I try to be very patient with people; to step into other people’s shoes to know why they act the way they do, and not judge them by my circumstance. But I had seen, less than six months into the first term of the Buhari administration that something went really loose. Not only did the man go to sleep and refused to operationalise his government by appointing the ministers who will coordinate different aspects of critical service delivery to the people, but it looked like he had been possessed by another being.
In a couple of interviews he granted Nigerians, he scowled and flared up each time he was challenged on the state of the economy and how people suffered. He asked whether he was the one who caused the problems. He wanted to hear none of it. I wrote on this page in an article titled “In Defense of Mrs. Ngozi Anyaegbunam; the story of civil vs public service” in December 2015 that Buhari was not being fair to the Nigerian people even that early in his presidency. His supporters chose to mock people like Ngozi Anyaegbunam, who tried to prod a president-gone-rogue in the right direction. The scornful look Buhari gave the poor lady went viral as ‘Buharists’ made a feast of her. I was appalled. I gave up, set up a political party, and contested against Buhari in 2019, for whatever that was worth.
A lot has happened since 2015 and the administration is now rounding up, after a colossal failure that was further consolidated by the Nigerian people in 2019. We reaped what we sowed. And Buhari and his people ensured that no one could wrest power from them. The result is that Nigeria, unfortunately, became the world’s poverty capital and we continue to churn out thousands of poor people each day when most countries around the world have somehow found a way of reversing the trend. We share that space of ignominy, indeed leading the infamous pack of countries like DR Congo, Niger, and Chad. Almost every country – even in Africa – has managed to reduce, significantly, the number of those dropping into poverty on a per-second basis. Some like Sudan, Mali, Gabon, Botswana, Algeria, Morocco, have very low numbers and have significantly eradicated the more debilitating of their poverty challenge. This is where we are. The Buhari-Osinbajo government has – for almost eight years now – unleashed unprecedented economic and social violence on the people of Nigeria. And in doing that, they have shown much arrogance. We have been whipped with the biblical scorpions as Rehoboam did to the children of Israel after his father had used horsewhips. I wonder what worse thing may befall this country and her people, given that things seem to always get worse and worse for us, never better. What is more painful than the sting of a scorpion? Your guess is as good as mine, as we brace up for the next villain. But we could also hope that we have reached the bottom of our ignominious descent and will only now rise. God help us!
However, in spite of what I knew about the ineptitude of the Buhari government, I naturally had an open mind towards him, trying not to totally discard him into the trash bin of history because he is a human being, and an old man, until his latest interview with Channels TV’s Seun Okinbaloye and Maupe Ogun-Yusuf. The well-choreographed interview happened much earlier than when it was aired. Buhari’s team had the question well in advance, and so on. Yet it was the disaster that it was. I must confess, that since those first days and those scowls, when I realized that the same Buhari who asked his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, in the Toyota coaster vehicle in which they campaigned, to look into the eyes of the people and see that all they wanted was for his team to hit the ground running and change their lives positively had somehow disappeared, and was replaced by this other guy that did not care, that maxed out on his own comfort, travelled outside Nigeria on a whim and therefore spent three-quarters of his time abroad, ensconced himself in luxurious cars, sponsored his children in foreign universities and treated his small ailments abroad without accounting to the people, was long gone. The one that drank sachet Milo and sachet Peak Milk had transmogrified even as the people got poorer. Nigerians had gone through what is worse than a nightmare in the past seven-odd years. Today, I don’t see anything that could change in the last year of the administration.
And so, Seun asked the president’s opinion about some critical economic indices. It centered around inflation, the value of the naira, unemployment, poverty, and such. Said he: “When you took over in 2015, our debt stock at the time was about 12 trillion, now it’s about 32 trillion. The inflation rate was about 9%, it’s now sitting at about 15%; the unemployment rate was about 9.2%, it’s now at about 32.2%; the exchange (rate) was about N197 to a dollar, now it’s way over N400 to a dollar. Now people would look back and say before you took over some of these indicators were fair, and now the figures are not friendly at all”.
And the president answered “Well, I am not sure how correct your calculations are,” the president said, “but all I know is that we have to allow people to have access to the farm. We just have to go back to the land”.
Calculations? Calculations? I haven’t been able to reduce my horror at the president’s statement on that day, and the categorization of the numbers churned out by his own National Bureau of Statistics as Seun Okinbaloye’s ‘calculations’! Granted, Seun underestimated especially the debt levels and the unemployment figures. He was probably trying to be kind to the president. I started to wonder. What did Buhari think his work entailed for the past eight years? What does a president’s work entail indeed? If the past seven years is anything to go by, it looks like Buhari believes the critical aspect of his work is to travel around for Nigeria and shake hands with foreign presidents. He has done that well enough. In fact, he over-delivered.
COVID-19 exposed just how needless those trips were. But no sooner had the world come back from what was supposed to be a four-year lockdown (thanks to the protests of crazy folks like me among millions of others, that made it shorter) than Buhari resumed his gallivanting. Buhari hardly toured Nigeria – certainly not at any pace that could have put governors on their toes or ensured that federal projects were concluded by ministers on time. Here is a man to whom much was given; much love, much trust, much goodwill, much time, much rope, much excuses, much opportunities, much forbearance, much patience, much rationalization, much respect, much hope, much reverence. And he blew them all. Yes, he and his vice, Professor Osinbajo.
David Easton, considered to be one of the key intellectual forces in the understanding of political science, defined politics as “the authoritative allocation of values”. I find it hard to distinguish this from the definition of economics, which is concerned with the ‘allocation of scarce resources’. Resources are values too, and values, are resources. The slight difference between politics and economics, therefore, lies in the study of how the authority to allocate values, or resources, is acquired. Political science studies the process of how the government is formed, how constitutions are made, and how nations, communities, societies, even households, are governed or ruled. However, Maynard Keynes, in writing a tribute to his mentor, Alfred Marshall, in 1924, reminds us that there should not be any area of human endeavour that is opaque to, and precluded from the forays of a master economist. So, the process of acquisition of the power (the authority) to allocate resources(values) is not outside the purview or overview, or analysis of the economist. I think it is a powerful definition when you consider that political power – at the end of the day – is about how you allocate resources in society. Our politics here is bad because values (resources) have headed in all the wrong directions. Power and authority are gained, certainly through an economic process as well. Politicians convince the people to their side, by deploying resources – money, rice, or a slot on TV or social media – paid for with goodwill or cash. Soldiers deploy resources (guns, bullets, and even fear), to convince the people to acquiesce to their rule – as was the case in Nigeria for several decades in the past and is back as a fad in many African nations today.
But back to the issue. I realized, with Buhari’s last interview (if one may call it that), that the sheer essence of a president’s rule, is to engage with the few core economic indices – inflation, exchange rate, poverty rates, illiteracy rates, child and mother mortality, unemployment. Shi ke nan! Every morning or every week, he should call for a discussion around these issues and ensure that his bureau for statistics is not cooking up figures that they believe he wants to see. These are the issues that a federal executive council should engage with; not contracts to construct boreholes in Malumfashi or buy executive cars for lucky, overfed officials of Nigerian Ports Authority. These mundane issues are what have occupied the times of our governments for as far as I can remember. Also, something like the exchange rate of the naira does not even need extensive research by any bureau. These things are out there in the open. Even the price of staples is out there and the president should ordinarily have his own little team monitoring prices and benchmarking the bureau of statistics.
But Buhari did none of these. Why has he been so wicked to the people of this country? How can he not know what the value of the naira is and he called it Seun’s calculations? The same naira he swore never to devalue in 2016 until he got sick and his vice (Osinbajo), approved the devaluation – twice? Why didn’t he ask questions? Does he not find time to think about the country every once in a while? I know as a president his family buys nothing and so knows the price of nothing. But did he think that the agonies expressed by the people are because they hate him? Does he know what the people of this country are passing through in real-time? Did he not say the other day that even if a youth comes out with the best result from the best university and the best course of study, he may still suffer and die, because there are no jobs because the ministries and departments and agencies are filled up? Yes, filled up with the children of the oppressors. Does Buhari think unemployment is some joke? And in all these, what has been the role and the perspective of his deputy, Osinbajo, who now seeks the same job, on the back of some repackaging as an agile, well-spoken, good-looking, urbane, debonair, technocrat, who has unfortunately been caged by Buhari’s dogs since 2015? Is it true he couldn’t have done anything at all, despite Buhari being totally asleep at the wheels?
And so I wrote this little memo to Osinbajo on social media during the week. These people don’t know or care if someone like me exists, so I couldn’t be bothered to start to try at this late hour, to engage them like things are normal – by struggling to send a letter to his office or something – because things are not. I wrote this memo on a spur, and right on my phone keypad because it looked to me like someone was trying to paper over the disaster of the past seven years like it was nothing. Of course, Nigerians easily get carried away with razzmatazz. But we must refocus so that we do not make the same mistakes. I am not sure yet, that most of the folks that aspire, especially to the post of the president in Nigeria, have a fleeting idea of what the role should be about, apart from the noise and hoopla that it already entails. And it is so easy to get distracted on that job. What has happened in the past seven years is not nothing, as Americans would say. So, I asked of Osinbajo, when he spoke somewhere of his policies of supporting SMEs since 2016 and such like:
My small memo to Osinbajo
Prof, focus on the future and never talk about the past. Those policies since 2016? The results are 250% inflation (compounded till date. Rice from 8k to 26k, electricity rate has gone up 400%, cement from 1,500 to 4,800, etc, etc). Naira fell from 220 to 581 = $. National debts rose from N12 trillion to N40 trillion to close at N50 trillion by end of 2023. Unemployment rose from 12% to 33%. If Buhari is absent – because he knows little about what is going on around him – the onus falls on you, sir. The entire economy was/is on your shoulders since 2015. The constitution says so, and circumstances made it a fait accompli since your boss spent too much time either treating himself abroad or resting at home. And so, these results are yours to claim. And these results are the fallout of the same failed policies you are pushing for 2023 and beyond!
You must change tack from this idea of lazily driving the youths into so-called entrepreneurship (which is all about selling things produced in other countries – every youth has become a hustler pushing stuff in people’s faces, facing frustration therefrom and turning to ‘yahoo’ and ‘runs’ to cover up). Do not be indoctrinated into the bad ideas of western hegemons who have always misled us. You are smart enough to know you are on the wrong path. Nigeria needs a more robust economic ideology that incorporates our people from the ground up and allows us to grow organically and inclusively. We can achieve double-digit growth if only we look inwards and energize our people and unleash our potential. Government must be more responsible and there are millions of jobs that the private sector cannot create. Promoting so-called SMEs or the unaccountable distribution of ‘small-small’ cash to poor market women will not solve our existential problems such as insecurity, mass illiteracy, housing crisis, a revival of textile sector, food insecurity, environmental crisis – plastic pollution, open defecation, soot, gas flaring, sewage management, solid waste management and so on. If you insist on these ephemeral and lazy policies that exculpate government, then you are a non-patriot. I wish you luck in your quest but we may not repeat the same policies and idiosyncrasies and expect different results. Have a solid day Prof.
I followed on in the same thread, for those who found it hard to understand my take or those who wanted to twist it somehow:
The point is that as governments come this one is the most disastrous, most unlucky, most incompetent, and probably the most corrupt. They miss every point. And the gentleman is the number 2 man. I know he couldn’t resign but he should have had at least one moment of inspiration or epiphany to do one single thing right in that period. However, his own ideas are toxic even if the president has no ideas. Currency devaluation or floating. Cryptocurrency. SME and youth entrepreneurship, which is fruitless, frustrating, and over-flogged – every youth is now a hustler even when they should still be mentored or working in structured environments where they learn how to put companies together and the dignity of labour. Privatization of everything and deregulation has made us into victims of a few powerful guys and we are being slammed daily by increasing cost of everything in the face of more inefficiency. Exploitation.
I haven’t met Osinbajo since he got there in 2015. So, my view of him is that of a layman from afar. I admit I don’t have the details of his frustrations. But what I have is the reality of the ordinary Nigerian. As a small entrepreneur too, I saw hell under this administration right from the start, and if not for my wife’s support and my low expectations (I live almost like Peter Obi though infinitely less monied), I may have been in deeper trouble. The administration messed up big and must not be whitewashed by anyone, least of all the number 2 man. Nigerians pass through so much, silently. And most Nigerians are helpless. I complain often that when we gather at the Hilton, or Sheraton to discuss economics and public policy, no one thinks for our poorest people. It’s as if they don’t exist or are just on their own.
We have thus neglected the grassroots that should form the foundation of our economics, in pursuit of everything vain, farfetched, and ultimately toxic to our very wellbeing – foreign investment, solving the dollar problem, more foreign debts, privatization, liberalization, self-regulation, and total deregulation and such like. Now, don’t get me wrong. We have to move with the times, and these are the directions things have gone elsewhere. But we may not be able to import other people’s histories, even if we import their economic ideologies. We must also be nuanced. The advice is that you don’t take everything off the shelves. Take some, leave some. Use your brains. Know the sons of whom you are.
My concern should be valid because a vice president is – per the constitution – in charge of the economy. We didn’t hear of any major conflict regarding running the economy or whether the VP’s hands were held by northern wolves. It would have been great to come to his rescue. The VP also did not come out vociferously on economic issues that were pro-poor and meant to bridge the income gap or energise the economy from the ground up. I know that he spoke about the need for an elite consensus at some point, but nobody followed up and he seemed to have dropped the issue. What we heard Osinbajo speak passionately about was the need for the Central Bank of Nigeria to fully float the naira (which could have meant economic Armageddon today in my humble opinion), as well as the need to incorporate cryptocurrency into our financial system for supervision by the same CBN. Today, cryptocurrencies have crashed again, justifying the position of central banks around the world that that pseudo asset will wreak untold havoc on the financial system and probably set off another global financial crisis at this rate. Nigeria would have been the guineapig had the CBN followed Osinbajo’s hard-worded precepts. This is a legless economy by the way. He also spoke recently about there being too much regulation in the economy (I have a robust response for him on that but now I am scared lest it looks like I am after the fine gentleman whose economic ideas are somehow opposite of mine). Why did the VP not deploy his erudition, passion, articulation, in favour of that elite consensus he once talked about? We know that our key problem is the refusal of powerful elites to pay their dues to the treasury. They prefer to rip off instead. And they are all friends of government. Property taxes, capital gains taxes, inheritance taxes, luxury taxes, commensurate income taxes. All of them are in limbo and we want the country to become great.
Where Tinubu speaks of the problem of ‘Financialism’, by which the financial sector and everything finance-related has been elevated to the top echelon of the national economies of most black African nations, especially Nigeria, resulting in a situation where the huge, internationally-backed and facilitated financial sector actually sucks dead the real sector that should be number one in the economy, I found our Osinbajo takes the extreme position, promoting more financialism rather than de-escalating it. Since either of them may become Nigeria’s next president – and Osinbajo especially has better optics, I am desirous of extracting a commitment from him that there will be a significant change of tack and ideology, to something more pragmatic. I am tempted to believe – based on empiricism – that the failure of the past seven years is due to his ideology, in the absence of anything from Buhari’s end. And he must never get enamoured of that ideology.
My alarm at recent developments is further enhanced when I saw Osinbajo’s pairing with Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, also a very cerebral man, and a man of action, who has sentiments – some will say allegiances – to western capitalists. El-Rufai could be brutally efficient and his reign as Abuja minister, though effective in limiting indiscriminate human settlements, had nothing at all for the common man. He ended up displacing 500,000 people – the second-highest displacement globally in that time according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. I have the records. El-Rufai also asked everyone earning below N50,000 as of 2006 to go back to their villages. He could be almost Hitlerish in his approach. We cannot have another government that would be even more damaging to the majority of Nigerians than this one that is rounding up.
As I concluded this article, two news items came out that were relevant. The first was that Nigerian buyers of eggs and fish will have to pay more. The associations of poultry farmers and fish sellers had had a meeting. Their members’ businesses were collapsing as they could no longer cope with rising costs hitting them from everywhere. And so, they immediately imposed a 50% rise in the prices of their goods. Who pays? The poor people – most of them on fixed salaries or none at all. The other news item – even more relevant – had it that the cost of transportation had risen by a whopping 283% since 2017. The news came from no less than the National Bureau of Statistics. We can see the kinds of numbers that we grapple with in Nigeria. Nothing adds 3% or 5% here. It is usually 50%, 100%, or even 300% in one fell swoop and we all conform and adjust. Even the government was about to increase fuel price to N302 a litre, a little less than 100%. Yes, we think big here, but never in terms of productivity.
A president, vice president, minister, governor, director-general, or whoever else has become detached from reality because they don’t have to pay for anything directly, must find ways of reconnecting with reality no matter how their lackeys try to shield them because they will sure try. Not doing this will result in the kind of calamity that is the Buhari administration. And there shall be no escape. I promise that after this long missive, and the next one on regulation in Nigeria, I will take some break from engaging Osinbajo especially and let Nigerians decide what they want in 2023.