by Simon Kolawole
Mario Matthew Cuomo, former three-time governor of the American state of New York, was known for his poetic use of language in the political space. For instance, speaking on his supposed presidential plans in 1986, he quipped: “I have no plans, and no plans to plan.” He eventually did not run — despite being top tip for the Democratic ticket in 1988 and 1992. What about this? “I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in 50 years what my father taught by example in one week.” Cuomo, whose son Andrew is currently the governor of New York, died at 82 in 2015, but we will never forget his thought-stimulating, witty gift to the world.
The Cuomo quote that comes to mind today as we discuss President Muhammadu Buhari’s midterm blues is: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Political campaigns are flavoured with musical catchphrases, but delivering the goods is not a tea party. It is not as if poetry is easy. No. I used to address myself as a “budding poet” — having been inspired by Niyi Osundare’s column in Sunday Tribune in the 1980s. But after piling up a wreckage of unfinished lines and wretched verses, I decided to respect myself. Prose, though, is a much longer journey. It is full of narratives and plots, even poems, twists and turns that have to come together at some point.
On the soapbox, you can easily promise, poetically: “One meal per day for every kid/We’ll do what Jonathan never did.” The crowd will scream and roar — as if you are a rap star. On the hot seat, though, when reality batters you silly, you resort to prose: “Jonathan, in a sickening stretch of misrule, had pulled down the barn and ferried away the meal, making it impossible for us to feed the kids. Now we have to till the land, plant the seed, irrigate the farm, harvest the crop and process the produce before we can feed the kids and straighten their wizened faces.” Evidently, APC over-marketed itself and has become a victim of its own exaggerated competence.
Get a sense of urgency. Buhari seems to think he has 30 years to do this job. He spent all the time in the world to pick a cabinet, and we still ended up with most of the people we knew he was going to appoint. It has taken forever to pick chief executives of some critical agencies. Up till now, the board of the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) has not been inaugurated in a country direly in need of private capital to revive failing public companies. The minister from Kogi state, Mr. James Ocholi, died nearly a year ago and he is yet to be replaced. I just don’t get it. Buhari has only two years left to make his mark; at most six if he gets another term. Speed.
Re-jig the cabinet. The first cabinet is usually a repayment of political IOUs. That done, it is now time for Buhari say “thank you and goodbye — it was nice knowing you” to the liabilities and noisemakers in his team. Now is the time to change gear. Time is far spent. You must work while it is yet day. It is clear that some people in his team are not helping his cause or may be too constrained to offer any value. Buhari is going nowhere if he doesn’t have a competent team around him. Not just a competent team but a team that can deliver the prose with precision. Some are still talking poetry as if the 2015 election is yet to hold. Overhaul.
Design an economic recovery blueprint. I have listened patiently to senior officials of this administration on the economic crisis. All I can hear is “in the long run”. There is no discernible plan on how Nigerians will survive the short run. As John Maynard Keynes would say, “In the long run we are all dead.” Economy is the biggest issue now and there is no sign yet that the government has a grip on it. We are all affected by the economic crisis, but the worst hit is Buhari’s primary constituency: the poor. In the next 12 months, how will the jobs come back? How will inflation be contained? We needed an emergency plan as far back as 2015, but here we are. Limbo.
Develop a winning anti-graft strategy. Impunity has reduced (at federal level, I would say) and we now know there is something called “budget padding” that went undetected for years. This is good news. But we are also getting mixed messages on “invasive plant species” and grass-cutting buccaneers. More so, while naming and shaming may excite the lynch mob, an anti-graft war built solely on this approach will not work. A winning strategy must go beyond public lynching — it must address systemic failures, administrative lapses, entrenched mindsets and other endemic pathologies. Buhari must deal with more than the symptoms. Comprehensive.
Broaden security. That Boko Haram no longer holds a chunk of territory is great news. To be honest, I don’t envy Buhari. He inherited a myriad of security problems. Herdsmen had been terrorising communities for decades without media coverage. Ethno-religious conflicts were a national staple. The Niger Delta was always going to explode. Kidnapping became a huge industry 10 years ago. While Buhari’s eyes were on Boko Haram, the latent conflicts across the country erupted. And, sadly, the murderous herders appear to be getting only a slap on the wrist. Buhari must step up his watch. He must first stop the infighting in his security team. Alarming.
Some flexibility, please. When a policy is killing the economy, you must review it. The idea of TSA was first implemented by President Obasanjo in 2004. He moved public funds to CBN to checkmate “lazy bankers”. As a meltdown threatened, he swiftly reversed it. (I remember writing an article then, “For the fear of death, we committed suicide”). Obasanjo was flexible. Buhari’s TSA has starved the economy of “working capital”. You move all funds into one account at CBN “to fight corruption” and start borrowing to pay salaries and do projects. What’s that? With ICT, you can track public funds wherever they may be in banks without TSA. Fact.
Focus on the future. Asked in the 1993 televised presidential debate if he would probe the military, Chief MKO Abiola replied: “You cannot be running forward and looking backward.” It would appear the core strategy of this government is to keep blaming former President Jonathan from 2015 till 2019 or 2023. There is certainly nothing wrong with reminding us that Nigeria would have been better off if Jonathan had done the right thing in the time of plenty, but, come on, Jonathan left power since May 29, 2015! He lost an election because the majority of voters thought he was not doing a good job, and they don’t need to be reminded about that everyday of their lives. Focus.
Change style. Personally, I respect and like Buhari a lot (my worst-kept secret). However, I really expected more action from him. It is very frustrating. He is too distant from the public and governance. He needs to engage more. He needs to communicate more, and better. He needs to put his party, APC, in order. The party exists only on paper. More importantly, he needs to foster political stability, peace and progress. He needs to consciously re-build Nigeria. Every part of Nigeria must have a sense of belonging. No part should feel ostracised. He must respect the rule of law. This government is full of lawyers but hardly obeys court orders. This is wrong. Change.
And four other things…
Am I the only one slightly worried that after the military said it had cleared Sambisa forest of Boko Haram insurgents, the remaining 195 of the abducted Chibok girls are yet to be found? The impression all along is that the girls were in the forest. All I want to think now is that they have been moved to another location or they are still somewhere in the forest. Sambisa, by the way, is a massive territory. It is one of Africa’s biggest forests. The area is twice the size of Lagos state. It, in fact, covers 60,000 square kilometres across six states. That is like travelling from Lagos to Ibadan 500 times — or going to and fro 250 times. Vast.
Nothing saddens me, nothing scares me more than ethnic conflicts in Nigeria. The interpretations and the repercussions often expand our fault lines. Without bothering to know the facts, we often jump into the fray and make conclusions. It worsens matters when one group is predominantly Christian and the other is Muslim. Christians line up behind Christians, Muslims queue up behind Muslims — even if the conflict has nothing to do with religion. The killings in Southern Kaduna as a result of the nefarious activities of herdsmen and bandits have revved up political tension. It hardly helps when it takes Aso Rock ages to take action. We are playing with fire. Explosive.
BACK TO AMNESTY
It’s so painful that the militants needed to cripple the economy before the federal government resumed the amnesty programme. I have been arguing with some hardliners who think we should damn them and face the consequences, but my position has always been that you first chase the fox away before rebuking the hen. We all know it is quite humiliating to give in to the militants, but what do you do when they are paralysing oil export and power supply — and we clearly cannot afford another open war? Until we are able to fund our budget and earn forex from other sources, oil revenue will continue to be critical to our economy. Pragmatism.
ROAD NOT TAKEN
There is controversy over the impending diversion of Abuja-bound flights to Kaduna because of planned works on the runway. International airline operators are worried over security and bad roads between Kaduna and Abuja. One thing that strikes me in all of this is that if only we had built an efficient multi-modal transport system, this would be a piece a cake. A fast, modern train running direct service from Kaduna to Abuja would make the journey in approximately 30 minutes — which is just about the distance between Abuja airport and the city by car. For now, travellers must make do with what is on ground. Literally.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Simon Kolawole/Thisday