Saturday, 25 June 2016

Buhari getting the change he didn’t bargain for

Buhari getting the change he didn’t bargain for
BEFORE last year’s presidential election, no one thought it necessary to ask president Muhammadu Buhari, who was then candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), how he hoped to work the magic of achieving his promised exchange rate parity between the naira and dollar. It was, however, apparently sufficient for him and many hopeful others that his unorthodox financial and econometrics models soared on the wings of nostalgia. He offered no real plan, nor explained the economic dynamics by which that parity would be procured, nor yet did he take into account the eventful intervening years since parity last reigned. All he said was that once the killer, corruption, was destroyed and discipline established, nothing was impossible, not even an exchange rate that incongruously widened shortly after he was overthrown as military head of state. Thus, after assuming the presidency last year, he still felt and spoke of the possibility of some sort of exchange rate parity.
But once he encountered the country’s dire economic problems and saw and also felt its magnitude, his voice began to weaken and his steps falter. From bemoaning his advanced age and the inevitable weakness it brought with it, to accusing the immediate past president in particular of completely wrecking the economy, the president slowly moved away from talk of parity to sustaining the status quo. Finally, after loathing any talk of devaluation consequent upon the fall in national revenue, and describing the naira as the proud symbol of the country’s patriotic and nationalistic outlook, which everyone must embrace, the president has consented to market forces determining the naira’s realistic exchange rate or value. President Buhari had finally met change, and change has worked its wonders on him.
If anyone was astonished by that clear volte face, it was because they were yet to hear him speak candidly and honestly about the economy and the modern principles that undergird it. In his numerous interviews with the Nigerian media to mark his one year in office, the president responded to a question on the kind of economic advice he was receiving by declaring that most of the time, the economists spoke above his head when they explained why the economy was experiencing turbulence. He would submit to their advice, he said plaintively, because both the problem and the economists had overwhelmed him and he was wary of being seen as the obstacle to the country’s economic revival and transformation.
Before the presidential election, President Buhari also mocked those who suggested that the price of fuel could not be lower than it was. He claimed to know what to do to bring the price of fuel down and relieve the common man of his anguish. One of his former ministers when he was head of state, Tam David-West, a professor, worked the arithmetic and announced gleefully that anyone who said the price of fuel could not be brought down was insincere. After he assumed office and made some appointments, including unwisely retaining the petroleum portfolio in his office, the president bounced confidently around that once his abracadabra was concluded, fuel price would come down. Not only did it not come down eventually, it contradistinctively rose so steeply that few ever thought any president or government, let alone one that flaunts its pro-people credential so garishly, could raise the price of fuel per litre from a punishing N86 to an unbearable N145. The price hike was one of the things economists called for, and were sure would work. Now the president is touting the change as salutary and inevitable.
As recently as his last media chat and thereafter, the president had promised to make the Niger Delta a living hell for pipeline vandals and regional activists and militants interrupting the flow of crude oil sales. He would treat them the same way he was treating Boko Haram insurgents and achieving results, he fumed. A few weeks after the last of such threats against the militants, especially against the Niger Delta Avengers who had brought crude oil export down by more than 700,000 barrels per day, his government opened negotiations with the militants, and even appeared desperate to get every miscreant in the region involved. Opinions were divided in the Niger Delta on the propriety of negotiation, but a significant part of the country and the rest of the world thought the government could not win the creek battles it appeared eager to court and wage. And so to peace talk, which he had forsworn, went the president, a changed and considerably chastened man.

The enduring paradox of the Buhari presidency is that he came into office as the chief agent of change; but he is fast becoming the one change is changing. President Buhari is still holding out in many ideational redoubts, but if that paradox is real, and if the observations of many analysts are not far-fetched, he will be unrecognisable by 2019. Only last week, he still spoke intransigently of the Biafra agitation that has lathered the Southeast. Its campaigners, he sneered, were not born when the civil war raged and so did not experience the privations many victims had to endure. Agitation is cheap, the president seems to conclude, when you campaign from the comfort of your rooms. It remains to be seen whether he will enter into discussions with pro-Biafra agitators or not if the agitators up the ante somewhat disconcertingly.
In addition, during his campaigns, the president ridiculed Nigerian leaders for allowing the refineries to run down. Once elected, he would look into the matter of the refineries and wave his magic wand yet again. He had done it before, he said exuberantly, and could do it again. To prove he was serious, the president in interviews within and outside the country suggested he knew so much about the refineries and was a leading participant in building one or two of them. He gave the impression it was a cakewalk to build refineries. But after one such interview, and without directly referring to the president, an incensed ex-president Olusgeun Obasanjo roared that anyone who said he could rehabilitate the refineries was merely engaging in wishful thinking. On his own, the rather burdened Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu, has vacillated on the topic in a manner that sees him torn between the president’s fantasy and the economic reality and nuisance of decrepit, money gobbling machinery.
Finally, during his first anniversary media interviews, the president responded to a question on ex-president Goodluck Jonathan’s national conference and the imperative of restructuring. He barely concealed his disgust, not to say his fury. He had not looked at it, he said dismissively, promising it would end in the archives where it truly belonged. Like his other viewpoints on key national economic and political matters, the president is fairly anachronistic. While it is true Dr Jonathan used the national conference issue as a red herring, the structural problems the country faces have defied solution outside the framework of political reengineering. Dr Jonathan reluctantly, and perhaps mischievously, yielded to the convocation of a national conference. There is nothing to show that President Buhari would not reluctantly also yield to a national conference or its variants. Once he does, his change, begun with floating the naira, would become complete, making him the putative master of change transformed by policy summersaults into the servant of change.
But what is truly worrisome about the president’s Damascene experience is not his seemingly easy surrender to change, the subsumption of his old and unworkable ideas under the modern and practical imperatives of new economics and new politics, but the subliminal spin off. The problem is that he appears to be ruling the country by yielding very reluctantly and unmethodically to ideas that war against his instincts and constricted experience rather than ruling by a careful and structured architecture of modern ideas designed for today and the day after tomorrow. The country would profit from robust and well-grounded ideas of how to govern a modern state. Instead, the president has instituted ad hocism on such a horrifying scale that he has no impression he should be laying the foundation for Nigeria’s future and democracy, a responsibility his predecessors also woefully, if not criminally, shirked.

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