INAUGURATED on May 29 as Nigeria’s fifth executive President, Muhammadu Buhari is under pressure to live up to the promise of change that swept him to power. The pressure mounted last week when news outlets reported that a new cabinet will likely not be named for another eight weeks. For a population emerging from 16 years of misrule and corrupt governance, such a pace is dismaying. Buhari faces the immediate challenge of marrying his caution with quickly meeting the yearnings of a traumatised electorate.
It is not only Nigerians that eagerly await action to reverse the accumulated rot. Our development partners, led by the World Bank and its affiliates, have pointedly reminded Buhari that the first few months after winning a popular vote is the most favourable window of opportunity to initiate tough reforms. This view has been echoed by world leaders, including the British Prime Minister, David Cameron; French President, Francois Hollande; and the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry; all of whom have pledged their countries’ support for Nigeria’s wars on terrorism, corruption and impunity.
Those who expected Buhari to move with the same dispatch he exhibited when he rode to power on the back of a coup as military head of state in 1984 have been disappointed. And rightly so. Unlike a military dictatorship, constitutional rule has elaborate checks and thrives on the consent of the majority.
Buhari can also plead that the Senate, which, constitutionally, must screen and approve cabinet nominees and candidates for some other key public offices, has been in turmoil since its inauguration on June 9, plunging the ruling party into crisis. With the House of Representatives also embroiled in the intra-party brawl, it may be difficult getting measures, bills and nominees through. We note this, but cannot fathom why it is taking the President so long to fill certain positions.
There are strong reasons why he needs to move fast. For one, Buhari won the Presidency at his fourth try. It is expected that as an experienced public figure who launched his first bid for presidency in 2003, he would have a definite plan and a list of some trusted persons who would work with him. He also had a clear two months between his victory and his inauguration. Offices like those of his own Chief of Staff, heads of the security agencies and economic team leader should pose no problem. And having secured public trust on his reputation for integrity and his anti-corruption credentials, many believed he would appoint heads of the anti-graft agencies a few days after taking office and send a clear, unmistakable signal. Alas, five weeks have passed and only a few appointments have been made and, of these, that of the head of the Department of State Service is the sole strategic one.
Second, the country is in dire straits on all fronts. Government is broke. Oil prices fell again from $60 to $58.72 on Monday, signalling continued distress for an oil-dependent economy like ours. That same day, the government practically wiped out the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas dividends and tax account by authorising the sharing of $2.1 billion from there. Buhari also asked the Central Bank of Nigeria to make N300 billion in emergency aid available to the cash-strapped states, 24 of whom have been unable to pay their workers, some for eight months.
The states’ debts of N660 billion are also to be restructured by the Debt Management Office. Take these together with the jobless rate of 24.1 per cent; confusion over fuel imports, subsidy and paralysis at the ports; the grounding of ongoing road projects in a country with deplorable infrastructure; uncertainty over the automotive policy, the waiver/concession policy and the agriculture policy, among others, it becomes obvious that we need an economic management team in place to drive and coordinate the economy for production and job creation. Seven months into the fiscal year, local and foreign investors need to know where the policy direction of the new government is headed and make investment decisions. It is instructive that activities at the Nigerian Stock Exchange that rose on news of Buhari’s electoral victory have dipped as investors await an economic blueprint.
Civil society groups have also voiced concern that the delay may give room for corrupt officials who plundered the treasury to obscure the paper trail and escape with their loot as they have been doing under the ineffective anti-graft agencies. Fighting corruption is Buhari’s major claim to public trust; he should not delay any further in naming the Attorney-General of the Federation and new leaders for the anti-corruption agencies. The current occupants have failed and no one is fooled by their sudden hyper-activity. Barack Obama became president when the US was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and did not waste time in retaining Robert Gates as his defence secretary. Greek premier, Alexis Tsipras, on taking office, quickly appointed the assertive Yanis Varoufakis as finance minister to see through his electoral promise of defying creditors.
There can be no further excuse for delay in appointing a core team of motivated officials. Buhari should pick achievers to run the finance; works; industry, investment and trade; justice; education; labour; national planning, and foreign affairs ministries. He should not pander to base sectional, regional, sectarian or partisan interests. His appointees must avoid the clannishness and provincialism that marked the Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan administrations and led to the emergence of plundering cabals.
Buhari should, above all, remember that four years is but a short time before he faces the electorate once more.