Policy Briefs

Change Tempered by Pessimism, Anchored by Hope

One year is too brief a time to assess President Muhammadu Buhari’s Presidency.  But the past twelve months offered Nigerians a window of an unfettered glimpse into the president’s leadership style as a civilian, his fulfillment of his campaign promises, and an opportunity to glean from his administration’s performance, his resolve in tackling the nation’s problems. Today, as President Buhari marks his first year in office, the evaluations, and reactions are surely mixed; the promised hope is tempered by pessimism and resignation, yet anchored on tentative, if not ephemeral hope. As Nigeria’s challenges and unmet needs in various sectors persist, Nigerians worry about government’s conflicting signals. Many feel that the president has frittered away the overwhelming goodwill Nigerians had for him.

Under Buhari there is the sense that Nigeria is experiencing a synchronized national crisis, and that the country remains a zero-sum experiment. Hence, some have argued the national public policies have become a matter of loss and gain to political and geopolitical zones and ethnic sectors. Also, in the past year Nigeria has experienced the ascendancy of too many aggrieved groups, adding to the upward spiral of conflict and restiveness, leading some to the conclusion that “Under the change government, Nigerians are now more divided than ever before. We now think and act along ethnic and religious lines.”

Furthermore, some aver that today there are “some of the questions that Buhari should address his mind to: Are Nigerians now better off than they were before the inception of the change government? Is the economy now better managed than previously? Has power supply improved more than before? Are Nigerians more secure now than before? Are Nigerians more united than before? Has one naira exchanged to one US dollar as promised. Has the government paid its promised N5000 stipend to unemployed Nigerians? Has the government created the jobs it promised in its one year in office? Has the government defeated the Boko Haram sect and rescued the Chibok girls as boasted? Has the government fought corruption to a standstill? I think that most Nigerians will not answer these questions in the affirmative.”

Nigeria’s prevailing challenges were unapologetically catalogued at a recent Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development(SCDDD) workshop in Abuja, which evaluated Nigeria’s seventeen years of democracy. They include but are not limited to the  “inability of the Government to locate and bring back the Chibok Girls; continuing Nomadic Fulani Herdsmen -Farmers clashes; the fall in the international market price of  crude oil, which constitutes serious set-backs to Government’s revenue for basic developmental projects and activities; persistent failure by successive Federal Government administrations including the incumbent to diversify the fiscal and revenue base of the country; continuation of erratic energy power supply nation-wide; incessant shortages of premier motor spirit supplies to the public, nation-wide, despite being an oil producing-nation; technically devalued status of the Naira vis-a-vis the US dollar and depleting external reserves; failure by Federal and many State Governments to pay monthly salaries and allowances for many months; and the continued delays in the appointment of the Principal Representatives of Nigeria abroad and in the re-constitution of the various Federal Parastatals and their Boards for optimal performance of Government; continuing incessant attacks by the Boko Haram on soft targets across the North-East; and the agitation for the re-birth of Biafra, on the claims of marginalization;  etc.”

Whereas most of these prevailing challenges predated the Buhari Presidency, they all fall squarely within the President’s remit to tackle and solve. The one year anniversary offers the President an opportunity to render an account of his stewardship so far and give pointers to the way forward. Nigerian’s are generally aware of the state of the nation and how well they have fared in Buhari’s first year.  More with resignation than optimism, Nigerians continue to hold out hope for a better future.

Most assessment of Nigeria will acknowledge certain facts including the near consensus that Nigeria remains a paradox – a blessed nation with an unlucky fate. A common destiny and shared aspiration for positive change continues to elude its diverse people, as some of its erstwhile leaders staked claim to some messianic abilities, only to fail. Various synonyms for change soon became the loss leaders and routine political mantra. That was until Muhamadu Buhari came along for the fourth time, to seek Nigeria’s leadership.  Buhari’s emergence mirrored the observation that “the foundation of every society is built upon important events and great personalities. There, however, comes a time in the life of a nation when the appearance of a personality itself becomes a remarkable event, marking a turning point between one phase of history and another.” Hence his ascendancy was in some ways heralded, and held out hope.  He promised change, and wary Nigerians let their guard down, and believed. One year later, with the benefit of hindsight, Nigerians are already rethinking their unquestioning decision. Tellingly and politics aside, Nigerians continue to assess Buhari’s presidency with  mixed feelings, fraught with deep reservations, because despite his promises of change, Nigerians still suffer the ill-effects of poor governance, which seems more pernicious with each passing day.

It seems old, therefore, after fifty-six years of unfulfilled political promises that Nigerians are still expectant of dramatic governance change. Such disposition spells gullibility, but then hope waxes eternal and change is indeed possible. But for Nigerians, hope has been ebbing for decades. As far back as 2010, U.S. Ambassador Princeton Lyman warned about “Nigeria becoming irrelevant in the World,” to which Prof. John Moyibi Amoda retorted: “Only Nigerians can determine whether to break apart of remain together; outsiders may have a vested interest in the matter but they cannot determine the outcome.” Change, like failure, is a gradual process. Dramatic turns and transformations are possible, but many short term strategies are ineffective in the long term.  As such, one year into President Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency, it would seem unfair to judge his accomplishments and promised change on the basis of his governance in the first twelve of his envisaged forty-eight months. But evaluating his presidency and its trajectory in tandem with the state of the nation is inevitable; more so since he had a clear manifesto that listed his mission priorities for Nigeria. He had also made unambiguous campaign promises.

Trust in the political leadership has dipped further, against the backdrop of mind-boggling official malfeasance uncovered in the past twelve months. But if past governance dysfunctionality was a concern, the conduct of the newly elected and serving officials is not sufficiently compelling to inspire confidence or assuage concerns. Ironically, whatever troubles, conflicts and governance failings Nigerians currently experience, though mostly of our collective making, are personified, and the blame consigned to the president.

The debate on Nigeria’s diametric regression did not start now, which would make it grossly unfair to address the status quo purely on prevailing realities, when most of the present setbacks are either endemic or inherited. Still public perception and avowals based or formal and informal surveys point Nigerians being convinced that their nation remains politically polarized, economically stagnated, religiously divided, and at best retain a deep sense of trepidation about the fate of their nation. Trust in the political leadership has dipped further, against the backdrop of mind-boggling official malfeasance uncovered in the past twelve months. But if past governance dysfunctionality was a concern, the conduct of the newly elected and serving officials is not sufficiently compelling to inspire confidence or assuage concerns. Ironically, whatever troubles, conflicts and governance failings Nigerians currently experience, though mostly of our collective making, are personified, and the blame consigned to the president. So regardless of whether a crisis relates to halting impact and consequences of the National Assembly’s inability to select their leaders, its failure to pass the budget or carryout its oversight function, the blame gets heaped on the president.  Similarly, the shortcoming of the judiciary and statutory agencies are consigned to Buhari’s government not working or being too slow, as if there was no separation of powers. Inherited national disorders and these collectivized blame aside, there is discernible evidence that the Buhari administration fell short of expectation, even as governance is not a beauty contest. But the opinions were divided. In weighing the relativity of issues that confronts Buhari, he has implacably trenchant critics, just as he has implacably astute defenders.

Yet most Nigerians claim that they and the nation are worse than they were in May 2015, when Buhari assumed office. Why this negative perception? Well before President Buhari assumed office, Nigeria was in the doldrums.  Buhari had presented himself as a change agent. Nigerians, some grudgingly, embraced that prospect. As such, if there was a broad expectation of remediation of governance, the economy, decrepit infrastructure and unemployment, Nigerians had not experienced it.  If there were any dividends of change, presaging a new Nigeria and governance mindset, Nigerians were yet to enjoy it.  Finally, public policies were endlessly fraught with debate, even when devoid of propagandist label, as was previously the norm.  Then fate dealt President Buhari a bad hand.  He inherited a badly damaged, underachieving, unraveling and stunted country. Buhari personally alluded to this. After sixteen years in abeyance while seeking to lead Nigeria, Buhari inherited Nigeria when oil prices took a nosedive; when foreign reserve plummeted, insecurity reigned and when patience and empathy of the Nigerian electorate had deserted them.  As William Easterly theorized, “governments kill growth,” especially bad governments. The Nigeria Buhari inherited is a good example.

One year of Buhari in office thus has proven to be revealing window. First, it affirms further the observation that “there is a fine line between democratic leadership and mere personalism, but there is no good case for giving up on the former for fear of the latter.” Nigerians, confronted by the most perilous chasms of uncertainty could not fathom their dismissiveness of disbelief.  Change in every sense was being redefined; as the status quo remained unchanged. Change did not kick start. Also unchanged, was Nigeria’s inability to look beyond oil.  Such re-strategizing would have been seamless but for the fact that it coincided with the worst recorded drop in global oil prices. As Ejeviome Eloho Otobo noted, at the juncture Buhari had spent eleven month in office, “oil price was hovering around $40, after having fallen to $26 in February 2016 – its lowest in 13 years.” Nigeria’s challenges remain broad and as varied as the national expectations. Many policy domains remained in flux. Naturally, it has been impossible to address them without direct reference to the immediate past government of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. Anecdotally, on 29 May 2015, the day Buhari took over, a BBC reporter would facetiously remark that former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was jauntily striding away from Eagles Square as if there was something he knew that the rest of Nigerians didn’t.  Purely on conjecture, Jonathan, certainly knew the enormity of challenges Buhari had just inherited.

Buhari knew the challenges he was inheriting. His words: “Many Nigerians have completely lost faith in the country’s ability to govern itself. Nigerians have fundamentally lost faith in the leaders at the helm of the nation’s affairs. The lack of confidence in the system and its leaders erodes democratic principles thus further jeopardizing the country’s future. I Muhamadu Buhari have come for the rescue.  This is success by design.”  It seemed odd, therefore that he and his team spent the first one year in office revisiting and blaming every problem on the Jonathan administration, instead of attempting to solve them. That mindset went into overkill and readily became a conundrum -an inaction trap.

Buhari had an action plan. Thus, any candid and unbiased assessment of Buhari’s first must be predicated on assessing his promises and platform. Buhari’s pledge to Nigerians is worth recalling. His words: “Just as APC stands as a new party for a new Nigeria, our government will institute new policies to realise the new Nigeria…I pledge to do my utmost to make this happen but cannot do it alone. I need your support. I need your help to become President of Nigeria so that government may come to serve you, so that it may bring relief to the broken and weary among us and so that it may usher in a new Nigeria meant for us all, a Nigeria that is the birthright of everyone but the exclusive possession of no one.”

Buhari made a commitment:  “I, Muhammadu Buhari have resolved that the task ahead of me is that of Securing our Nation and prospering our people – not looking backward to the failed policies and promises of the past. As I noted before, it is no longer a question of choice but that of will and courage.”  For their part, Nigerians had clear aspirations, which was best encapsulated by Pastor Tunde Bakare, “a nation built on the pillars of…righteousness and peace; a land of freedom and of justice and a home of equity and fair play…where, though creed and tongue may differ, the people will unite in the pursuit of a common national destiny.”

So what was promised but delivered or not delivered? What was expected, and realized or not realized? Like Nigeria, the answers are mixed, complex and debatable. Buhari confronted a Catch-22 Situation. In 2014 Nigeria’s economy had been officially “rebased and valued at some $510bn, which reflected an 89% rise, and positioned Nigeria as Africa’s largest economy, well ahead of South Africa. Yet, Nigeria’s rebased economy was wobbling and laggardly. Nigeria was “already in a full blown crisis mode.” As the delivery of good governance and change required shrinking the role and size of government and growing the economy simultaneously, doing so with less money became a big challenge. Nigeria had also lost its leadership role as Africa’s spokesman, which may explain Buhari’s early and continuing foreign policy forays.

Nonetheless, four core areas are required to assess the first year of Buhari’s presidency effectively; security, economy, corruption and foreign policy. Of these four key areas, three were tangentially considered as contributory factors that influenced the outcome of the 2015 Presidential election and Buhari’s coming to power.

Security: Under Buhari, there has definitely been better coordinated and discernible rebuff and diminution of Boko Haram and recovery of territories the terrorist sect controlled. Involving Nigeria’s neighbours in the fight against Boko Haram under the Multinational Joint Task Force based in Ndjamena and its dedicated funding of the Task Force was a positive development and in tandem with Nigeria’s commitment to global response to terrorism. Yet the sense of gains made, was offset by the growing discomfort over insecurity fraught by gun-wielding Fulani herdsmen, which some Nigerians considered an extension of Boko Haram. The rise of sectional agitation, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the Avengers in the Niger Delta, etc. also conveyed a sense of insecurity and unease across the nation.

 Economy: The economic progress is varied. While the Single Treasury Account (TSA) along with the previously established Bank Verification Number (BVN) began to sanitise the Nigerian banking sector and prevailing sharp practices, the nation has visibly inched closer to a recession, due to lack of clarity in fiscal policies, the prevailing two-tier foreign exchange regime and refusal to allow the market forces determine the real value of the Naira.  Ambivalence over devaluation of the Naira did not help matters; neither the mixed message conveyed over the removal of the fuel subsidy. Lack of clarity in power policies and agriculture, both key pillars, adversely impacted on the economy.  The generally declining economy is reflected by States’ inability to meet their fiduciary obligations, despite bailouts and the fact that for instance, between March and April 2016, FACC allocations to the three tiers of government declined by 18.2 billion from the 299.74 billion to 281.5 billion. Likewise, statutory revenue during the same period declined by 18.8 billion, from 232.61 billion in March to 213.81 billion in April. This reality reflected government’s inability to move beyond oil and focus on other means of internally generated revenue, via taxes and leveraging on other commodities.

Corruption: The business environment in Nigeria is certainly being sanitized, but more by fear than by actual commitment. The anti-corruption campaign is perceptibly gaining grounds.  But despite high-level arraignments, the rate of conviction and loot recovery remains exceedingly low. Yet a problem arises instantly when there is the perception that tackling corruption is utilitarian and selective.  The line between enforcement and ‘witch hunt’ has blurred, throwing up very curious rationalizations. Buhari’s war on corruption was perceived by many as ‘selective’.  Whereas Tanko Yakasai the chairman of Northern Elders’ Council (NEC) called it “selective”, Chief Rex Onyeabor, a former National Secretary and member of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) contended that the war was not selective. As we are told, “If narrow (values free) utilitarian arguments prevail, we will inherit a world in which it will be commonplace to punish people according to the politics they champion rather than the laws they violate or the personal misconduct in which they engage. We will, in short, become a nation of men not of laws.”  Yet, grappling with Nigeria complex politics requires toughness, if not ruthlessness.  As Ben Nwabueze, once opinned, “Some ruthlessness is called for in the management of public affairs, especially those of a complex society like Nigeria. For without it, no state can effectively be governed.”

Foreign Policy: There exist two positive strands in this regard. Buhari has succeeded in lifting and projecting the national image by his personal foreign engagements, despite his various faux pas, while aboard, like misspeaking on the collective criminality of Nigerians.  The dividends of the foreign policy engagement are however yet to manifest fully. But generally, Buhari is deemed to have done well as the lead vicar of his foreign policy plank.

 Problematic Challenges: Two key areas of challenges for the Buhari presidency remain most discernible. These include evident dissonance in strategic communication and policy coherence and coordination. Buhari’s Government has profound communication challenge.  The President has not efficiently engaged Nigerians over the past year. He has neither engaged on a policy debate nor opened up the space for such debate.   There is a broad sense that President Buhari has failed to carry the entire nation along in his care, policies and leadership attitude.  Understandably, his reneging on documented campaign promises created a distrust gap. The result is that the president’s approval rating, once in the 90th percentile has plummeted to 42 percent by May 2016.  His senior officials have been known to offer different and divergent interpretations of government policies, the recent fuel hike being a case in point.  Similarly, there has been a noticeable lacuna in policy coherence and coordination, as exemplified by the challenges in tabling, passing and signing the 2016 budget into law.  The issue of padding that arose characterized sloppy housekeeping within the top hierarchy of the government.

Overall, for most Nigerians, Buhari’s first year in office did not live up expectation. This could be attributed to the extremely high level of expectation burden imposed on him by Nigerians.  It is possible also that the challenges he encountered outsized what he had he envisaged and hoped to tackle expeditiously.  His accomplishments not being so definitive has led some to tag his performance in the first year as “dismal”;  this assessment like that of those who assessed him and doing “brilliantly” under the circumstances, are all very subjective.  As adduced at the onset, the promised change is tempered by pessimism and resignation, yet anchored on tentative, if not ephemeral hope.  Buhari knows that his first year in office fell short of what was expected of him; and therefore must understand fully the need to effectively use the remaining three years to set Nigeria aright.  Meanwhile, present day Nigeria brings to mind the essence of the admonition in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” “Abandon all hope, ye who enter”.  Though Nigeria may mimic Dante’s pandemonium, or for some, Dante’s Paradise, it is certainly not yet Dante’s Hell.  Buhari’s promised change can make Nigeria better, if change is realized for the good of all.



Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.

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