On January 20, Tolu Ogunlesi, who oversees Digital Communications for the Nigerian Government, took to Twitter to explain why President Muhammadu Buhari deserves to win the next election. The arguments contained in the series of tweets are ones that have been used over and over again by this administration – that the corruption of its predecessors milked the Nigerian economy to a point of near-no return and only the emergence of Buhari, who campaigned on the promise of ending corruption, has halted the collapse of the Nigerian state.
“We were a nation running on steroids, then we crashed, when the steroids ran out,” Ogunlesi said. “We hurt ourselves badly of course – both from the crash and the effect of the steroids on our system.”
The corruption (including alleged ones) of the Goodluck Jonathan administration are well-documented. When Buhari, a year after winning the 2015 election, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on CNN that someone from the Jonathan administration had pilfered $2.1 billion from the country’s treasury, she thought he had made a mistake and repeated the word, “billion?” “Billion, not million,” the President reiterated. In 2017, former Minister of Petroleum, Allison Madueke, was accused of receiving about $115 million into her account, which led to a N450 million money laundering suit involving the then Minister of National Planning, Abubakar Suleiman. According to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), since 2015, the country has recovered nothing less than ₦794 billion, $261 million, £1.1 million and 407 mansions from economic looters.
But Ogunlesi (and everyone in the Presidency and the ruling party, APC) have had to make this ‘past corruption’ argument because Nigeria’s economic situation taken several hits since 2015. Just over a year after Buhari was sworn in, the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics announced that the country had slipped into a recession, which was precipitated by the drastic fall of global oil prices, the country’s main source of revenue. But analysts also blamed the Government’s late decision to devalue the naira, which made it difficult for businesses to access foreign currency and pay for imports. The recession, which is slowly being rolled back, has given birth to more embarrassing headlines for this administration, such as ‘Nigeria is now the world’s poverty capital’ and ‘Nigeria’s unemployment rate rises to 23.1%’. So, this administration’s defense is: don’t blame us for these woes, blame the past.
“People really ‘balled’ those days,” Ogunlesi said on Twitter, referring to the indiscriminate doling out of funds by the Jonathan administration to people who added no real economic value to the country’s GDP. “But the party was never going to last forever. It was a glittering castle without a foundation.”
For the past several weeks, pictures and videos of this administration’s infrastructure projects across the country have dominated Ogunlesi’s Twitter feed. From the Lagos-Ibadan rail project to the second Niger Bridge, to the new international terminal at the Abuja airport. “This is the kind of stuff that excites me,” he said in one tweet showing pictures of the reconstruction of Calabar-Itu-Ikot Ekpene road.
This – the focus on infrastructure – has formed part of the Buhari administration’s response to the country’s economic struggles. It has also established the National Social Intervention Program (NSIP), which includes feeding school children, paying unemployed young people to take temporary jobs and offering loans to traders in the country’s major markets.
In all of the “madness” of the previous administration, “not a lot of attention was paid to ordinary Nigerians: pensioners, young people, farmers, petty traders, the poorest and most vulnerable, etc,” Ogunlesi said in his January 20 series of tweets. “Government was run largely for Briefcase Boys and Girls: oil subsidisers, privatization bounty hunters, etc.”
On Saturday, August 19, 2017, at exactly 16:36hrs, President Muhammadu Buhari arrived the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport after nearly four months in the United Kingdom where he was treated for an undisclosed ailment. Earlier that year, he had spent a different 49 days in the UK. When he returned in March 2017, he had said, “I couldn’t recall being so sick since I was a young man.” Based on checks by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, as at May 2018, President Buhari had spent 172 days on medical vacation, making him the first president in the country’s history to stay so long abroad, in care of foreign doctors.
Recently, while on the campaign trail, fresh reasons to doubt Buhari’s fitness for the country’s most powerful job has emerged. While campaigning in Kogi, the President almost slipped while descending a flight of stairs; in Delta, he caused a social media ruckus when he erroneously addressed the APC’s Gubernatorial candidate as “our Presidential candidate.” His performance at a town-hall televised on national television, where he strained to hear questions posed to him, has also been described as abysmal by his critics.
“The President clearly showed every sign of lack of comprehension of even the simplest questions while the Vice President was frantically making effort to interject and come to his aid,” a statement from the Coalition of United Political Parties, an opposition movement, said. “How can a man who cannot comprehend a problem be the one being put forward to solve those problems? God forbid that Nigerians are boxed into a situation where they will lament, had I known.”
In his defence, Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo has said Buhari “is not an orator.” But it was his listening and comprehension skills that had been called into question, not his ability to swoon voters with a booming voice.
Buhari’s ‘suspect’ health condition is one of the charges against him as Nigeria heads to the polls. An ailing president cannot give direction and will inevitably give rise to theories of a ‘cabal’ making the important decisions within the administration. The First Lady, Aisha Buhari, has repeatedly suggested that her husband’s capacity to perform is being limited by “a few” who dominate the government. And, last year, Buhari had to personally debunk rumours that he had been cloned during his many medical trips. “It’s the real me, I assure you,” he said.
This uncertainty about the President’s health, no doubt heightened by sensational media reports and the spread of fake news, is not good for the economy. It contributes to the “slowness” through which this administration makes its decisions. In a century where things change too fast, if Buhari continues as President in the manner in which his first term went, Nigeria might evolve too slowly and be left behind.
What gives rise to economic prosperity? This is one of the most important questions at the heart of economics and answers have varied over the years. A blanket answer, sometimes, can be ‘economic freedom’, which occurs, according to one source, “when nations have institutions (rules, laws, customs) that allow people to exchange their labour and goods with others without severe restraints.” The Buhari administration understood this when it decided to improve the ease of doing business within the country, but security challenges – Boko Haram, herdsmen and farmers’ conflicts, widespread kidnappings – have seriously hampered the country’s economic strides. Violence is one of the greatest pilferers of a nation’s commonwealth.
In August 2015, Buhari swore in a new set of military chiefs and ordered them to end the Boko Haram insurgency within three months. Four months later, in December, Buhari told the BBC that Nigeria had “technically won the war” against the insurgents. His reasoning was that the militant group could no longer mount “conventional attacks” against security forces or populated cities. As it turned out, the comment was premature. On February 19, 2018, over 100 girls were kidnapped from their secondary school in Dapchi, Yobe state, echoing the famous Chibok abduction. The Dapchi girls were eventually returned, except one: Leah Sharibu. She is still at large. This is one of the charges against Buhari.
The rule of law is one of the pillars of ‘economic freedom’, but the Buhari administration’s flouting of court orders is a direct assault on the country’s legal institutions. The President’s insistence to keep Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and Sambo Dasuki, despite court orders directing their release, has been described, by Presidency Spokesmen, as being in line with the public interest. Last year, at the Annual General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Abuja, Buhari said that the rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest,” an argument routinely used by dictators across the world.
In a swift response, senior lawyers across the country, including former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olisa Agbakoba and Mike Ozekhome, released a statement describing the comment as “a leap into the bottomless and eternally regrettable abyss of dictatorship.”
Meanwhile, in interviews, when asked on the state of his anti-corruption war, Buhari is always quick to answer that he is trying to follow “due process” since it is a democracy and convictions have to be won within the justice system not through proclamations, like he did in the 1980s as a military leader. Sometimes, it is confusing to know what Buhari really believes.
By consistently rising to the defense of this administration, Ogunlesi, who is a journalist and was a fiery critic of the Jonathan administration, has been accused of selling out, of becoming a defender of the same government maladies he wrote against. In fairness, he is only doing his job, which is to create and spread government propaganda. For an award-winning writer, whose last position, before public service, was the West Africa editor of the Africa Report, some might regard this as a tragedy.
In his January 20 series of tweets, Ogunlesi, recognizing a rare fault in the Buhari administration said: “What I think we could have done a better job at is the empathy and associated storytelling. Let people know that the pain is felt and understandable, and paint a picture of what the future holds – the pain before the gain, the dark hours preceding dawn, the certainty of dawn.”
What Ogunlesi failed to note was that it would be near impossible to manufacture empathy under this president, whose aloofness can be disturbing. He speaks through press releases and rarely gives on-the-spot interviews. For long spells, he is silent on burning national issues, such as the herdsmen-famers crisis and corruption allegations against his close aides. The word on the streets is he doesn’t care about public opinion. That’s being powerful, not presidential.
Buhari’s power is most palpable during his campaign rallies: thousands of bodies fill open stadia, chanting his name, waving their hands in the air; the video clips on social media are electrifying; as elections approach, the charges against him have not affected his popularity among ordinary people, which makes him the favorite in the polls. But, as evidenced in Greece, the United Kingdom, the United States, populism can be disastrous. Sometimes, the voice of the people is not that of God. ✚
Elusoji is part of the editorial team at the Question Marker.