BY Kayode Komolafe
In his closing remarks at the ministerial retreat last week, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered members of his administration to “go on the offensive“against “irresponsible and politically motivated activists.” Pray, has Buhari lost patience with the critics of his administration?
The President proudly listed the “achievements” of his government which he said should be stoutly defended.
The tactical (if not strategic) error of this official response to the present condition of Nigeria is that the ordered offensive is wrongly targeted.
In a crisis situation, the leader should launch an offensive on the enemies instead of attacking the forces that should be rather mobilised effectively to fight the war.
Those who are harshly critical of the Buhari administration have legitimate class, ethnic, regional and other interests to protect within the system. They are hard on the government because they feel these interests are threatened given the way the country is being governed.
The enemies of Nigeria are not those the President has described as “irresponsible.” The real enemies in the present situation are poverty, inequality, insecurity, social injustice, divisiveness etc.
These perennial enemies, strengthened by the cumulative effects of decades of incompetent governance, have found reinforcement in natural factors such as COVID-19, floods, erosion, desertification and environmental degradation and other problems.
Nigeria’s debilitating enemies which have conspired to make the country increasingly miserable for its people should be the targets of any offensive that Buhari wishes to launch even at a rhetorical level.
If the offensive is correctly targeted on the real enemies and the condition of the people is thereby improved in different dimensions, the critics would have fewer holes to pick in the governance process.
What the situation requires now is not facile self-congratulation amidst the misery and anguish of the people.
The administration should be keenly suggestible rather than being insular.
It is in the supreme interest of the government to listen carefully to the voices of dissent so as to know the useful points the various societal forces are making to resolve the crisis.
Some of those voices have been loud and clear in recent times. In some cases they give expressions to the agendas of factions of the respective power blocs in Nigeria.
At the weekend, a group of socio-cultural and political organisations issued a communique at the end of a “consultative dialogue,” pinpointing “the primacy of pulling Nigeria back from the brink.”
Participants at the significant dialogue were leaders of the southwest group, Afenifere; Middle Belt Forum; Northern Elders’ Forum; the southeast organisation, Ohaneze Ndigbo; and the Pan Niger Delta Forum.
The group plans to organise experts to make recommendations on devolution of power, fiscal federalism, judicial reforms, security, electoral reforms etc.
The dialogue was facilitated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo who set the tone of the unprecedented conversation by observing that Nigeria “is fast drifting to a failed and badly divided state.”
The elements of the crisis isolated by the group are certainly undeniable – insecurity, threats to national cohesion and communal harmony, socio-economic underdevelopment, the less than satisfactory economic management, lack of trust of the leadership, poor quality of the democratic process etc.
As Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka rightly suggested yesterday, the focus now should be on the message regardless of the political revulsion the messenger may generate in some quarters. For example, the fact that Obasanjo squandered the rare eight- year opportunity to recast the Nigerian political economy on the path of progress should not disqualify him from performing a patriotic duty now in find a way out of the crisis.
Official publicists seem to be implementing the order to go on the offensive already given the responses to the foregoing patriotic calls and several others.
Some of the statements from Abuja are reminiscent of policy missteps in another era of arrogance of power some years ago which prompted a noteworthy remark from the radical historian Bala Yusufu Usman. He said that people in power often assumed that they were “writing the last chapter of Nigeria’s history.” According to Usman, their haughty policy statements would mostly end up as “historical footnotes.”
The President should summon the national spirit (some may even say it has even vanished!) in mobilising all the human and material resources for progress rather than talk down on compatriots.
The mood of offensive should be tempered in Abuja. It would be rational to do so given the magnitude of the counterpoise – the mood of widespread anger in the land already plagued by terrorism, banditry, armed robbery, kidnapping and COVID-19.
The anger has found expressions in crippling strikes in the health and the education sectors as well as threats of national protests against rising energy prices and other costs of living. The Alliance for the Survival of COVID-19 and Beyond (ASCAB) has fixed next Wednesday for a national protest to say “Enough is Enough”!
However, if the administration shelves arrogance of power and embraces meaningful engagement, it could be easy to point out to the critics that the recommendations of past conferences especially the most recent one, the 2014 conference, could be tapped into in finding solutions to some of the problems. So, the nation may not really need another conference. The executive and legislature could put into effect the workable recommendations of some existing documents.
Besides, the administration lacks a moral basis to lose patience for dialogue and engagement on the socio- economic issues. Before he was first elected in 2015, Buhari himself said it was a “fraud” to talk of petroleum subsidy. He challenged the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan to prove that subsidy actually existed. Five years later, trillions of naira have been “spent” on subsidy under Buhari’s watch. Now, the government says the subsidy regime is no more sustainable.
Yet, no creative improvement has been made on the so-called deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry launched by Obasanjo almost 20 years ago.
The new situation, therefore, calls for sobriety to dialogue on the part of government.
Incidentally, dialogue is precisely what the Nigerian Working Group on Peacebuilding and Governance has also recommended to the government in the circumstance. The group urged in a position paper that the government should build trust of the people and put an end to the reign of impunity in the land. On the question of insecurity, the statement also calls for the replacement of service chiefs and police reforms.
Among the eminent patriots who signed the statement were a former Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan; a former Chief of Defence Staff, General Martin Luther Agwai (rtd.) and a former Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and political scientist, Professor Attahiru Jega.
However, official statements are not sufficiently nuanced to demonstrate that the government is conscious of the gravity of the socio-economic situation: the untold suffering of the poorest segment of the society. It is not clearly demonstrated that the sacrifice that the government officials arrogantly ask people to make are proportionately shared in this patently inequitable system.
Ironically, the President spoke for the poor in the problematic speech: “We aim to gradually close the gap between the different classes to bring joy to greater number of the citizens…” It is only the efficacy of policy instruments that would prove this proclamation in material terms.
The reality on ground suggests the opposite of that objective. While the government’s experts technically talk of a “shrinking economy,” the popular saying on the street is that poverty is widening. The government has failed abysmally to engage the people robustly in dealing with this dissonance in reading the national horizon.
This should not happen to the Buhari administration. Generally, Buhari has never been a favourite of the elite for power. His base has always been the poor majority who trusted him as maigakisya (the honest leader) who could run a government that would improve their lot.
Those in charge of policymaking for the administration should always remember the state of mind of the multitude that thronged to the typical Buhari rallies. The treatment for their condition is not in abstract economic indices and misdirected offensive against critics. The answer should be delivered in the form of security, food, potable water, sanitation, quality education, healthcare, social housing, mass transit etc.
Given the tone and tenor of the President’s statement, it is hoped that the sense of foreboding the speech has engendered is misplaced. Otherwise, future historians may look back at the occasion as an unsavoury turning point in Buhari’s time in power.
Kayode Komolafe is of ThisDay Newspapers.