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Tolu Ogunlesi: Nigeria After February 2015

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This is the month we’ve waited four years for. By the time this column appears on Monday February 16, Nigeria will – barring a National State of Emergency, or a Government of National Unity, or the Apocalypse – have a new President, or an old one with a new mandate. It will no doubt be a keenly contested race. Atedo Peterside says his ANAP Foundation has carried out a presidential poll in partnership with NOI Polls, and that candidates Muhammadu Buhari and Goodluck Jonathan are “running neck-to-neck.” (I have come to respect the ANAP-NOI Polls partnership, ever since they rightly called the outcome of the Ekiti State governorship elections last year).

However things play out, life will have to go on after February. The political hashtags on social media will take a break, and we will watch the colourful posters that have defaced our streets fade most unspectacularly. Newspapers and blogs will have to adjust to a post-election advertising drought, and many of us will need to devise strategies for swallowing misguided pre-election boasting and taunting.

I’m very much interested in what happens after the elections, especially from the perspective of governance. Whoever takes over as President will be presiding over a country that will struggle to find money to share. I have used the word ‘share’ because Nigeria is first a contrived mechanism for the dispensing of crude oil revenues, before it is a nation/state/country. The most significant activity in the country today is the monthly ‘FAAC’ meeting where the thirty-six states gather in Abuja to divide oil revenues among themselves. Everything else revolves around that, because it is at those meetings that the country’s constituent parts receive the charge that keeps the batteries of their life-support machines going. (Most Nigerian states, the truth be told, are on permanent life support).

Now, with oil prices less than half of what they were this time last year, we are in deep trouble. The batteries are not being charged, and we are faced with an array of twitching, terminally-ill states, as well as a central government tottering on the edge of insolvency. I read a recent HSBC report that projects that this year Nigeria will earn $26bn from the sale of crude oil. Last year we earned about $40bn; in 2011 years ago our earnings were north of $50bn. Whoever emerges as president-elect clearly deserves more commiseration than congratulations.

Now, politics in Nigeria – or anywhere else for that matter – cannot exist without the dispensing of reward and patronage, and this will be true regardless of who occupies Aso Rock after May 29, and regardless of the state of the country’s finances. The boys and girls who have thrown their support behind the winner will have to be rewarded, or ‘carried along’ (as we say in these parts). Sharing the spoils of victory will be an easier task for Jonathan than it will be for Buhari, because for Jonathan a five-year-old, or sixteen-year-old, structure already exists – comprising the PDP’s federal experience and institutional memory, and well-established reward systems and networks of alliances.

For Buhari (or Pa Buhari, as the PDP voltrons on Twitter like to call him) it will be a tougher task. For now the opposition is united by the singular task of easing Jonathan out. With Jonathan out of the way, that motley coalition will be sorely tested by success. If the manner in which the APC’s choice of vice presidential candidate was settled is anything to go by, the allocation of senior government positions will be the administration’s first big minefield.

There are a number of laudable programmes of the current government that should be continued, regardless of who assumes office. I’m thinking of programmes like the National Mortgage Refinancing Company, the Sovereign Wealth Fund (austerity should never be an excuse for not saving and investing for the future!), the railways rehabilitation projects, and the remarkable progress in the agricultural sector. The incoming government will also need to fast-track the power sector reforms, with special focus on completing and privatising the NIPP plants.

Two things will require complete overhauling; the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and the approach to the insurgency in the North-East. NNPC, as the primary source of government revenues, needs to be set free from debilitating state control, which promotes dysfunction and a shocking lack of transparency. It will be disappointing if the PDP government maintains the status quo with the NNPC after the elections, doubly so if an APC government does so.

Regarding Boko Haram, I believe that Buhari will be a more competent Commander-in-Chief than Jonathan, and that he will be better able to inspire the troops to much better performance. But he will need to be careful to not fall for the temptation of overconfidence, or assume that his experience as an army commander thirty years ago is enough to depend on today. A President Buhari will need to project an attitude of humility and openness to ideas.

If it does happen that President Jonathan will be with us four more years, even he will need to change his Boko Haram strategy, which is obviously not working. I think that by now the President himself knows that he has scored an ‘F’ in that regard. It has been interesting listening to him on the campaign trail. While he could get away with not mentioning Boko Haram in the South, he couldn’t escape it in the North. And so we’ve heard him insist again and again that he’s not the one sponsoring Boko Haram – in response to sentiments, prevalent in the North, that he is the chief instigator of the terrorists, with an eye on destabilising the region to his political benefit. (In my opinion those sentiments are as absurd as the PDP’s claims that APC or Buhari are sympathetic to Boko Haram).

Whoever is elected President of Nigeria will need to be ‘A President for all’. Far too often Mr. Jonathan has seemed to be keen on appearing to be an Ijaw President, or a President of Nigerian Christians. In a second term, he will need to jettison that bad behaviour. On the part of Mr. Buhari, I have heard people express fears that his will be a ‘Hausa-Fulani presidency’. Those people point to the circumstances surrounding the Yar’Adua presidency, as evidence for their misgivings. Recall that the late president was surrounded by an ethnic cabal who wasted no time assuming control of the government as Yar’Adua’s illness worsened. One of the victims of that cabal was the then Vice President Jonathan, who was effectively locked out of the government, and reduced to – as his wife reportedly put it at that time – a man whose job it was to “read newspapers”. It was so bad that a US embassy list of the most influential persons in Nigeria in 2008 didn’t include the then Vice President. Nigeria deserves a President who will demonstrate, in speech and action, that he is a President for everybody, regardless of tribe, tongue, religious persuasion or – and this is extremely important – political affiliation.

From time to time I find myself accused of fixating on the Presidency at the expense of the state governors whose actions and inactions have perhaps even greater bearing on the lives of ordinary Nigerians. I plead guilty, in part. My defensive argument is that in a country where half of the national oil revenues go to the Federal Government, leaving the other half to be shared by 36 states and 774 local governments, that sort of Federal Government deserves all the pressure and scrutiny it gets. Also, it is my belief that a high-performing Federal Government will easily translate into higher standards of governance across the lower levels.

But it is true that we need to focus on the states as well. The quality of governance at state level is extremely uneven, and some governors are getting away with behaviour that will make the worst Federal Government look like a candidate for beatification. Next week I will try to focus on governance at state level, and the challenges I think the next set of governors will have to confront. If you’ve got anything you’d like the world to know about the performance of your state governor, please email or text me.

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Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi and published with permission from the writer, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from PUNCH.

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