Of symbolisms and Buhari’s substance
IT is difficult not to reflect on the Buhari administration’s symbolic gestures in the absence of much-awaited substantive actions. Hence that decision of President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to slash their salaries by half, as well as the President’s rejection, the other day, of a proposal to purchase five customized armoured Mercedes Benz S-600 (V222) cars at the cost of about N400 million, are commendable expressions of solidarity with Nigerians in the face of searing economic downturn.
While the rejection of the armoured cars came as the president’s reaction to the proposal by the State House Permanent Secretary, the salary slash was a voluntary gesture of the president and his deputy. Based on the information from the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), the president’s total remuneration is put at N14,058,820 per annum or N1,171,568 per month, while that of the vice president is N12,126,290 per annum or N1,010,524 per month. Slashed by half the president would receive about N7 million per annum, while the vice president would go home with about N6 million.
These actions, especially the salary slash, have been faulted as inconsequential given so many other perks these officers of state enjoy. It has even been said that the gesture is not only irrelevant to economic recovery, it is even an illegality. Amidst the financial misfortune afflicting many states of the federation, it is claimed that this voluntary salary reduction which many governors have also adopted as a popularity device, may do next to nothing to either the economy of the nation or that of the states. Critics have also flayed the president’s action on the ground that it is wrong, since he cannot unilaterally reduce his salary. Salaries of public officers, being stipulated entitlements of office fixed by law, cannot be altered by fiat. That being the case, the gesture may be described as mere gimmickry.
Yet, in spite of the seeming tokenism of the action of the president and vice president, it appears that Nigeria needs this symbolism in order to be re-assured that they have a government which identifies with them. Speaking of identifying with the people, President Buhari seems to have taken it as part of statecraft, for such is consistent with his character, even though one might not rule out the bandwagon effect on state governors who have also done the same. It would be recalled that not too long ago, the president made his first gesture of warming himself to the populace when he charged all security personnel attached to him, official escorts and convoys to obey traffic rules.
Notwithstanding the message signified, this symbolism should not be misconstrued as the substance. It is only a pointer to commitment and sacrifice, as well as a gesture of empathy. Besides the impression of saying, “you are safe with me,” the president’s gesture is instructive in pointing out the right comportment in times like this, especially for a country whose public officers are notorious for profligacy and lack of transparency. As one driven by a populist backing for change, Buhari tends to have used this gesture to send signals to public officers and elected officials on two fronts. It is a message that, despite the decision to cut his salary, the president’s gesture is not an expression that he is a man of means. Any such thinking misses the symbolism in his action; after all, there are many comfortable public officers who are rabid acquirers and plunderers of the common wealth. The president’s gesture should be seen rather as an indication of his appreciation of the economic state of the country.
Sequel to this is the body language which seems to suggest that everybody should be ready to make sacrifices if the mess caused by years of fiscal indiscipline and poor accountability would be cleansed. One common misconception of public officers and government contractors is the view that government work is the ultimate avenue of promotion to wealth. And owing to views such as this, many people would adopt all possible means to either be in government or seek government patronage.
Cognizant of the sentimental efficacy of the gesture, Nigerian public officers should translate this symbolic act of salary reduction by the leaders into instruments of national mobilisation. As civil servants groan under the pain of owed wages and insolvency of their states, government officials would be making a bold statement of their commitment to serving the people by sincerely taking a cue from the president and his deputy.