President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent replacement of the Economic Management Team (EMT) headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo with an Economic Advisory Council (EAC) headed by Prof. Doyin Salami has led to speculations on the import of this move, including for the continued relevance of Osinbajo, (seen, at least during the government’s first term in office, as the poster boy of the Buhari administration).
Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity Femi Adesina in a statement said the EAC would advise the president on economic policy matters, including fiscal analysis, economic growth and a range of internal and global economic issues, working with the relevant cabinet members and heads of monetary and fiscal agencies. He said the EAC, which is expected to assist the president in the development of critical policies, would hold monthly sessions and report directly to the President. He also said the Council will have monthly technical sessions and scheduled quarterly meetings with the president, though its chairman can also request unscheduled meetings if the need arises. In addition to Prof Doyin Salami, other members of the EAC are Dr. Mohammed Sagagi (vice chairman), Prof. Ode Ojowu (member), Dr. Shehu Yahaya (member), Dr. Iyabo Masha (member), Prof. Chukwuma Soludo (member), Mr. Bismark Rewane (member), and Dr. Mohammed Adaya Salisu (secretary).
Some have hailed the setting up of the EAC as evidence that President Buhari seriously wants to tackle the issues of economic underperformance and worsening poverty in the country, especially amid criticisms that the Osinbajo-led economic management team was made up mostly of distinguished lawyers, but hardly any economist of note. For instance the Emir of Kano, not known to be effusive with praises of governments, including the Buhari government, was reported to have said:
“In my opinion this is the single most important decision taken by the President in his second term with great potential for turning the economy around. The team he has assembled is first class by all standards and each and every one of them is held in high regard by all our professional colleagues.
“He also has put together a team with balance. In there you have experts in macroeconomics, monetary policy, fiscal policy, development theory and financial markets. I can think of no better team of advisers at this point and we look forward to discussing and debating with and encouraging them as they serve the nation and the President.
“The President deserves to be praised on this decision and supported. It is evidence of commitment to focus on the economy. This team will add a lot of value to policy and strategy and will also be frank and honest in its advice. I honestly have not been so excited about prospect on the economy as I am today and you know me. I do not dish out praise,” he concluded.”
There are a couple of concerns about the new EAC – depending on where one is located in the active controversies of the day:
One, one of the issues thrown up by the new EAC is how to avoid conflict between its functions and the statutory National Economic Council headed by the VP. Under Section H of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution, NEC is the body constitutionally empowered to ‘advise’ the President on economic affairs. For instance even when former World Bank vice-president Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was named coordinating minister of the economy by the Jonathan government, the economic management team she was part of was still headed by the vice-president, Namadi Sambo.
Two, there are possibilities that the new EAC may set the stage for ideological conflicts between the team whose members are mostly independent minded free marketers and Buhari whose instincts even from his first coming as a military dictator is interventionist and protectionist. For instance while Salami, like Rewane, is a known proponent of currency devaluation, Buhari has favoured a series of interventions by the Central Bank to ‘stabilize’ the value of the naira. In 2017 Salami reportedly described the CBN as a piggy bank that irrationally funds government’s activities. So with the new EAC, are we going to see the end of Buhari’s ‘welfarist’ programmes like ‘Tradermoni’, school feeding’, CBN’s interventions in the FOREX market to stabilize the Naira etc.?
Three, given the president’s antecedents, just how much power will the new EAC be allowed to wield? Will the group also become captive of the high-wire politics of the alleged contending centres of power in the presidency? Is the team just assembled to give the government more credibility or is the President signally that he is willing to learn to be left-handed in his old age? Since most of the members of the EAC are seen as independent minded, if they feel sidelined or their advice persistently ignored, and they begin to resign one after the other, how will that affect the legitimacy of the government?
Four, is the new EAC an orchestrated attempt to whittle down the influence of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo - as some suggested? We are a country where almost every official move triggers a wave of conspiracy theories. In the case of the EAC, some have noted that
just a day after Osinbajo’s Economic Management Team was replaced, the presidency also announced the dissolution of the Special Presidential Investigation Panel for the Recovery of Public Property, which was established in August 2017 by Osinbajo in his capacity as Acting President, to investigate specifically mandated cases of corruption, abuse of office and similar offences by public officers. According to Femi Adesina, who made the announcement, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami has been directed to immediately take over all outstanding investigations and other activities of the SPIP. There were also reports that Osinbajo has been directed to seek approvals for agencies under him. As if to buttress the numerous conspiracy theories around the new EAC, The Nation newspaper, seen largely as an organ of the APC, especially tendencies within the party which are loyal Bola Tinubu, the paper’s owner, reported that there has been “disquiet within the government and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) over alleged plans to relocate some top aides of the Vice President from the Presidential Villa to some Ministries, Departments and Agencies”. Laolu Akande, the Media Assistant to the President attached to the Office of the Vice President dismissed these insinuations as efforts to drive a wedge between the President and the Vice President, whom he said have mutual respect for each other.
Five, there is no doubt that the politics of 2023 will be at the shadow of most moves by the government and politicians from now till the whistle is blown for that contest. Osinbajo himself is part of that political chess game, even if he doesn’t want to be seen as actively playing that game. But if there is one consistent thing about Buhari, it is that he can be quite unpredictable in his own political choices and moves. For instance after the last presidential election, it was widely thought that Buhari would dump Tinubu because he allegedly no longer had any need for him. But to the surprise of many people, a number of suspected loyalists of the Jagaban were able to make it to Buhari’s new cabinet and Tinubu’s choices for the leadership of the National Assembly also triumphed. So it may be too hasty to use some of these developments to conclude that Osinbajo has become politically emasculated. If one day is said to be like a life time in politics, four years could be likened to eternity. We just have to wait and see how those affected by Buhari’s new moves make their own counter moves, in Osinbajo’s case, in his very unobtrusive ways.
Six, the trajectory of governance in Buhari’s second term will be dictated by the politics of 2023 and the President’s sense of leaving a legacy. In our type of environment where “your people” will always ask what you did for them while you were in office, the notion of ‘legacy’ will inevitably be in two parts: your legacy to the country as a whole and your legacy to ‘your people’ (however the office holder wants to define it). Essentially therefore, whether the new EAC succeeds or not will be determined by the interaction between the politics of 2023 and Buhari’s sense of the legacy he wants to leave behind.