By Chidi Amuta –
Within a fortnight in power, President Bola Tinubu may have set the tone and tempo for what promises to be a dizzying presidency. Right from the inauguration ground at Eagle Square, he could not suppress his anxiety to be in power and in control at the same time. Most classical concepts of power lament that it is hard to be in power and in control simultaneously. Tinubu seems out to smash that conundrum from the outset. His immediate predecessor was in office, a bit in power but hardly ever in control.
To be in office, in power and in absolute control may well be the feature that sets Tinubu apart among the pantheon of Nigeria’s elected leaders. In fact, the haste and immediacy in his tone and temper places him closer to the tradition of our past military leadership. This the tradition popularized by the late General Murtala Mohammed (“with immediate effect!”). It is a haste to right the wrongs, to correct the path of national leadership and followership by restoring a path of sanity lost by recent deviations. This haste to reform, to correct and get the system to obey a leader’s deeply felt reformist zeal usually cuts both ways. It might end up as both the leader’s unique selling point as well as the source of the mistakes and errors that may make or mar his legacy in the fullness of time. For Tinubu, the clock has started ticking!
In rapid succession, he has used an off-script proclamation right at inauguration ground to take off the controversial and longstanding subsidy on gasoline. This single policy measure has put the already troubled Nigerian economy into an initial tailspin. Inflation has automatically jumped to the mid 22.4 % as gasoline prices have skyrocketed by 300% and more. Transportation costs have gone up while food inflation and general inflation have obeyed the laws of the market.
Organised labour has flexed its familiar muscle by threatening a general strike that was quickly stopped by government through the courts. It is a measure of Tinubu’s luck with the Nigerian public that the resistance to gasoline price hikes has not yet produced a general social upheaval. Nigerians seem to understand the logic of the subsidy removal but are anxiously awaiting palliative measures to cushion the pain. The hope is that the proceeds of the subsidy removal will be ploughed into more social investment in education, health and infrastructure instead of being creamed off by thievish politicians and crafty bureaucrats.
With commendable courage and fresh reformist zeal, Mr. Tinubu has also abolished the dubious multiple exchange rate regime. This was a convenient mechanism with which his predecessor bribed cohorts and indirectly powered grievous corruption through arbitrage and uncontrolled patronage. The over valued Naira has fallen in value overnight while the foreign exchange market has been further liberalized by opening up the market to multiple sources of supply ranging from the banks to the bureaux de change. The anticipation is that a widened and liberalized foreign exchange market will encourage the freeing of foreign currency held by individual citizens, politicians, companies and others to eventually drive down the exchange rate to a more friendly territory. More importantly, this reform of the exchange market should, over time, encourage more external investment and foreign participation in the economy freed at last from lack of transparency and dubious manipulation by government. Over time, it is expected that a more reasonable and sustainable market driven exchange rate will emerge.
Taken together, both the fuel subsidy removal and the unification of the exchange rate regime are clear indications of much needed reform of the Nigerian economy in the direction of a more sensible open market. The logic seems to be that you need a functioning market before you can decide on whether it is working or not. Enlightened economic policies will, over time, create a more elite friendly atmosphere in which perhaps the middle class can begin to return. It is expected that middle class creature benefits such as consumer credits, basic indicators of prosperity such as new homes, new cars , affordable holidays and the restoration of the swagger of the middle class. The expectation is normal that when the economy is working, the benefits will trickle down to the popular masses thus making the president a little more popular and acceptable across board. These benefits will of course require some time to translate into perceivable benefits.
In tandem, Mr. Tinubu has signed a Students Loan Bill that had been on the presidential in-tray. This should grant access to borrowed funding for indigent students in tertiary institutions whose career goals may be threatened by lack of funds. This legislation in its present form may make it impossible for the target students to access any loans as the conditions are both stringent and unrealistic.
Surely, a bit more thinking needs to go into the implementation of this loan scheme lest the expediency of policy be sacrificed at the altar of populist politics. But even with its defects, this bill indicates a concern for the welfare of youth in line with what he promised during the campaigns.
The indirect political benefit of these economic and social reforms is to earn Mr. Tinubu both the elite consensus and popular acceptability which he needs to consolidate his legitimacy and general acceptability. A president who came to power in a storm of still raging electoral disputations and with a little over 30% popular vote count cannot rest on his oars when it comes to mining elite consensus and courting popular support.
In the direction of troubled institutional leadership, Mr. Tinubu has suspended the troublesome Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele. He has allowed the secret police , the DSS, to cart the ambitious fellow into detention and possibly a series of lengthy interrogations. No one knows exactly what Mr. Emefiele is being grilled for but the public harbors a cocktail of grievances against Mr. Emefiele’s conduct as the custodian of our collective treasury. He scored a first in being the first Central Bank governor in Nigeria to sit in office while carrying a party card and expressing active interest in vying for the office of president. He is also one CBN governor to have openly canvassed a series of partisan policy preferences as against transparent objective economic policies.
On his own, Emefiele is a fertile source of multiple tales and scandals. Ranging from meddling with lucrative exchange rate deals and contracts to floating opaque agricultural loan schemes to illiterate farmers who can no longer tell whether they got any loans or made any repayments to the Central Bank. He committed the less heinous crime of sometimes openly insulting state house reporters. Some less gracious beer parlor versions of the Emefiele saga accuse him of colluding with former president Muhammadu Buhari to confiscate the monies of Nigerians under the disastrous Naira redesign gambit.
In the process, both men impoverished most Nigerians overnight while promising the redesigned Naira notes that hardly ever came. Unverified rumours, including those once canvassed in court by the DSS fingered the man in matters as dangerous and frightful as terrorist financing. All these are ahead of a formal charge and possible arraignment of the man before a competent court. The best service to the rule of law is to quickly complete interrogations and investigations and arraign the man to prove his presumed innocence in open court.
As if that is not enough, Mr. Tinubu has also suspended and commenced investigation of the youthful but influential head of the anti-graft agency, the EFCC, Mr. Rasheed Bawa. Here again, a halo of conspiracies and scandals shroud the young man’s arrest and ongoing investigation. Immediate former governor of Zamfara state, Mr. Matawalle, had a shouting match with Mr. Bwa at the exit door over alleged a $2 million gratification negotiations that did not quite go well. There have also been leaks of stratospheric hotel expenses incurred by the youthful chairman somewhere as well as unprofessional interests in assets seized from corruption related persons. Since Mr. Bawa himself assumed office under the smoke trail of a predecessor fingered for similar infractions, Nigeria’s anti corruption crusade may have come to ahead somehow. An agency set up to fight corruption has itself become a cesspool of ranking corruption.
Mr. Tinubu’s pace of reform is likely to earn him much needed political capital and international acceptability. Already, influential media opinion at home and abroad have already acknowledged his commendable pace and direction. At home, he has struck a decisive difference from his predecessor who needed many months after being elected to make even a single appointment let alone announce any policy initiative. It took Mr. Buhari more than six months to put a cabinet in place and even longer to fill other strategic federal positions.
On the contrary, Mr. Tinubu has hit the ground running. He has taken most of these major reform measures and decisions even without having a cabinet or government in place. He has made a number of commendable appointments at the level of presidential advisers. It is expected that his cabinet nominations will follow the same track.
For a president who campaigned on the basis of continuing with the legacy of Mr. Buhari, his fellow party man and political mentor, these developments and pace raise issues. They are bold drastic reversals of the Buhari style and spirit. As against Mr. Buhari who was known for most of his eight years in office as “Baba Go-Slow” at home and abroad, some international media headlines have already dubbed Mr. Tinubu “Baba Go-Fast”. Nigerians have taken note and are watching. What Mr. Tinubu is doing and the pace of his actions do not quite look like those of a president who is likely to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor no matter the close personal relationship they may have.
Clearly, by the strategic positions of those he has suspended or fired and his sheer pace of policy decisions, Mr. Tinubu has struck a decisive difference from the lack lustre, slovenly and rather tepid Mr. Buhari. It is too early to fathom how the political camp of the vindictive Buhari will respond to Tinubu’s early breaking of ranks. But there could be some kicks and backlash from the dead Buhari presidential horse
At the level of real politick, Mr. Tinubu’s preferences have been reflected in the choice of leadership of the 10th National Assembly. Last Tuesday’s leadership contests in the National Assembly was a litmus test of Mr. Tinubu’s political sagacity. In the process of pushing his preferences in that contest, he may have empowered some political Czars that will either facilitate his clout with the National Assembly or return to haunt his own political path in the days ahead.
It is noteworthy that soon after being chosen as Senate President, Mr. Akpabio paid homage to the home of immediate past Rivers State governor, Mr. Nyesom Wike. I hope Mr. Tinubu watched that footage closely. Tinubu may soon need to compare notes with Atiku Abubakar on Mr. Wike’s reliability as a political ally.
Nonetheless, for good or for ill, Tinubu has a kindred spirit in the election of Mr. Godswill Akpabio, the free wheeling and dealing former governor of Akwa Ibom state and Minister of the Niger Delta and sole prefect of the NDDC as Senate President. The indication is that in the years ahead, there is more likely going to be a serious engagement between the executive and the legislature. But even then, there was noticeable disquiet both inside the ruling APC and among the opposition parties about the choices that were made on the NASS leadership. It is an indication that we are not likely to have a rubber stamp legislature but one in which deal making and negotiations by hard headed political animals is likely to produce better legislative compromises.
Nonetheless, Mr. Tinubu’s hurried reform pace and measures are not likely to go without some resistance or even political consequences. In the economic front, both the fuel subsidy regime and the multiple exchange rate regime were driven by deep seated business, political and bureaucratic mafias and their deep interests. The long standing fuel subsidy regime created and sustained an army of emergency billionaires and powerful oligarchs. Some of them had no other business than the massive subsidy heist with its dubious documentations and opaque accounting systems. When the oil subsidy regime was first exposed, it was discovered that the accounts of even hair dressing salons in obscure locations were credited with huge subsidy deposits that embarrassed the real owners of the salons.
The same was the case with the multiple exchange rate regime. Quite a number of ‘businessmen’ were people with high value political connections who made huge amounts from arbitrage and foreign exchange racketeering. All it took was to be allocated foreign exchange on paper by the Central Bank at the official exchange rate of N430 to the dollar which the beneficiary then sold off at the parallel market rate of N750 to the dollar or near that. The arbitrage recipient could make billions of Naira just by making a few phone calls to instruct his bankers accordingly without leaving the comfort of his/her bedroom.
These interests are deep. Big business is involved. Big money is at stake. By last Friday, some analysts indicated that three leading Nigerian financial oligarchs may have lost close to $6 billion each in a single day from the merger of exchange rates. No one knows exactly how much major oil traders have lost in the last fortnight from the removal of subsidy on gasoline. The interests involved in these losses are a network of economic, political and bureaucratic special interests. The deep state is already rattled. Their fighting methods and capacities are often nasty and far reaching. Having become so used to huge easy money over the years, the probability that these interests will fight back politically is quite high.
As the encomiums build up for Mr. Tinubu’s speedy reformist style, I see some major roads to somewhere for Mr. Tinubu. He could be speeding up Nigeria’s return to true development after the last eight horrible years. He may be driven by the need to catch up on Nigeria’s lost time in the direction of sensible development. It could also be a journey to reverse the tragic missteps of Mr. Buhari’s lost eight years and thus salvage whatever is left of the integrity of the APC.
Mr. Tinubu could also be openly inviting a head on collusion with the forces of Nigerian business as usual whose interests are likely to be deeply hurt . Whichever road the Tinubu presidency travels from here, I can only repeat the caution that formed the title of my column last week: Watch the thorns and “Mind the Gaps”, Mr. President!