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End the pains, build a future!

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Buhari signs 2016 budget into law
Even though President Muhammadu Buhari appropriately sounded a note of caution that the journey is not guaranteed to be an easy one, the good news is that the budget has been signed, work would begin and the good times should start rolling very soon.

If nothing else, the president, for once, showed he can communicate and did so with aplomb last week: By publicly displaying empathy as he did, choosing the right moment and speaking the right words: ‘Living in the State House does not alienate me from your daily struggles. I hear your cries. I share your pains.’

Wow! I personally feel vindicated! This column had once lamented the failure of our leaders to seek genuine connection with the Nigerian people by seizing the right moments and using appropriate words to comfort them in these tough times, even if they know not how to solve their problems. Finally, it seems, we have found a singer for this season!

Now, the work must begin. With abundant human capital, in number and quality, as well as material resources, in large volume and enormous value, Nigeria is one country upon which others gaze with awe and envy.

But it has managed to conduct its affairs in such a way as gets it defined by the abject poverty of the majority of its citizens, a nation driven from the vantage crest of unimaginable blessings into the valley of despair by an incompetent and corrupt leadership. For any Nigerian willing to feel good about the country, nostalgia has become the only refuge, with the political and economic landscape so depressing that to find any sense of pride, you have to look back over five decades at the days of Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Abubabakar Tafawa Balewa and others in their class. Buhari’s promise, stated and embodied, is to change all that. So, comforting as his words are, he needs to do more.

And it is instructive that as he was readying his pen to assent to a ‘budget of change,’ militants in the Niger Delta were making good their threat to blow up oil pipelines. Condemnable as that action is, and I am not persuaded that those who did it represent the interest of their people any more than a pedophile cares about his child, their action should be seen as a wake-up call to the need to re-examine the structure of Nigeria and make it more just and equitable. For starters, the Niger Delta people deserve much more attention from Nigeria than they are getting now. Buhari can and should give that region that much needed attention, not because of some criminals who are busting the nation’s blood vessels but because it is the right thing to do.

Interestingly, I am one of those who believe in the enormous power of President Buhari’s famed body language to perform wonders. And I am baffled that he is not deploying it where and when most needed! Given Nigeria’s history and complexities especially resulting from dependence on oil, one gesture Buhari should but has failed to make, regrettably, is to show the people of the Niger Delta that he hears their cries and feels their pains. By going there!

His government may have all the best plans for the people. But to inspire, you need to convey a certain humaneness. To convey the message of empathy, even if you are doing your best to solve the problems, a leader must show up. Distance can make the plight of others seem impersonal to even their greatest sympathiser and any solution proffered, however far-reaching, can seem artificial or tokenist.

It is just as well that the president has ordered the military to put out the criminality rearing its head in the Niger Delta. Already fully stretched in the north, Nigeria cannot afford another armed combat with militants in the south.
There can be no questioning the fact that a smothering of Nigerians’ faith in their country is the overwhelming desire of those who made a bonfire of those pipelines last week. But the president can also do more by identifying with the Niger Delta. The first step to doing so is to go there, spend a few days, survey the devastation of the environment there and take in the dehumanisation of the people over the years. The second, and the ultimate, is to let the owners of the oil, and any other such resource, enjoy their benefits more abundantly in a truly federal Nigeria!

As I once wrote on this page, a country which fails to appreciate that its true essence flows not from oil but from its diversity of blessings and undermines the individuality of the different threads that make up its quilt ultimately primes itself for implosion. The greatest effort at undermining Nigeria, is made not by the ethnic nationality agitators but by the Nigeria state or leadership which finds comfort in the existing wobbly federal structure.

And, again, President Muhammadu Buhari has a rendezvous with destiny as he seems best suited for the task of fixing Nigeria’s problems in the short-term while doing what is right by Nigeria in the long term. His budget of change, if well implemented as promised, will begin to address short-term ills.

The long-term duty he owes Nigeria is to begin the process of instituting a proper federation, releasing all of Nigeria’s potentials and putting an end to all discontents within the polity.

He is loved almost by all, trusted by all and has little or no need for validation by a political elite Nigerians have come to view with suspicion, given its resume of greed and mis-management. His incredible account of goodwill is still such that makes Nigerians tolerant so far of delays in the delivery of the change he promised, such that they hang on every letter of his word, for nothing is more soothing.

He cannot waste this goodwill on merely doing the routine. To restructure Nigeria, of course, calls for boldness. And, I repeat, Buhari has nothing to lose by being bold! He has only one thing left to gain in life: a legacy. He can put an end to poverty and underdevelopment in Nigeria, put an end to inequity, discontent and so much grumbling by instituting a structure that respects individuality of the units and unleashes all of Nigeria’s hands on the work of building Nigeria.

And this is why the most significant words he spoke at the budget signing ceremony were not the bits about our cries he has heard or our pains he shares.

These ones are: “This government is also like none other. We are absolutely committed to changing the structure of the Nigerian economy once and for all. We are working night and day to diversify the economy such that we never again have to rely on one commodity to survive as a country… I can assure you this government you have freely elected will work with honesty and dedication day and night to ensure that our country prospers and that the prosperity benefits all Nigerians.”

But even these would make more sense had they been followed by something like these: “This government is also like none other. We are absolutely committed to changing the structure of the Nigerian polity once and for all. We are working night and day to devolve power to the federating units in the spirit of true federalism such that each unit can build its own economy based on the resources available to it and all will never again have to rely on federal allocation from Abuja to survive…”

With those words, backed up with action, the president would never need to assure anybody that his government is working with honesty and dedication to ensure that Nigeria prospers and that the prosperity benefits all Nigerians, such honesty and dedication would be demonstrably manifest! And the prosperity for all would be palpable!

In short, with all of his dedication and honesty, Buhari is still sweating the small stuff. The real stuff for which history would honour him is yet to start. And the time to start is now!

To start with, he should initiate executive bills to move many items from the Concurrent or Exclusive List into the Residual List. This is with a view to devolving power to the federating units in the spirit of true federalism. That way, each unit can begin the process of building its own economy based on the resources available to it and never again have to rely on federal allocation from Abuja to survive.

If Buhari would do that, in eulogising him, the voice of the Nigerian people would almost take on a tone of canonisation. For he would not only have shown that he heard their cries and felt their pains, he would have cured the ailment, not the symptoms.


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