Editorial: Change, wishful thinking and Buhari’s second term

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As Muhammadu Leko Buhari takes the oath of office for his second and final term as President and Commander-in-Chief of Nigeria’s armed forces, it is a despondent and optimistic people who are casting a retrospective glance at governance in the last four years, bemoaning the pains of the first term and hoping, even against expectations, that the man they trusted and hired four years ago as their president will use the opportunity of a second chance to chart a course for the future that will usher a new era of peace, security and economic prosperity for the ordinary Nigerian. Without sounding alarmist, the clock has started ticking for Mr. President to begin to deliver on his election promises of change that will take Nigeria to the next level.

Whether he knows it or not, and he is better off knowing it, the burden on Buhari’s shoulders is heavy and enormous. While no one is under the illusion that the President has a magic wand to conjure up the disappearance of the enormous, multifaceted problems facing the nation, Nigerians have a right to expect from and see, in spirit and in fact, the new government immediately signaling that the change that was promised four years ago, is finally coming now. Expectations are higher than ever before. The pen and the paper are, therefore, being handed him today to write his name on the glorious side of history or on the more easily accessible ignominious side of it.

Undoubtedly, the groundswell of opinion is that the Nigerian people were shortchanged in the fundamentals of governance by the failure of the Buhari administration to deliver the change promised four years ago. Understandably, the air is filled with great expectation and the question arises: can the ruling APC manage well its success vis-à-vis the people’s desire?  It is hoped things will not turn out like in 2015, when Buhari and his All Progressive Congress (APC) party sought power first and began thinking of what to do only after winning power. The first sign of inherent weakness was the six-month delay before the cabinet was constituted; a conclave that turned out to be far from stellar by any stretch of the imagination. This time around, the APC must be truly ready not to rule but to govern Nigeria for the greatest good of the greatest number of her citizens.

There is obviously no shortage of ideas on what the Buhari government must do to get Nigeria back on track. Indeed, it can safely be assumed that Buhari spent the first four years on on-the-job training, so he must have a clear idea of what the challenges are; and what needs to be done to address them. In 2015, the Buhari campaign ran on a “change” mantra, with promises galore, covering all sectors of the economy. Nigerians were promised power generation would reach 40,000 megawatts by Feb 2019; that new refineries would be built and old ones repaired; that three million jobs would be created annually through agriculture expansion, industrialization and massive infrastructure projects, including a new national railway system, roads and ports.

Above all, the Buhari administration promised to drastically reduce the price of refined premium motor spirit (PMS) from N87 per liter, which it met when it came into power to N45 per litre. Besides, Buhari promised to make Nigeria one of the fastest growing, emerging economies in the world with a real GDP growth averaging at least 10-12% annually. The list of promises also extended to the exchange rate, education, creation of at least four million new home owners by 2019 by enacting national mortgage single digit interest rates for rent-to-own house buyers. Four years after, these promises turned out to be a mere luxurious desire as the economy nose-dived into a recession from which it is yet to fully recover. Not unexpectedly, the regime went into defensive mood, blaming the fall in crude oil prices, and corruption by the previous administration which they accused of leaving an “empty treasury.”
This has been the refrain of the Buhari administration for the past four years. It spent a lot of energy and time blaming the parlous state of the economy on what it called “grand corruption” and lack of savings by the past administration.

While this position is debatable, the fact remains that the Buhari administration has failed to take any responsibility for the poor performance of the economy, which is not a sign of good leadership. Granted that the economy was truly not in a very good shape in 2015, but the Buhari administration met a bad situation and only made it even worse. The policy framework it initially put in place to address the problems of the economy was of a “command and control” posture. Prices were not allowed to find their true market value; for the exchange rate and prices of petroleum products, it took a long time for government to allow for partial deregulation in these markets so much that the parallel market became very strong with the dollar-naira exchange rate skyrocketing to as high as N520 per dollar. It was only a quick reversal of policy by the CBN that brought some sanity to the exchange rate market as well as the market for petroleum products with the price of (PMS) raised to N145 per litre from N87 per liter.

Over the past four years, attention has been called to the deteriorating state of the economy in many observations by global financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. To set a constructive agenda for the next four years, certain issues must be addressed by the Buhari administration to turn around the economy, deliver the dividends of democracy to the Nigerian people and stop the recurrent narrative of blaming others for its own failures.

First is the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP, a medium-term plan it put in place to cover the 2017-2020 period for the purpose of restoring economic growth. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics indicate that the ERGP has largely failed to meet most of its projections. For example, the ERGP projected a 4.5% real GDP growth for 2019 but growth has been stuck at 2%. Even the Minister of Budget and National Planning has admitted that the 7% growth rate projected for 2020 is not attainable. Also, the projected sectoral growth rates have not been attained. Unemployment ballooned to 23% in the 3rd quarter of 2018 from 22.70 % in the 2nd quarter of 2018. This is worse than ERGP projections of 14.5% in 2018 and 12.9% in 2019. Therefore, the ERGP must be revamp for better performance.

Another area that should worry Buhari is Nigeria’s rising debt profile, particularly with debt service to revenue ratio exceeding 50%. This is not healthy for the economy. Using the debt to GDP ratio argument which fails to address the core issue of high debt servicing costs in the present term, the government is unfazed and continues to peddle the narrative that the country is currently under-borrowing. This is insane. Apart from its intergenerational implications, the inability to finance government operations is enough for a functional debt management strategy to force the government to cut their coat according to the size of the cloth so as to avert an impending disaster within the next four years.

The other national drainpipe is the fuel subsidy regime, which is unsustainable. Making the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, (NNPC) the sole importer of refined petroleum products is an anomaly, and the answer is a phased removal of the subsidy with funds diverted to other sectors of the economy. The state of physical infrastructures leaves much to be desired. Not much has been done, as is being claimed by government and it is unacceptable that the president can go out of his way to commission unfinished projects. For example, the railway lines across the country are still largely in the realm of promises, while it must be admitted that some progress has been made. The Lagos-Kano rail line is below 30% completion while the Lagos-Calabar line and Port-Harcourt-Maiduguri lines are just subjects of discussion and little action. The new term of the administration should be used to complete these projects. Unemployment is worrisome and represents a ticking time bomb that should be defused immediately. Government should open up the economy with business-friendly policies that would make the private sector thrive and create jobs for the hundreds of thousands of youths being churned out of tertiary institutions annually.

The President has his work cut out for him in this second term and he should hit the ground running. There should be no excuse for any delay in constituting a cabinet as Nigerians cannot afford a lackluster performance in this second term. Four years ago, on May 29, 2015, the “change” in government and more importantly the content and method of governance that Nigerians have yearned for, came.  On this day four years ago, Muhammadu Leko Buhari took office as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Commander -in-Chief of the Armed Forces. While the pain of unfulfilled expectations in the first term is real, a stellar performance in the second term will restore hope that this country called Nigeria can still be made to work for all its citizens. The nation seems broken now. Buhari must mend it. There are divisions across various lines. The President must unite all Nigerians –north and south, east and west; of every tribe, tongue and faith. It is left for Buhari to be a retailer of hope or a harbinger of despair. After all, this is a Buhari-led government and, as the saying goes, the buck stops on his desk.

This being so, President Buhari must bring  to bear on his  government  all the  positive attributes that have so far endeared him to  a broad  range of Nigerians. He must lead the APC to govern Nigeria with integrity, in every understanding of the word, as well as function in the best interest of the Nigerian people. For President Buhari at age 76, with few if any points to prove, it is no exaggeration to say that history beckons. For a man who, out of a fervent conviction that he has something to offer his fatherland, sought this position three times, now is the opportunity to write his name in gold. As he seeks to make Nigeria great again, Nigerians wish him God’s speed. The spirit of the age, it is said, is what a great man changes. Buhari has been given a second chance to change Nigeria for the better, beginning from this day. Now, duty has called. And history beckons.