitted corruption to an unacceptable level and mismanaged the economy, but how the tables have turned against the present administration in just nine months is something that troubles the mind. If graft and the mismanagement of the economy are two major areas where the previous administration compiled a more dismal record, it may not be unkind to say that things have not changed much, or could have grown progressively worse in nine months of Buhari presidency.
When Jonathan left Aso Rock on May 29, 2015, after a surprise defeat by Muhammadu Buhari in the Presidential election, the fundamentals of the economy were not that strong, but they were not as bad as they are today. Inflation was high at single digit of 9 percent, unemployment was high at about 22 percent, the naira was exchanging at N168 for $USD. Contrast that with the situation today. Inflation is raging at an annual rate of 9.6 percent, inching close to double digit, youth unemployment rate has reached 24 percent, the value of the dollar is dancing yo-yo, plummeting between N350 and N370 to the dollar last week.
There are fears that the rise and fall of the national currency will continue until the government puts in place a clearly defined economic direction. President Buhari should be aware and must come to grips with the threat that the crisis in the economy poses to his presidency. Any country can only be as strong or weak as its economy. Moreover, the president needs reminding that there’s a seasonal cycle to every presidency.
As political historians advise, the first year of an administration is a period the president ought to lay out his programmes. The second and third year, he mends his fences politically and runs for re-election if he so wishes and if his party believes he has done enough to merit a second term.
We are approaching Buhari’s one year in office, yet the economic direction of his government remains largely uncertain. The unrelenting fall of the naira has, among other things, increased the Consumer Price Index that has seen a steep increase in the price of essential food items in the market. Some people say the administration appears to be blind to basic economic principles. Whether by sheer coincidence or pressure from public calls for an emergency Economic Summit to chart a course for the country, the National Economic Council (NEC) headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, last week announced it will this month (March) hold a summit to articulate an economic blueprint that will guide the administration. The planned economic meeting will be coming days after Nobel Laureate Prof Wole Syinka and other stakeholders had called for such a talkshop on the economy.
The challenge now is not just to assemble a good team of experienced, hands-on experts capable of designing a framework for reforming and boosting the economy, it marks a failure of government’s economic advisers, including the Minister of Finance and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to initiate comprehensive policies and programmes, fiscal and monetary measures that will strengthen the fundamentals of the economy and ensure inclusive growth.
Nobody needs to remind us again that our economy is in deep trouble. All economic indicators point in that direction. For instance, the naira has lost over 100 percent of its value in one year. Consumer inflation has risen to 9.6 percent. This is above the CBN ceiling of 9 percent. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), this is the highest level of consumer inflation since 2013. Also, growth rate has dipped to 2.4 percent, from 3.9 percent in the last quarter of 2015. The immediate implication is a possible recession, which has lowered business confidence in the country.
There’s no doubt that turning the economy around will not be easy, but that is why Buhari was elected. He knew the economic skies were not bright when he took over. And it was one promise he said Nigerians should hold him responsible if he fails to deliver on that promise. Therefore, no excuse if he fails. But, it is not his task alone to make it happen. That’s why he must raise a powerful economic team that must treat the economy as a company under receivership that needs oxygen to bring it back to life. This administration must understand one basic truth: Muhammadu Buhari has been elected by the Nigerian people to carry out the ideas and programmes he had discussed in his campaign. He called it ‘change’. And many voters agreed that ‘change’ was necessary after 16 years of PDP in power.
I know that the President’s men will always put up an impressive argument that nine months are a short time for a president’s agenda to begin to bear fruits. That may be true, but it is even much true that the presidency is not a prize to be won but a duty to be done. In that regard, President Buhari should bear in mind that the opportunity to perform that duty and exercise far-reaching influence on the future life of Nigerians was presented to him on May 29, 2015, when he was sworn in as President and commander in chief of the Armed Forces.
He is also acutely aware of the bad shape of the economy during his campaign for the office, not just the state of corruption. And, of course, Nigerians elected him to fix all that, not one at the detriment of the other. Perhaps we have to admit that his travels to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar in the past nine days were to seek assistance to the economy and other sectors, letting him know that frustrations and disappointments are mounting, should not be seen as a frivolous gossip.
This is because Presidents are not judged as other men. Rather, in a democracy, an elected official does well to remember, according to Donald Regan, (President Ronald Reagan’s ex-chief of staff) that he, the president, “is present as a matter of luck and courtesy rather than by any right”. That is why, when Nigerians complain that the economy is not being paid the required attention it deserves, Buhari should know that it was him, not any of his advisers or aides who was elected as the president.
That is why, for instance, the criminal “padding” of the 2016 Budget, should cost him the most acute public discomfort no matter the punishment he metes out to the culprits, or his lamentation on ‘empty treasury’.
Altogether, Buhari should bear in mind that he is neither ‘untested nor untried’. He had been here before, and unlike many of his military colleagues, he has been given a second chance to make amends. This is what historians call the “holiness of a second chance”. To succeed, he should look critically at the advice of the Vice President/Treasurer of the World Bank, Ms. Arunma Oteh, who recently advised the administration to apply what she calls “strategic mindset” in utilizing the available revenue to diversify the economy. But that is not all.
The greatest virtue the president has is trust. Trust is earned. It entails meaning what you say. Therefore, in facing the necessity of dealing with the economy and other things he promised, the President should look at the meaning of trust. It is not having to guess what a president means, but the conviction that he will do what he said he would do. He should not play fast and loose with the facts, particularly as it concerns the economy which is currently in dire straits. This is time to walk the talk.