I once saw the Nigerian presidency in action. It was at The Pierre Hotel in New York City in 2013. President Jonathan had flown in for the UN General Assembly. I went to the hotel to see Reuben Abati, Jonathan’s media adviser. I had known Dr. Abati in his early days at the Guardian newspapers. I went there with a simple unsolicited message: how to rescue Jonathan’s administration. I did so because I believed that no matter who was in power and what we think of him, Nigeria will be better for us all if we helped in every way that we can to make the country work.
At The Pierre Hotel, I saw what looked like a modern presidency. Members of the Nigeria delegation were occupying several rooms in the five star hotel. At the lobby were our people. There were security men, government officials and regular Nigerians loitering around, waiting to meet one government official or the other. Outside, I saw SUVs downloading pounded yam and egusi soup, Suya and jollof rice and other orishirishi.
I was wearing denim and a T-shirt. I did not want to be identified by anyone as I made my way through the hotel lobby. But while waiting for information on Abati’s whereabouts, a security agent identified me. He walked towards me and said, “Dr. Damages.” I was still deciding whether to nod or shake my head when he looked beside me and called, “Tomato Jos.”
At that point I gave up. If he could recognize Fatima Sesay, who was with me just in case we had to interview Jonathan, I had no chance. I braced myself for a lecture on how we were “spoiling Nigeria’s name.” But it did not happen. Instead, the man whispered into my ears that we were doing a good job. He said, “you guys are keeping them in check.” I was pleasantly surprised. He immediately walked away and so did I before anyone else would notice.
While waiting for the busy elevators to come down, I saw the then minister for finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, coming out of the elevator. I paused. She paused too and looked at me. I had met her before at an event in Rhode Island. There was no sign she knew who I was. I acknowledged her presence with a nod and hurriedly went into the elevator.
In Abati’s room I wanted to know what was going on with Jonathan’s government. What didn’t we on the outside know? Of course, protecting official secrets would not let him talk openly. But a few things he said made me understand that the presidency was a lot bigger than Jonathan. I asked him, for instance, how Jonathan was making uninspiring speeches when he, Abati, was the chief press secretary. Abati told me that presidential speeches, like the one he made at the UN, had to be scrutinized by the Civil Service with inputs from different departments.
I suggested to Abati to think of having a daily televised press conference, so that he would regain control of the narrative, respond to media enquiries and highlight accomplishments, if any. I also proposed that the president should be made available for interviews with even the media perceived to be hostile to his administration. I discussed out the advantages of that strategy. When I was done, Abati said that he had noted what I was saying. Needless to say, I didn’t notice any change in strategy. They went full speed on the path they were on. We know how it all turned out.
This is how a sincere and competent government functions: when a problem is identified, the government acknowledges the problem without fluff. It sets out concrete steps to tackle it. As it tackles the problem, it reports to the people on what is working and what is not. Whatever is not working, it swiftly changes course and finds what works. It repeats the process until the problem is resolved.
Take for example the economic challenges of today, it is okay to say that it was aggravated by lack of savings by past government but dwelling on it is counterproductive. It is also important to put the challenge within the context of global economic decline due to fall in crude oil prices. But beyond that, short term and long-term concrete steps must be seen to have been taken. These steps must be aimed at providing succor swiftly to the suffering masses. If they appear not to be working, they must be revised or discarded without waiting for loud cries from the people.
In several matters of national importance, this government’s response time has been very slow. It took months and months of complaints before the government did something about crushing foreign exchange policy that was clearly a failure. A simple matter like revealing how much money had been recovered from looters of the treasury required pulling the tooth of the government for that to happen. A complex matter like the abysmal state of power supply in Nigeria requires great tact in its handling. You don’t blame the militants who bomb oil pipelines and then blame the Nigerian people for allowing it to happen. As a government, it is your responsibility to find the solution to whatever problem you encounter when you are in office.
The Nigerian people are not dumb. They do not expect magic. But they expect respect. They expect that their government will not talk down to them. They expect an honest attempt at solving these problems. They expect to hear what is being done and not what is to be done. They expect gradual results not continuous promises. If pipeline disruptions are responsible for power failures in some parts of the country, they expect power improvements along the axes not affected by the pipeline situation. If Nigeria’s strategic planning is so dumb that pipeline disruption in one part of the country affects power supply in every other part of the country, acknowledge it and state what you are doing to resolve it.
In everything be true to the people. Treat them with equity. The people are often smarter than those who govern them. They have the ability to read meanings into government policies and pronouncements. But more importantly, they hear and understand government silence. This government’s approach to the issue of herdsmen attack on farming communities across the South and Middle belt regions and the increasing religious based attacks in some parts of the North robs this government of credibility in a way that is beyond measure.
Looking at Buhari’s government of today, there is no doubt that just as the wagon was set sailing, the wheels are coming off. The government has three big issues – the message, the messengers and the manner of delivery. In places where they have the right message, they do not have the right messenger. When they have the right messenger, they do not have the right message. In rare cases where the message and the messengers come together, the poor delivery throws things off.
From afar, I can sense where the problem may be. I do not think that everyone within this administration is dumb. I just think that there is poor information flow up and down the administration. Either that people who should be advising the president are not talking out of fear, or that the bubble around the president is so thick that their voices are not getting through.
Whatever the case, anyone who cares about the country and knows what should be done but is not getting through should just resign. The other alternative is as good as resigning. They should go rogue- take the message that is being blocked from reaching the ears of the president directly to the people. Chances are that the echo will bring the message to the president or that those who have the ears of the president will instigate the firing of the one who went rogue. Whichever option they choose they have a chance of walking away with some integrity left.
On the President’s part, he needs to shake up his cabinet and all the people around him who are blocking his view. Shaking up the cabinet does one immediate thing- it opens up a window for light to get into what has transpired in the last one year. He needs to bring on new blood with new ideas. The argument that those around the president are making now is that they need time for the results of their work to show. The truth is that we can see a ripe corn from afar. And so far, there are not so many of them in this administration.
Beyond fighting corruption, the president should, as a matter of urgency, fight for something that will outlast him. He should ask himself one simple question – what can I do for Nigeria today that will last long after I’m gone? That is a question that Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, and Jonathan failed to ask. If the presidency of Buhari should end today, the war against corruption is as good as over. If his presidency ends today, even though he has achieved relative success with the fight against Boko Haram, there are a dozen or more groups ready and willing to challenge the Nigerian state. The question the president should be asking himself is what do we do to make insurgency unnecessary? What do we do to leave a legacy that will last longer than War Against Indiscipline of 1984?
The danger of Buhari’s administration failing is enormous. For one, those who looted Nigeria will gloat. But more importantly, the poor masses who had held up hope that there could be any kind of honor amongst thieves would be devastated.
The goodwill that this administration came in with is growing thin. The narratives of the opponents are getting to stick. The government’s hope that it will prove the skeptics wrong with actions and not propaganda may not survive the onslaught of fate foretold. The situation is not irreversible yet.
We can wait until 2019 and vote APC out of power. In the process, we must have wasted another four years in the life of Nigeria. Or we can do anything within our power to save this government from itself. The choice is ours.