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Occupy Buhari to occupy our hearts


Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari / AFP / PHILIP OJISUA

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari / AFP / PHILIP OJISUA

One of the most baffling spectacles of the current debate over fuel price increase is the silence of otherwise very articulate acclaimed change agents, in and out of government. Also, the incoherence of the Muhammadu Buhari government in its attempts to make Nigerians accept this increase as a necessary price to pay in the short term for life-long happiness has been both unconvincing and revealing. Unconvincing as a result of the argument’s tepid presentation. Revealing in the sense that, now, Nigerians know that campaign promise is one thing, governance is another. The one feasts on emotions. The other is based on hard, even cruel, facts!

But I understand why many of the orators are tongue-tied and why the ink has suddenly run dry in the pens of the wordsmiths. Embarrassment is the name of the table on which your own words, spoken so confidently in the day, are served up for you as dinner!

Apart from the energy devoted by civil society groups and opposition parties to fighting Goodluck Jonathan to a stand-still in 2012 when he attempted what Buhari just did, tomes were said and written by many people on why fuel prices should never be more than a fraction of what it was, in Nigeria, an oil producing country!

Indeed, on the promise of how Nigerians would never have to pay more for fuel once Muhammadu Buhari took the reins, the words on offer to be swallowed are very rich in content. And should be good nourishment for those now saddled with eating them!

From the over-confident treatises of Nasir el-Rufai, the deep, lawyerly arguments of Babatunde Fashola, to the know-it-all, seen-it-all verbiage of Tamunoemi Sokari David-West and often empty rambunctiousness of Dino Melaye, the table is full! Add the very strong words of Tunde Bakare from the streets or the pulpit to the main course and it is a buffet like no other. Dessert, of course, is no less enticing in its variety: from the truculent words of leaders of civil society groups, abusive lines of illiterate musicians, poorly informed submissions of journalists and sundry intellectuals, to the trite populist platitudes of labour leaders.

Now, a man’s own words should not be such a bad dish, should it? So, friends, gobble up the damn thing! But this is no time for gloating, however, attractive that might be.

It is true that the whole nation rose against Goodluck Jonathan when he sought to increase the price of fuel in 2012. But anyone who busies himself with the debate over why the same people are not protesting Muhammadu Buhari’s decision now is just being trivial. Truth is, this is a step that should have been taken a long time ago and it is only one of the many pain-inducing steps any serious government would have to take if we would have a properly run country. So those who have to eat their words don’t really have much to be ashamed of.
The choice was simple: continue the way we were or change tack! Which is why the only case this government ought to be making is as simple as: Things are just too bad, we found out. And we cannot continue that way!
That is integrity!

With the state of the economy, especially scarcity of foreign exchange for imports by the government, the nation needs deregulation of fuel supplies and much more. But such can only be implemented by a leadership with the courage of its conviction, a courage which can only be found in integrity.

Of course, there is the matter of the way this increase was executed, without much consultation and seemingly without due consideration for its multiplier effects on the living standards of the people.

Certainly, popularity is the greatest certificate a leader can possess and Buhari is wisely riding the crest of his huge goodwill to push through what he deems necessary even if painful. Still, Nigerians must be vigilant about a popular leader’s susceptibility to demagoguery, in which he capitalizes on his reigning appeal to ride rough shod on the people.

Having done what is necessary, the government’s work is just beginning and a lot needs to be done to retain the people’s trust and keep protests, nay Goodluck Jonathan’s fate, at bay.

Nigeria needs not just leaders in power, but ones with huge moral capital. Buhari, so far, has that, even if that much cannot be said of many in his government.

He therefore has to entrench or institutionalise that moral capital if Nigerians would continue to trust his government and endure the pains of his policies as a necessity. He can learn from two men who have been objects of my fascination: John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania and Jose Mujica of Uruguay.

Magufuli has done just about six months in office as President of Tanzania but he has since redefined leadership by changing its colour and content in that country. Disavowing the usual appurtenances of power and demonstrating full commitment to putting every available dime to use for his people, his no-frills presidency is now the stuff of world-wide admiration and, I am told, soon to be part of a course of study on leadership in many leading universities.

Last December, Magufuli cancelled Tanzania’s independence anniversary party because it would be a shame to spend huge sums of money on the celebrations when Tanzanians were dying of cholera. Instead, he caused the day to be observed as a national day of cleanliness, and, with sweeper in hand, led his compatriots in a sanitation exercise of sorts. The money earmarked for parties and banquets was then sent to the state’s sanitation agencies to acquire better equipment. When he saw a state-owned hospital in decrepit condition, he ordered that money earmarked for a state banquet be used to buy new beds for the health facility where patients either slept on the floor or shared beds.

He slashed the cost of his own inauguration ceremonies by 90% and sent the extra money to the nation’s health care delivery system. He has enforced a ban on all foreign travels by government officials and any task requiring Tanzanian officials to travel abroad are now being done by the country’s envoys in the host countries. He has also ensured that even the highest ranking government officials, with the exception of the vice president and prime minister, travel economy, if they must travel at all. No first class. No business class. Tanzania, in Magufuli’s view, cannot afford such ostentation.

All government workshops and seminars that used to hold in hotels now hold in government departmental board rooms.Magufuli himself rarely travels abroad and certainly not by private jet within Tanzania. Too expensive! He drives around the country instead, so as to feel the plight of his compatriots on pot-hole-riddled roads.

These are gestures of a leadership with a message. And Tanzania has thereby cut public spending while fighting corruption and enhancing probity and accountability in the public service.

Jose “El Pepe” Mujica, immediate past president of Uruguay, refused the presidential palace and lived in his own farmhouse, donated most of his salary to charity, flew economy class on his foreign travels, stayed deliberately in low- grade hotels and drove only his two decade-old Volkswagen Beetle car while in office. This was not just for show. It earned him the moral high ground from which to demand more from his people.

On his watch, Uruguay’s economy boomed, incomes rose and unemployment fell to its lowest level in that country’s history. Leadership must set the best of examples, identify with the people’s worst fears or despair, embody their hopes and aspirations and solve their problems by living or appearing to live such. Any gap between the lifestyle of the leaders and their poor citizens is the breeding ground for distrust. And disgrace for that leadership!

In spite of Buhari’s best efforts, the fact is that Nigeria’s leaders, especially the potentates in the states, are yet to cut waste and put an end to ostentatious living at the people’s expense. And doing little or nothing about corruption or waste in government would be the most potent case against this fuel price increase in due course.

Probity and prudence must guide the management of Nigeria’s resources. The people must get value for every kobo and the government must be seen to give that value. While demanding understanding from Nigerians, the leaders must do their own part, make appropriate sacrifices and lead by example.

The fuel supply regime before now was riddled with questions. Such an opaque, corrupt and unproductive regime has to be stopped by any government with enough moral capital to do so and good enough moral compass to do right by Nigerians.

That is why the plan by the Nigeria Labour Congress to embark on a nationwide strike from Wednesday should be reconsidered. To Occupy Nigeria as was done in 2012 is not a wise option over the latest increase. We should simply Occupy Buhari and insist he continues to spend our money or act in such ways as would make him occupy our hearts.

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