The New Year presidential speech – Thisday Newspaper Editorial

President Buhari may disapprove, but there is a dire need to restructure the federation 

The choice of the beginning of a new year to deliver a progress report and map a new policy direction is not so usual. Most New Year speeches usually dwell on homilies and good wishes. But rather curiously, President Muhammadu Buhari chose last Monday, which ordinarily should be to welcome Nigerians into 2018, to literally launch an infrastructure renewal agenda with items that will not be completed in less than another 36-48 months.

While there is nothing wrong about such a not-so-subtle second term bid declaration, it is nonetheless disappointing that there was nothing in the speech on elements that could alleviate the growing hardship within the populace: healthcare delivery; meaningful educational revamp; access to affordable housing; economic strategy that matches the president’s populist pretensions, etc. Easily the most credible point was made on agriculture. But increase in agricultural production without an integral industrial processing strategy will only leave us exporting primary produce to markets we don’t control.

On the whole, therefore, there was not much to inspire in the speech. Yet, there are two aspects to worry about. First, the president dismissed the calls for restructuring the country on the pretext that, “our problems are more to do with process than structure”; and then, his only solution to the problem in the downstream sector which has led to incessant fuel scarcity in recent years is not to deregulate or end the corrupt and grossly inefficient subsidy regime but rather to finger-point and blame marketers, despite what his Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr Ibe Kachikwu, is saying about the reason for the crisis we face and the choices that have to be made.

On restructuring, President Buhari’s position flies in the face of the position of several prominent Nigerian stakeholders, including the one canvassed last September by the All Progressives Congress (APC) national leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu on how the glaring failings of the present arrangement in the country should compel a rethink because, as he said, “it would be better to restructure things to attain the correct balance between our collective purpose on one hand and our separate grassroots realities on the other.”

While the major problem in the system today is more about the absence of good governance at all levels, we must nonetheless acknowledge that we have a serious structural problem. When complemented with mechanism for improving accountability, the proposal being pushed by many critical stakeholders has the potential for strengthening the structural design for good governance and human development in Nigeria.

As we have consistently argued on this page, most of the current 36 states are too small and too under-resourced to be economically viable, such that they depend almost entirely on allocations from the Federation Accounts the bulk of which they expend on salaries and other recurrent expenditures. The counter-veiling mechanisms that ensure some level of accountability at the centre are either non-existent or too weak in these fragmented units and the logical result is that the promise of good governance embedded in the theory of decentralisation is delivered almost always in the breach.

On the fuel subsidy, the current situation harms rather than help the people. What President Buhari and his administration must realise is that as long as the subsidy remains, the incentive for private and public actors to game the system will continue to be there. Also, as long as there is default in subsidy payment, which is not inconceivable given the current state of our finances, supply will be constrained, thus pushing up the pump price many times above the market price, with untold hardship on the populace, especially the poor, as we witnessed during the last Ch ristmas holiday.

In all, last Monday’s speech did not reflect the reality of the Nigerian condition and there is much cause to worry, especially now that President Buhari is seeking a second term.

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