Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Stop Rationalizing Buhari’s Lethargic Beginnings

By Moses Ochonu
My friend, Professor Pius Adesanmi, set the tone for what I'm about to say in a recent Facebook update. If you have not read his update in which he makes a forceful argument for holding the Buhari administration accountable for the president's pre-election promises in the area of security and the effort against Boko Haram, please go and read it without delay. It is a prescient and timely intervention. Adesanmi was writing to bemoan the continued rampage of Boko Haram in spite of Buhari's promise to take away their ability to continue their murderous activities.

Adesanmi's overarching arguments are 1) we should insist on Buhari fulfilling his promise of securing the lives and property of citizens from the menace of Boko Haram, a promise that the recent wave of bombings vitiate; 2) we should demand from this administration a clear articulation of its strategy for ending Boko Haram; and 3) what we criticized and refused to accept when Jonathan was president, we should not accept, rationalize, or fail to criticize in Buhari's administration.
I want to extend Adesanmi's treatise beyond the narrow domain of security. I want to broaden his contention to the entire gamut of issues and challenges confronting the country. I am arguing simply that, regardless of the issue involved, what we didn't tolerate from Jonathan and roundly criticized in his administration, we should also not tolerate from Buhari and should have the courage to criticize. Here is a list of things we rightly criticized Jonathan for, but which, for reasons I cannot fathom, we seem to have ignored or accepted in Buhari's administration.
1. We pilloried Jonathan's administration for maintaining a wasteful 12-aircraft presidential fleet (enough to constitute a modest airline) despite the deepening hardship and cash crunch in the country. In response to initial misinformation from overzealous Buhari supporters about Buhari's decision to sell off most of the aircraft, the administration came out and firmly denied taking such a decision and has continued to maintain the same presidential fleet. This inexplicable resolve to continue with what is universally regarded as a symbol of executive profligacy is not attracting any critical attention from otherwise skeptical citizens. And I don't want to hear the excuse that Buhari didn't buy the aircraft, that he inherited them.
2. Staying with the aircraft theme, the new Customs boss, Col. Hameed Ali, a key Buhari appointee, travels around to conduct official business in a cozy private jet, but he is being praised as a man of action instead of being criticized with the same vehemence with which Mrs. Diezani Allison-Maduekwe, former minister of petroleum, was criticized for doing the same thing.

3. The economy is reeling from Buhari's misguided, counterproductive, and unsustainable policy of defending the naira at all cost by placing primitive and economically unsound restrictions on access to foreign exchange. This currency control has compounded a curious companion policy of decreeing bans on certain imports (both raw materials an finished goods) and wishing that Nigeria would magically begin producing them in spite of structural problems like poor electricity, reliance on imported heavy machinery, expensive borrowing rates, a general poverty of infrastructure, and a volatile policy environment. Our reaction to this cluelessness has been either to stay silent or to praise Buhari’s intentions, as though his lofty intentions outweigh the real damage that this policy is doing to various sectors of the economy. The road to hell they say is paved with good intentions, and we may very well be headed to a figurative hell with the pronouncement by the CBN that Nigeria’s economy will enter recession next year. We scrutinized all of Jonathan's economic policies, taking them apart when they did not make sense. But we seem to have conceded to Buhari the right to make as many mistakes as he wants even at the cost of inflicting serious harm on the economy at a time of low oil prices and a resulting economic contraction. It's almost as if we think that the old man knows best and have suspended our critical faculties as a result.
4. Several bomb blasts rocked the northeastern states of Adamawa and Borno in the course of two days, killing cores of our citizens and puncturing our already fragile security. It took the presidency an entire day to acknowledge the tragedy and offer words of comfort to a beleaguered and traumatized nation and to the victims' families. When Jonathan displayed similar crass indifference to the nihilist violence of Boko Haram and to the victims of the carnage, we spared no outrage in criticizing him and his team. Today, we seem to have given Buhari's government an open-ended benefit of the doubt on the same attitude.
5. When Jonathan failed to articulate a coherent road map for defeating Boko Haram, we rightly called him out on the failure. Buhari has not clued the nation into his grand strategy for ending the insurgency, if one exists. Yet we have not demanded that he communicate clearly with the nation on this.
6. When Jonathan hired some South African mercenaries to help drive out the insurgents from Nigerian's towns and villages, many of us saw that as a humiliating climb down for our army and our country, a testament to the failure to equip and motivate the army to fight at their maximum ability. Then candidate Buhari criticized Jonathan for surrendering and violating Nigeria's sovereignty, pride, and status as a regional power. He said the Nigerian army was capable, by itself, of routing the enemy if properly equipped and motivated. Several days ago, however, we read news, still undenied, that the administration has done exactly the same thing that candidate Buhari angrily condemned. They have quietly hired South African mercenaries to help combat Boko Haram and to meet the December deadline issued by the president. We are yet to hear any serious critique of this decision to continue with a previously criticized Jonathan strategy.
7. When Jonathan travelled to Chad to try to enlist the help of Idris Deby in combating the insurgency, he was mocked for being weak and for groveling before regional minnows. The cantankerous Nasir el-Rufai even suggested in a tweet that the former president had gone to Chad to confer with Deby on how to plan more attacks, an outrageous nod to the conspiracy theories circulating in the north about Jonathan's complicity in, if not sponsorship of, Boko Haram. Today, Buhari's most discernible public gesture in the fight against Boko Haram is his travel around the world and in our region begging for foreign help and corporation. And he seems to have invested all his strategic permutations in the regional force headquartered in Chad. He is, in other words, doing what Jonathan did or tried to do. But the reaction to his actions has been decidedly and radically different. While Jonathan was widely condemned, Buhari is being praised for courting much needed alliances for defeating Boko Haram.
8. When Jonathan appointed (and defended) several people tainted by allegations and revelations of corruption into his government, we rightly expressed our disapproval in very strident language. Today, Buhari has appointed people plagued by weighty and credible allegations of corruption into his cabinet and into key roles in his administration. Instead of dusting up our anti-Jonathan criticism and applying it to Buhari, we have now crafted a new argument for rationalizing this brazen act of self-contradiction by an anti-corruption president. We now argue that the appointees may have been corrupt but that, serving under Buhari, they will not dare touch government money. That may be so, given the personal example of incorruptibility from Buhari, but that does not invalidate the truth that such appointments constitute a reward for corruption — and a bad signal to corrupt officials. Those who should be answering to allegations and revelations of corruption will instead be enjoying the prestige and aura of high office in an administration purportedly anchored on an anti-corruption ethos.
This list is not exhaustive. You can add to it.
Obviously contexts change and one must acknowledge that. Jonathan was criticized within a wider matrix of issues. Moreover, in some cases, the contexts in which he took some of his widely criticized decisions, or failed to take a decision, were different from those that prevail today. We must therefore temper our critique of Buhari’s young government with that caveat.
We must also give Buhari a grace period for getting a handle on the many challenges of the country. Perhaps, our criticism of his preservation of Jonathan’s many policies and attitudes would be more justified after he has spent a year in office and the texture and color of his presidency have emerged with clarity.
Even so, it is never too early to emplace the parameters of vigilance and accountability. Moreover, if we don’t begin to ask tough questions now and to challenge brazen disregard for the anxieties and problems of citizens, Buhari and his team will only take that as acquiescence and go further down the familiar and failed path.
The failure to criticize early, to lay down a marker of citizen skepticism, as well as a willingness to offer a prolonged period of grace to a new government are detrimental to both the said government and citizens. It is one of the reasons that Jonathan strayed and was never able to course-correct.
In the wake of the Yar’Adua debacle, Nigerians were willing to give Jonathan an elastic latitude of action and inaction. Now, in the wake of Jonathan’s disastrous government, we seem to be making the same mistake with Buhari and setting him up for the tone-deaf indifference and disconnection that became the defining signature of the Jonathan administration.
We need to stop the rationalization of Buhari’s lethargic beginnings. The election is over. Buhari is fully in charge. Forced excuses are no longer convincing. Body language has an expiration date and has clearly run its course while serious problems persist. It is time to demand concrete actions, plans, and outcomes from this government.

The author can be reached at meochonu@gmail.com

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