The Buhari administration has floundered much of late. The suddenness of the onset and sheer scale of the disruptions wrought by the coronavirus pandemic would account for some of the slippage. Especially given the paucity of infrastructure ― healthcare and social security systems ― that would have helped better manage the crisis. But even before March last year, the administration’s crown jewels were beginning to lose their sparkle. The larger number of its infrastructure projects, bruited about as the killer solutions to the nation’s problems were considerably behind schedule and had gone way above budget. And this is before you add questions as to whether, as constructed, their benefits, over any time horizon of one’s choosing, will cover those increasingly princely costs. The economy, on the other hand, for want of a better word, has tanked. Choose any measure of economic well-being, and it has been headed in the wrong direction for a while, and rapidly so.
Still, in the run up to new elections in barely two years time, a slackening of pace was to be expected. But because President Buhari is term-bound, and his party will need to put up a new candidate for office of the president, this slackening of pace has been compounded by an extra ingredient ― a distractedness, as would-be candidates for office, and their minions jostle for both relevance and attention. However, because this does not suffice as explanation for the economy’s current woes, some argue instead that this distractedness is hardwired into the government’s DNA.
And examples abound. From the closure of the nation’s land borders, designed, we were told, to curb the parallel imports of goods that were hurting domestic productivity and capacity in agriculture and hence driving up prices, to the ban on the registration of new SIM packs by GSM operators, until existing subscribers had obtained a NIN and linked this with their current phone numbers, three phenomena were observable. First, is that we saw a public policy space that is incapable of properly describing policy goals. Second, is the spectacle of the same system struggling to put in place a framework of rule changes that will lead to the achievement of its predefined goals. Third, is the eventual walk back of the new policy without it having achieved any of the goals set it ― without accounting for the frittering away of scarce resources in pursuit of a madcap scheme or consequence for anyone.
In this regard, there is scope for arguing that a regular infusion of new blood into government over the last eight years would have helped address this burden. At the very least, new perspectives and new faces at the conversation table might well lend policy making a fillip simply by asking questions as to the propriety of the current direction. And with some luck help propel a pivot in the right direction.
This reading, does, unfortunately, ignore a further possibility ― one that is regularly marshalled by opponents of the Buhari administration against it. And this is that the administration’s default recruitment policy (described as nepotistic, by most of the opposition) favours sameness. Largely, this is a preference for people who favour the primacy of the state ― not just in making policy and executing it, but in actually running the economy. This are folks who do not understand the private sector ― even if they don’t loath it as their distractors are wont to accuse them of. And hence, a large number of them think of the state as the Yoruba in the 15th century thought of the “Kabiyesi”.
Conceptually, the Buhari administration’s worldview has several drawbacks. The longer-term threat is to the development of our democracy. In this sense, arguments in favour of the king’s, his men, and their steeds’ infallibility are essentially designed to stifle opinion that isn’t in alignment with the throne’s. This, more than any other ailment of good governance erodes a fundamental pillar of the democratic form of government. Indeed, we have managed since 1999 to hold regular elections. But without a vigorous exchange of ideas in the inter-vote years, the quality of choice every four years will be that much poorer.
In the near-term, however, there are few embarrassments more likely to mark a people as unprepared for the challenges of modern governance than the verbal contortions that senior government officials are prone to as a result of this heady policy cocktail.