Buhari Needs a Comprehensive Reform Agenda By Waziri Adio
After the ecstasy of defeating an incumbent and the euphoria of inauguration, President Muhammadu Buhari will today mark his first business day in office. In a sense, his desk should be cluttered already, even when the full complement of the executive arm, not to talk of the entire government, is not yet in place. The reason for such a full plate early in the day is not difficult to fathom. Nigeria has come to a critical pass and Nigerians expect the world from him; and to further complicate things, he and his party indeed promised Nigerians the world during the campaigns. As exacting as running for office four times might have been and as difficult as defeating a party that was in power for 16 years could have been, Buhari will discover that those are indeed the easier parts. The harder part officially starts this morning. It is time to get to work.
And this work won’t be a cakewalk. Even in the best of times, it would be difficult to deliver on Buhari’s long list of promises and the longer list of expectations that Nigerians, in the giddiness of the moment, have drawn up for him. I want to still further complicate, and in a way assist in stylising, the tasks before Buhari by saying that even if he succeeds in reducing corruption, ending the Boko Haram insurgency, and improving the economy, he wouldn’t have achieved much. We are most likely going to end up with temporary gains, occasioned by the force of personal example and maybe some good fortunes. There is nothing that says such temporary gains cannot be rolled back even in the short to medium term, and that, like Sisyphus, we will not be back soon at the foot of the hill saddled with a boulder to push up.
For me then, the change I expect from Buhari is beyond just attending to his core promises of reducing corruption, tackling insecurity and improving the economy. These, no doubt, are very important tasks. But in my reckoning, these ills are mere symptoms of a deeper malaise, and attending only to them without tackling the root causes will not be enough. The reason why corruption is rife, the country is insecure and our economy is weak is because Nigeria is broken and needs to be fixed. I think our country can be likened to a patient with a life-threatening but curable disease who can only be saved through a combination of complicated surgeries, regular medication and serious lifestyle changes. Administering analgesics to such a patient may bring some temporary relief but not sound health. Nigeria is seriously ill and needs to be brought to good health. To be sure, some temporary relief will be needed for the immediate survival of the country. But some pain relievers on corruption, insecurity and the economy will not put our country on the path of sustainable wellbeing.
Buhari thus needs to set his sights much higher and has to be very nuanced, strategic and long-term in his approach to delivering his campaign promises and in governing. He needs a comprehensive reform package that is driven by the need to fix Nigeria in a sustainable way and that serves as both the organising philosophy and the roadmap of his administration. I think that the present crises and the promise of change have ripened the country for roots-and-branch reforms and Buhari is very well positioned and has the historic responsibility to put the country on a sound footing. The only other Nigerian leader who has had such a great opportunity to straighten out the country under a democratic dispensation was Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. In 1999, Obasanjo could have taken Nigeria on the path of comprehensive reforms with much support and little resistance. Sadly, that opportunity was lost. In 2003, Obasanjo remarkably commenced a slew of important but limited reforms. However, he soon got side-tracked by the third-term agenda. With murderous insurgents to fight and with the economy on the ropes, Buhari will be tempted to just stick to the surface. But he needs to dredge deeper. He needs to be more concerned about positioning Nigeria for the long-delayed take-off than the actual take-off itself.
We need a broad reform agenda that touches on the different dimensions of the problem with Nigeria. We need a reform package that covers the economic, the political, the governance, the capacity and the values dimensions of our ill health. Since 2003, attempts at reforms in Nigeria have revolved narrowly around the economy. This might possibly be because of the mistaken belief that once we sort out the economy everything else will fall in place, or because these reforms were led by economists who do not have the skillsets and the toolkits to undertake reforms in other important domains of national life, or because reforms were instigated by multi-lateral agencies with heavy bias for economic reforms, or because of the legitimate fear of getting swamped when you do many things at the same time. But mono-cropping can also be counter-productive. And we have all seen how even well-intended and decently-executed economic reforms can be undermined by politics and by inappropriate value systems.
My point is not that economic reforms are not important. They are. And given our present sorry pass, fixing the economy must be a cardinal part of any serious attempt at fixing Nigeria. We need reforms that will help us grow our economy both vertically and horizontally and move our economy away from an extractive, rent-driven and mono-cultural economy to one that is productive, competitive and tax-based. We need to deepen monetary and fiscal reforms, end the badly targeted, wasteful and fraud-prone subsidies on petroleum products, reform our oil sector and deepen participation beyond export of crude oil, enthrone transparency in management of public resources, diversify our economic base, enhance competitiveness, improve physical infrastructure and the productive capacities of our people, expand the tax base and be more efficient in overall revenue collection, among others.
But as said before, economic reforms are important but not sufficient conditions if the goal is to fix Nigeria in a sustainable way. One very important area where we need serious reforms, and have done very little, is in the political realm. This set of reforms will be necessary to further deepen our democracy, increase the agency of the citizens, promote accountability and reduce the cost of government. Our elections are getting cleaner, with the last general election as a highpoint. But there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that votes truly count and for elections to provide incentives for elected officials to perform.
We need to be able to track campaign finance to check the undue influence of money and special interests in our politics. We need to fix a democracy that is more monarchical than democratic, devise mechanisms for inserting the people into the decision-making process, remedy our principal-agency problem, and institute sunshine and countervailing measures that will promote transparency and accountability and limit arbitrariness, graft and impunity.
Local governance, the level of government closest to the people, is deeply broken and needs to be fixed urgently. At the moment, the promise of efficiency, effectiveness and responsiveness embedded in the concept of decentralisation is delivered largely in the breach. But it is not only local governance that needs urgent repairs—it is governance across the board. This is why the next set of reform should focus on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government at all levels. The capacity of the state to deliver basic services to citizens has been severely compromised over time. We thus need administrative and capacity reforms, including security sector reforms, to ensure that government can fulfil its basic obligations to the people.
And mostly importantly, we need reforms targeted at fixing the minds of Nigerians. We have some entrenched values, attitudes and habits that stand in the way of economic and political progress and will undermine the best of economic, political and administrative reforms. Ranging from the seemingly innocuous ones such as not keeping to time to the egregious but widespread ones such as seeing public resources as only good for plunder, we have mind-set issues that have practical implications for productivity, corruption, social harmony, and overall national development.
So to change Nigeria, we also need to change Nigerians, otherwise all else will be in vain. This critical piece has been missing in the recent reform attempts in the country. But this mind-change project has to be undertaken in a way that is more nuanced and more creative than the sanction-driven approach that Buhari adopted in 1984 with War Against Indiscipline (WAI).
Even when Nigerians expect so much from him, I do not think anyone really expects Buhari to solve all the problems of the country. In actual fact, no one can. But given the crisis of the moment, his antecedents, and the enormous goodwill that he enjoys at the moment, Buhari can pull Nigeria out of the present dysfunctional mode and lay a good foundation for others to build on. I think that adopting a reformist approach, rather than a quick-fix mind-set, will serve him well. But he needs to look at reform in a holistic manner, develop a comprehensive and robust reform agenda, and assemble and empower a multi-disciplinary reform team, not just an economic management team.
It is also very important for Buhari to know that embarking on reforms will create pain and disequilibrium and that he will be resisted and undermined and abused not only by people who benefit from the status quo and his political opponents, but also by his own supporters and the potential beneficiaries of reforms. Because he can’t whip anyone into line in a democracy, he will need to leverage his moral authority and deploy all the political, negotiation and communication skills at his disposal. Bringing about change is usually a difficult, and sometimes dangerous, enterprise. But change is what Nigerians voted for, and real change, not cosmetic change, is what Nigeria needs now. As said above, Buhari is well positioned to lead us through this tough process. Let’s hope he stays steady when the unavoidable heat descends.