The task before the incoming President, by Osmund Agbo
In the face of existential challenges facing Nigeria and leading up to the 2023 presidential election, the ensuing conversation arose among three Nigerians in the Diaspora on the way forward for a nation in crisis.
Osmund: During our last chat, we spent quite a bit of time interrogating Mr. Peter Obi’s candidacy, weighing in on his prospects and challenges in the upcoming election. Though miles apart on some of the issues, we still were able to arrive at a consensus in a few other areas. We also touched on Tinubu and Atiku but not to the extent we would have loved to due to time constraints. Hopefully when it’s all over, there will be enough time to sit down for a proper post-mortem. That said, let me redirect the focus to something else.
The fact remains that given what we know now, especially with all the strings Aso Rock shenanigans have been pulling these past few weeks, it’s doubtful that anyone can accurately predict where the pendulum of victory will swing. What is not in doubt, however, is that regardless of who wins, there is no magic wand anywhere in the world that could instantly transform Nigeria into an El Dorado. The systemic rot is staggering and will not disappear overnight. We should all be prepared to say a silent prayer for the “lucky” guy coming to inherit the hip of trash Buhari will be leaving behind.
For me, the only yardstick to measure progress in the first few months of the new administration would be mostly symbolic, namely, actions that could potentially signal hope to Nigerians and convince them that finally, someone has come to take charge and that the new C-in-C should be both able and willing to stop the hemorrhaging. Let me explain.
Whoever wins the election better be prepared to hit the ground running from day one. That means that there will be no time for post-election extravaganza with asebi and all that. No. Nigeria is on total life support, and we don’t have the luxury of time. In the morning after the result is announced, the winner should be gathering his team, selecting, and vetting his prospective cabinet picks while making periodic announcements of his personal staff. Nigerians should be told early on who will occupy a position like that of the Chief-of-Staff to the President which has become very consequential, yet do not need congressional approval.
On day one in office, the president should roll out a few executive orders as a matter of tone signaling. The incoming president would need a lot of emotional intelligence to restore the confidence of Nigerians in their country as a way to galvanize support for the new administration. Tone signaling in this case, means showing Nigerians through positive actions that there is a new Sheriff in town and that this is not going to be business as usual.
He could start by trimming down the number of presidential aids, special advisers and senior special advisers. I have no idea how many airplanes they currently have in the presidential fleet but for a country this broke, it shouldn’t be more than two in my opinion. I mean some little gestures that potentially might create a ripple effect.
Moses: Osmund, I agree about the victor making powerful initial gestures, but these must be quickly followed by visible acts, both symbolic and practical, designed to bring the country back together and mend the bitter divisions Buhari’s unprecedented nepotism and ethno- religious provincialism have created. My main worry, even beyond the obvious problem of security, is the messy state of the economy and the monetary and fiscal calamities this administration has created. The next president has his work cut out and deserves our pre-election commiseration.
Farooq: I agree with both of you that the next president would have a harder country to govern than almost any president since independence. Buhari’s disastrous eight-year presidency has reversed several minor gains we had recorded. He reversed the little gains that had existed in inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony, in the economy, and even in security. I don’t envy anyone who will succeed him.
Apart from forming a government of national unity, which is actually only elite appeasement, he should also assemble non-politicians with expert knowledge to advise the government in aspects of the life of the country that has regressed in the last eight years. This should, of course, not be another of the typical pointless committees whose recommendations will gather dust.
Moses: The task is indeed enormous, which is why I’m a bit concerned about the rationales of Atiku and Tinubu for wanting to be president. One says brazenly that it’s his turn even if clearly he has neither the physical nor mental capacity for the job as both his body and mind have been ravaged by the inevitable debilities of old age and the symptoms of undisclosed illnesses. The other is basking in this air of inevitability and makes it seem as though he’s entitled to the presidency since he’s aging and this may be his last realistic shot at the office. Only Obi and Kwankwaso seem to have the physical energy that may be needed to traverse the country and bring the many ungoverned spaces back into the territorial sovereignty of the country. But I add quickly that mental energy, experience, and wisdom are just as critical to the gargantuan task ahead as physical strength.
Let me suggest a counterpoint to our point about how daunting the task ahead is. I feel like because Nigerians are notoriously easy to impress politically and because of how much damage Buhari and APC have caused, a modest effort on the part of the next president will be appreciated and will go a long way to reassure Nigerians. Nigerians are quick to praise sincere effort even when actual positive outcomes are elusive or delayed. It is a double tragedy that the worst leader in Nigerian history has conditioned Nigerians not to expect much from their future leaders. Nigerians are disillusioned about the capacity of federal leadership to positively transform their conditions. Buhari has lowered the bar of expectation and governance to such an extent that whoever succeeds him may win public approval by simply doing the barest minimum and positioning himself merely as a stabilizing, transitional figure. That’s the real, enduring damage of the forgettable Buhari presidency.
Farooq: Moses has nudged me to revise my thoughts about the enormity of the task before the next president. I agree that Nigerians are easy to please. More than that, though, Buhari’s ineptitude has been so legendary and so unexampled that his successor needs only to pluck low-hanging fruits to be considered effective. If he appoints his cabinet days after being sworn in, reflects token balance in appointments, appoints board members, etc., he would be praised as “doing really well.” But that’s actually just basic governing.
Moses: In our last chat, Farooq made a perceptive point about how we should not be seduced by and should be skeptical of showy populist pretensions which can take the form of optical simple living, public performances of modesty and humility, and visible identification with ordinary Nigerians’ way of life. I think that’s a prescient point because my suspicion is that in the first few days or weeks of the new president’s tenure, there may be a populist charm offensive of gestures and public symbolic displays. Farooq is right that Buhari’s catastrophic, corrupt, and profligate rule after he was canonized as an ascetic political saint should make us all skeptical and incredulous to elite atmospheric and lifestyle gestures that wittingly or unwittingly translate to popular political appeal. His caution is in order and prudent at this critical time. In this election, the mantle of personal austerity and simplicity seems to have been passed to or associated with Obi. That said, I think Peter Obi’s reputation for austerity and stinginess can only be understood in relation to the unacceptably extravagant and crudely elitist behaviors of his peers. I guess I myself, having hated the markers of such public political ostentation, saw Obi as a refreshing departure from that putrid tradition. But Farooq’s note of caution is timely and has jolted me back to my healthy, self-insulating skepticism.
Switching gears a bit, Osmund, what’s your thought on the priorities of the next president in tackling the pervasive security challenges facing the country? For me, he must carry out some confidence building acts in his early days in office. For starters, take steps to release Nnamdi Kanu after extracting promises from Southeast leaders and Kanu himself to work towards peace and normalcy in the SE. Then announce a new approach to the banditry issue in the NW and parts of NC.
Osmund: You know, I have been okay sitting here and having real fun listening to two nerdy professors having a go at it. I am one guy who surprisingly prefers the uneasy quietness of a hospital Intensive Care Unit rather than having to endure a hail of dialectic bullets…haha! But in any case, I would agree with you Mo that any government serious about tackling insecurity at least in the context of the South-East shouldn’t find it hard to respect the decision of a court of competent jurisdiction in the land. I am, however, a little perplexed at your suggestions that somehow the federal government of Nigeria should give certain pre-condition to be fulfilled by anyone, let alone southeast leadership which as you know, has zero leverage on Mr. Kanu and his group whatsoever.
Look, I am neither a fan of Nnamdi Kanu nor IPOB as a group. While I completely agree with the reason for the agitation and believe the folks are within their rights to register such displeasure, I don’t subscribe to their preferred method of engagement. That said, one doesn’t have to be an IPOBian to advocate for a fair system where the rule of law is upheld. I thought that should be a no brainer, especially for a leader who before now, had made this whole song and dance about being a reformed Democrat. Obviously, that’s not the case.
Now, on the issue of how the next president should tackle the existential security threats facing Nigeria, I think I have few ideas. Don’t we all though?
As soon as the new President settles in office, he should fire all the service chiefs and replace them with a crop of young and able-bodied professionals who from day one would be ready to get the job done.
There have been serious charges of institutional corruption leveled against the military hierarchy and the allegation of some officers aiding and abetting insurgency which to them has become a cash cow. The whole place needs a total cleansing for sanity to return. There is no reason the C-in-C can’t look beyond the military top brass to recruit those officers who are happy being committed professionals rather than competing for choice real estate in Dubai with billionaires from all around the world.
With that done, there would be serious discussion on Intelligence gathering surveillance programs, strengthening border security and control.
Most importantly, the president should have the balls to go after individual and state sponsors of terror. As long as we are not addressing the issue of terror financing, we are fooling ourselves and insurgency will continue. By the way, the current AG spoke about more than 400 individuals identified as terror sponsors. Going after them would be a good way to start.
Moses: Osmund, I agree about the imperative of replacing the clueless and obviously tired service chiefs. There’s clearly a lack of new thinking and a dearth of new ideas in the military strategy against insecurity. New appointees bring new energy and new approaches. They would be eager to impress their C-in-C and Nigerians.
On Kanu, I am not a lawyer but my understanding is that the government’s legal position is that the new charges brought against him override the old ones for which he was acquitted, but I could be wrong.
Regardless, I think a new government would have the leverage to withdraw the so-called new charges and set him free as a gesture of goodwill and peace-building. Dialogue should precede and follow his release and should focus on ways of fostering enduring peace in the SE.
The governor of Borno Stage, Zulum, has been asking for the deployment of foreign mercenaries, preferably Chadians, to come in and do what the South Africans did in 2014-2015 when the Nigerian army was clearly overpowered by Boko Haram and hobbled by corruption and other internal problems.
Farooq: I want to support what you guys said by recalling something Moses said a while back about Boko Haram whose virulence abated when mercenaries from, I think, South Africa confronted and subdued them in 2015 under Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari came and demonized the mercenaries in the name of preserving our sovereignty, which caused Boko Haram to rise in strength and lethality. If our security and intelligence capabilities are insufficient to contain the widening theaters of bloodshed all over the country, the next government shouldn’t be shy to enlist the support of outside powers who can help. Only living people have use for sovereignty.
Osmund: I agree that in the interim, all options need to be considered. That said, I can also understand the unease from the other side of the argument, which is the fact that security is not really something to be outsourced for obvious reasons. That said, I do honestly believe that any serious and committed government with enough willpower, should be able to get the job done. At this point, Nigeria is a basket case and unable to pay most of her bills without going cap in hand.
Moses: Osmund, the foreign mercenary intervention would be a stop-gap short term measure given the clear difficulties our troops are having. In the long term, the armed forces need to be rebuilt, retrained, and re-equipped. Empty nationalist rhetoric should not stand in the way of life-saving pragmatic action. We need to reclaim all the areas under Boko Haram control or influence. Then a retrained Nigerian army can consolidate the gains and enable life to return to normal in the Northeast.
Osmund: That makes sense Mo. How about the economy? Which areas would you like the incoming administration to focus on, as a matter of priority
Moses: The debt is the biggest challenge before the new president. Buhari’s administration has borrowed the country into bankruptcy. We’re now, according to the government’s own Debt Management Office, using more than 80 percent of our revenues to service our external debt. And we have massive internal debt as well. We’re now in the depressing situation of borrowing to service our debt and run the government. Our budgets in the last seven years have been financed by massive external and internal borrowing. That’s unsustainable. If Nigeria were a person or company, they would already be in bankruptcy protection or in receivership. Unfortunately, the debt issue hasn’t gotten much attention from the candidates. That’s probably because many Nigerians don’t possess the financial and economic literacy to understand what’s happening and what’s at stake for them and future generations. But the next president has to quickly move to get us away from this mindless path of debt and borrowing, this cycle of borrowing, spending, and borrowing to pay back what was borrowed earlier.
In the short term we need to get our oil revenues back up by restoring all the lost production and reducing the organized and sophisticated theft of oil. We need to raise revenue in non-oil sectors. The cost of governance will need to be drastically reduced, and that would entail yanking many perks away from elected and appointed government officials. And the profiteering that happens through the existence of multiple exchange rates of the Naira, which is a form of revenue loss and is anti-business, should be stopped.
The economically illiterate ban on the importation of rice and other essentials need to be reversed as it has only created scarcity, smuggling, and inflation in the clear absence of local productive capacity to meet the demand for the banned commodities. It will take courage to stabilize the economy and put it on the path of sustainable growth. Do the presidential contenders have that type of courage? I’m not so sure.
Osmund: I agree. One other area that Nigeria is bleeding out revenue are the ports. Nigeria operates the most inefficient and service deficient seaports in the world. Due to inefficiency, corruption and bottlenecks associated with cargo clearing, N3.1 trillion is lost annually.
Another N4.36 trillion worth of non-oil exports is also lost to the crises while N600 billion is lost in Customs revenue. These figures were put out by an organization called the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (MACN) working in collaboration with the Lagos Chamber of Commerce. Illegal charges, rent seeking behaviors and corrupt port officials are some of the reasons for the excessive delays to import and export processes that result in such a monumental loss of resources.
A new government needs to conduct a thorough forensic audit of all government ministries and parastatals and begin the difficult process of plugging all the revenue loopholes. Of course, one cannot discuss Nigerian national debt without touching on the contentious issue of fuel subsidy. Now, I already know how Farooq feels about that and so today, I will dodge that bullet and wait to wear my gloves bearded with thorns, ready to go. But for sure, it’s a discussion that needs to happen whether we are for or against it.
Farooq: My own worry is that all the presidential candidates are united in saying they will do away with fuel subsidies, and people who will be most devastated by this are clapping in ignorance. There’s no denying that there is unacceptably enormous fraud in the fuel subsidy regime. Most of the money allocated for fuel subsidy doesn’t actually go to fuel subsidy, but the solution isn’t to throw everyday folks to the elements because of this. The solution is to reform the dispensation of the subsidies, to stamp out the corruption in the program, and let it get to the people below who need it. Nigeria’s economy is notoriously petrol-dependent. Even the slightest increase in petrol prices causes everything else to go through the roof. I’m not, of course, suggesting that petrol prices should be perpetually stagnant. That’s unrealistic. But Nigeria’s unimaginative political elites always demonize fuel subsidies as a prelude to increase petrol prices and deepen the hurt of poor people. What they never touch or even talk about are the enormous, comparatively bigger subsidies that finance their epicurean lifestyles.
A sensitive government would tackle the corruption in the fuel subsidy regime and ensure that Nigerians enjoy the benefits that come from being an old-producing country. Only an impossibly irresponsible rich parent tells his or her children to learn to starve because their poor neighbors are also starving.
Of course, the best option is to get the refineries to work or incentivize the building of more private refineries. That should obviate the need for fuel subsidies.
The subsidies the government needs to worry about are the subsidies for the rich, which gulp a disproportionately higher portion of the national budget than the comparatively measly subsidies for the poor. Every responsible government all over the world subsidizes the poor. Even America, the patron saint of capitalism, subsidizes agricultural goods and fuel consumption.
Osmund: Gentlemen, I believe we are making progress here, identifying some of the key issues as well as prescribing local remedies. I think we all deserve some brownie points…haha! In the meantime, I will go ahead and piece all these puzzles together, then neatly arrange it in a binder for the incoming President. Farooq will have the singular honor to deliver it first thing in the morning, on the day of inauguration. If he makes it back from Nigeria, we will know things are starting to look up already. If not, we will know that he is in some place, drinking beer with MC Olowo and his boys or being made to give account of his stewardship as a ”disObedient.”…Haha!
Farooq: You no well Osmund..
Moses: Thanks all
Osmund Agbo, a medical doctor and social justice advocate, writes from Houston, Texas, while Moses Ochonu is a professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, and Farooq Kperogi is a professor of Communication at the Kennesaw State University, Georgia.