Baba Go-Slow. An uncharitable term that was used to describe Nigeria’s late president, Umaru Yar’Adua, is now creeping back into the vocabulary of disgruntled Nigerians just weeks after President Buhari’s inauguration. But given the newness of Buhari’s tenure, the question is whether the cynicism which the term entails is more damaging to progress than it is helpful.
Buhari has come to power, in part, due to his own determination; but also largely as a result of the poor performance of the last government. The last term of rule by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was riddled from top to toe with the kind of problems that signalled a return to darker times in the country’s past. Security, political accountability, and power generation were all areas where the government appeared to be failing abysmally; and the sharp drop in the global oil price was taking its toll on Nigeria’s petroleum export dependent economy.
Relations with neighbouring countries and with important allies such as the US and South Africa suffered because of Nigeria’s apparent inability to effectively tackle the Islamist insurgency in the north east. Something had to give if Nigeria was not to be reduced to an isolated minnow overshadowed by her newly emboldened neighbours. For many, “Change” could not come fast enough.
It was happy luck, then, for millions of Nigerians fed up with decades of lacklustre governance that this was the precise platform on which Buhari chose to run and on which he was ultimately elected. The All Progressive’s Congress (APC), with its party logo of a broom, was promising to clean up Nigeria’s political system. If media reports are to be believed, there is indeed a lot of cleaning up to be done.
With a raft of defections from the now opposition PDP to the APC, there would be no looking back. Buhari and a newly reconfigured APC promised to rejuvenate Nigeria’s dismal power supply, diversify its economy, overhaul a decrepit economic and manufacturing infrastructure, tackle wealth inequality, and eradicate corruption. And though the Nigerian people had heard it all before, this time there was nothing to lose from believing it.
With Buhari’s entrance, one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the west (and, to be fair, from much of Africa). The sluggish and bloated Nigeria of recent years was about to be whipped into shape. The recently maligned military would once again be the pride of Africa; corruption would be given its marching orders; and Nigeria would resume her place at centre stage.
Having now won the election he has been trying to win for so long, President Buhari has been very quick to correct perceptions that he is a miracle worker. This is not what many Nigerians wanted to hear after being told for so many months of election campaigning that “Change” would be effective and immediate.
Aside from having the effect of raising the electorate’s expectations so high, the crowning of Buhari with messiah-like status has also made him the most scrutinised president in recent Nigerian history.
Social media discussions have raged over his appearance, the numerous faux pas committed by members of his media team, his social graces and religious duties (whether it was appropriate or not for an observant Muslim man to be photographed shaking hands with the First Lady of Edo State). Some have gone so far as to challenge his anti-corruption credentials on the basis of a photograph of his wife wearing an expensive looking watch.
It is odd that Buhari appears to have been given next to no honeymoon period by the Nigerian population. This is particularly so in a country where people are generally agreed that campaign pledges are often not worth the paper they’re written on. Many people do not expect miracles from their politicians; and a promise that things will be better or won’t get any worse is usually enough to secure long-term public support.
But it is perhaps the kinds of promises that were made that explains the discord in Buhari’s case. During the campaign, the APC made wide pledges that would require significant expansion and reorganisation of a badly managed social welfare system. For instance, the party pledged to give a monthly payment of 5000 Naira (about 25 USD) to the poorest and most vulnerable citizens with scant detail about how the programme would be managed and administered. The party also pledged to create 3 million jobs a year (a promise eagerly seized upon by trade unions). It pledged to introduce a scheme to employ 740,000 graduates across all states including the Federal Capital Territory and oversee annual GDP growth of 10%.
It is true that these promises were made before the president and his advisers had any real idea of the shape of the country’s finances. In light of recent claims that the previous administration left a deficit of 7 trillion Naira (around 35.2 billion USD), it is unsurprising that many of the answers to the questions Nigerians are asking have been slow in coming. And while critics are annoyed by the seemingly slow pace of government since May 29th, many lay the blame with the failure of the outgoing administration.
Whoever is to blame for why what has not been done has not been done, it would be useful to look at what the president has actually accomplished in the last month. The president has focused most of his attention on counter terrorism and announced the immediate relocation of the military Command and Control Centre from Abuja to Maiduguri – the capital of Boko Haram’s main stronghold in Borno State.
It was a move as symbolic as it was practical.
On the 3rd and 4th of June, he embarked on visits to neighbouring Niger and Chad – two countries with whom Nigeria’s relations were strained under the previous administration. He was present at the last meeting of G7 leaders, to which the president was invited despite Nigeria not being a member. An indication of the level of goodwill and support given to Buhari by world economic powers, if ever there was one.
The purpose of these visits was to discuss joint strategies to deal with the insurgent menace – a positive move considering the challenges faced by the previous administration. Buhari’s foreign sojourns, hopefully indicate that Nigeria’s approach to counterterrorism will centre on the protection of civilians and will be proactive rather than reactive.
As a symbol of his commitment to the multinational joint task force (MNJTF) – a coalition of the military forces of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger, to fight Boko Haram – President Buhari ordered the release of $21 million to the effort. He also promised to honour Nigeria’s commitment of $100 million to the MNJTF.
In a rather controversial move, on the 22nd of June Buhari ordered the nationwide removal of military checkpoints to be replaced with police patrols – with the exception of the three north eastern states at the centre of the terrorist insurgency.
Despite the president’s efforts, some of the shine has been taken off his bold anti-terrorism measures by the niggling fact that Boko Haram (now an Islamic State affiliate) has increased its operations, and the death toll since Buhari’s inauguration is around 200 and rising. Residents of Maiduguri once again find themselves under attack in a recent spate of bombings.
Corruption has remained firmly on the Buhari agenda and he recently garnered support from the US to help recover looted funds. But here, questions have arisen over how far up the political ladder he is prepared to go to bring corrupt politicians to account.
While many of the criticisms that have so far been launched against Buhari border on the trivial, there remain serious concerns about his slowness to appoint a cabinet of ministers and a new National Security Adviser. President Buhari would do well to appoint a cabinet with haste and start devolving responsibility to the appropriate ministries.
The 2015 elections were ones in which Nigerians swore to hold their leaders to account and they are certainly doing that. But from what President Buhari is already doing in his first few weeks in the hot seat, the level of criticism may be premature in this case.
In Nigeria, presidents are elected on a 4 year mandate and to be fair to the current president, he should be allowed the time to do his job. Despite the strength of feeling, it is impossible to undo decades of bad governance in a matter of years, never mind weeks. The scrutiny to which President Buhari’s early days are being subjected can be viewed as a positive step in Nigeria’s maturing democracy. But it must not become destructive in preventing the new administration from getting on with the job of government.
Sola Tayo is a London-based broadcast journalist at the BBC. She is Associate Fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House. All views expressed here are in her personal capacity.