It was the speech everyone had been waiting for and it turned out to be, perhaps, Muhammadu Buhari’s best speech as President. Tall, regal, bespectacled and dressed in his trademark white babariga and kente-inspired cap, Buhari stood at Eagle Square, Abuja, yesterday and outlined his left-leaning vision for the country.
Buhari started with a rundown of his credentials. “Throughout my adult life, I have been a public servant,” he said. “I have no other career but public service.” For the 2003 elections, he said, “I travelled by road to 34 of the 36 states of the Federation.” He was laying a claim to the Nigerian project. Having taken part in the Nigerian civil war, engineered several coups, become a military Head of State for some 20 months in the 1980s and served in several government parastatals, there are not many, still alive, who can do this same.
Then he delved into the meat of the matter: what is the root cause of Nigeria’s problems? For more than four decades, Buhari has not changed his answer to this question, which is the Nigerian elite. When he toppled the Shagari government in 1983, Buhari said “Nigeria is being used by highly-influential people, rich people in the society who are prepared to destroy . . . their society . . . to make money.” Yesterday, at Eagle Square, he pointed out Nigeria’s major problems are “as a result of sponsorship or incitements by ethnic, political or religious leaders hoping to benefit by exploiting our divisions and fault lines, thereby weakening our country.”
Because, how can a country that has contributed to UN peace-keeping responsibilities all over the world, fought colonialism on the African continent, and made a reputation as the continent’s benevolent Big Brother – how can such a country remain the laughing stock of the world?
But Buhari was bullish. (“My optimism about Nigeria’s future is unshaken and Nigeria’s role in the world as an emerging economic force is without a doubt.”) He noted that, in his last four years as President, Nigeria has “made solid progress”, even if “some of the challenges still remain kidnappings and banditry in some rural areas.” If combined with “leadership and a sense of purpose”, this handful of solid progress, he maintained, could help “lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years.”
This statement is important. For a country that was, last year, announced as the poverty capital of the world by Brookings Institution, an American research group based in Washington DC. By its projections, Nigeria has 87 million out of its 200 million population living in abject poverty, more than India.
So how does Buhari plan to eradicate extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 a day) in Nigeria? Well, by focusing on the rural population, the underserved, the ones who have suffered the consequences of poor decision making by the Nigerian elite.
“First, we will take steps to integrate rural economies to the national economic “grid” by extending access to small-scale credits and inputs to rural farmers, credit to rural micro-businesses and opening up many critical feeder roads,” Buhari said.
“Secondly, for small-scale enterprises in towns and cities, we shall expand facilities currently available so that we continue to encourage and support domestic production of basic goods and reduce our reliance of important goods.”
Already, he said, databases of the rural population – poor and vulnerable household and another of unemployed but qualified youth – is being built, to facilitate this integration.
Apart from being “not daunted by the enormity of the tasks ahead”, the President reiterated “the urgent need to modernize our roads and bridges, electricity grid, ports and tails systems” and his administration’s readiness to “work with the private sector to improve productivity and accelerate economic growth.”
President Buhari also addressed the issue of insecurity, which he attributed “to the decades of neglect and corruption in social investment, infrastructure development, education and healthcare” and compounded by the “impact of our changing climate and ecology.” And there is corruption. “At the heart of inequality and insecurity, is pervasive corruption,” he said. His solution to these issues is frenetic rural economic development.
In the pursuit of his goals, Buhari warned that his administration “will not tolerate actions by any individual or groups of individuals who seek to attack our way of life or those who seek to corruptly enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us. We will crack down on those who incite ordinary innocent people to violence and unrest. We will ensure that such actions are met with the strong arm of the law.”
At the end, Buhari summed up his position: “Our focus will not be to help the privileged few but to ensure that Nigeria works for Nigerians of all persuasions. That is a more just arrangement.” It’s a lofty dream, but it remains to be seen how far Buhari will go in pursuit of his egalitarian vision. “Let a part of the population get rich first,” Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the beginning of China’s rural transformation, said in 1992. Does Buhari know that? ✚