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Farooq Kperogi : Tinubu getting governance right but economy wrong

 

It takes a special kind of partisan bullheadedness— or an acute amnesia of the immediate past— to fail to acknowledge that President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has, in the last few weeks, enlivened governance, shown praiseworthy sensitivity to public opinion, and has exerted unaccustomed social, symbolic, and political presence in the country.
But it also requires a severely blind partisan loyalty to not admit that Tinubu’s firing of a corrupt minister caught red handed with her hand in the cookie jar, his responsiveness to legitimate public outcries, and his obvious interest in actual governance have not moved the needle in the real living conditions of the majority of Nigerians who are squirming in profound existential hurt as a direct consequence of the unprecedented economic crunch that the removal of subsidies on petrol has activated. I’ll return to this point later.

I am never shy to publicly admit it when I am wrong. Since January 2022 when it became apparent to me that Tinubu would be president, I was distressed. In a January 12, 2022, social media update, I ventilated this distress when I wrote: “No nation can survive a transition from Buhari’s corrupt, do-nothing, geriatric, and dementia-plagued presidency to a drunken, narcotized, geriatric, and potentially corrupt Tinubu presidency.”

I am not ashamed to concede that I am probably wrong and that the people who insisted that Tinubu would be different from Buhari are right—at least for now. By my training and disposition, I am parsimonious with expressions of commendation for people in positions of power. It’s because I know that the privileges and pressures of power can make people unpredictable or change in a fraction of a moment’s notice. But there is no harm in acknowledging demonstrations of good-faith efforts by people in power.

The swift, no-nonsense suspension of Betta Edu as Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation after irrefutable evidentiary proof of her corruption emerged and public outcry for her ouster grew— and the summoning of the Internal Affairs Minister to explain how a company he is associated with benefitted from Edu’s corruption— has scored the Tinubu administration its most visible reputational mileage in governance yet and has caused many critics to thaw their frigidity toward the administration.

It doesn’t mean there are no other corrupt government officials who are fleecing the nation, but this is the first time an APC administration has fired a minister for corruption. All past examples of ministers who lost their jobs because of corruption have been during PDP administrations. Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’adua, and even Goodluck Jonathan have records of firing ministers who were credibly accused of corrupt enrichment.

Yet, Muhammadu Buhari, who rode to power on the strength of the perception and claims that he was “clean” and was intolerant of corruption, not only never fired a single minister on account of corruption (even though Nigeria lost the most money to corruption during his regime), but he also actually weaponized his symbolic power as president to defend the corruption of his ministers and close associates.

After the alleged corruption of Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai, Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazzau and Babachir David Lawal were published, Buhari’s public response, in December 2016, was, “Terrible and unfounded comments about other people’s integrity are not good. We are not going to spare anybody who soils his hands, but people should please wait till such individuals are indicted.”

But when corrupt people were indicted, he defended them both publicly and privately. For example, when Babachir Lawal was indicted by the Senate for fleecing internally displaced people in the Northeast, Buhari deployed astonishingly bald-faced lies to defend him.

In my January 28, 2017 column titled “Presidential Lying in Defense of Corrupt “Executhieves,” I wrote: “In his letter to the Senate ‘clearing’ Babachir David Lawal of multi-million naira ‘grass cutting’ corruption scandal, the president said the senate didn’t invite Lawal to defend himself. Lie. He WAS invited via a letter, which the permanent secretary attached to his office acknowledged, and via at least three newspaper adverts. But he spurned the invitation and sent a representative.

“The president also said only three senate committee members signed the letter asking for Lawal’s resignation and prosecution. Another lie. Seven senate committee members did.” It was Yemi Osinbajo’s acting presidency that recommended Babachir Lawal’s firing. Left to Buhari, nothing would have happened to him.

We also learned from the Head of Service of the Federation in November 2017 that Buhari was actually aware of, and even countenanced, the scandalous reinstatement and promotion of Abdulrahseed Maina, the former chairman of the Pension Reform Task Force Team who was sacked for stealing 14 billion naira belonging to pensioners. Of course, we all know how Buhari featherbedded Sadiya Umar Farouq who stole way more money than Betta Edu did.


A separate column needs to be written on Buhari’s corruption and how he gave aid and comfort to the worst corruption in Nigeria’s history. It suffices for now to state that Tinubu’s actions would have been mere unremarkable routines in governance had he not been preceded by the worst, most incompetent, and least transparent ruler in Nigeria’s history.

Nonetheless, the praises that the Tinubu administration is receiving from unlikely quarters shouldn’t lull it into a false sense of self-satisfaction to the point of being unmindful of the damaging consequences of its punishingly harsh economic policies.

I was in Nigeria in December 2023 and saw firsthand the extreme, unbearable, and unexampled adversity that the vast majority of people have been thrown into in the aftermath of the removal of petrol subsidies. The level of suffering people are going through now is simply unsustainable. Something will definitely give if nothing is done urgently.

Since the Tinubu administration has so far shown itself to be amenable to be persuaded on issues that matter to the public, I suggest that immediate steps should be taken to halt the drift to hopelessness that’s taking roots in Nigeria.

In Monarchs and Mendicants, Dan Groat warned: “Not interested in scarin’ anybody, but people with good sense are afraid of a man with nothin’ to lose.” Lance Conrad reiterated the same sentiment in The Price of Nobility when he said, “Only a fool would underestimate a man with nothing to lose.” Extreme deprivation, such as what most Nigerians are going through now, inspires hopelessness, loss of faith in life itself, and a willingness to bring everything down.

One of the first moves to stop that is to recognize that it’s way past time to increase the national minimum age across the board. N30,000 is no longer even remotely in the realm of a realistic minimum wage in a country where a liter of petrol is more than 600 naira and a bag of rice is more than N50,000.

Second, as a matter of fierce urgency, the government should make Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) readily available and affordable across the country as an alternative to petrol if it’s unwilling to bring down the price of petrol. By affordable, I am suggesting that it should be less than N200 per liter.

The economy is contracting because people aren’t spending, and people aren’t spending because their disposable incomes are being eaten up by the unsustainably high price of petrol.

Third, Nigerians need to see visible signs of the utilization of the money saved from the removal of petrol subsidies in strategic expansion of railways and investment in inter- and intra-state transportation. This would obviate the need for fuel subsidies.

We already know that contrary to what government officials and defenders of subsidy removal had said, money saved from subsidy removal won’t go to education or health. Only 7.9% of this year’s budget is allocated to education, and only 5% is allocated to health. That’s not different from previous years.

There is so much more money for government officials to steal precisely because the removal of fuel subsidies took from the poor what should make life a life easier for them. So, firing corrupt officials will only make sense to ordinary folks if it translates to an increase in the quality of their lives.

 

 

Farooq Kperogi is a renowned newspaper columnist and United States-based Professor of Journalism.

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