Learning the ropes amidst policy somersault
You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” That was the famous dictum by the democratic politician and 52nd Governor of New York, Mario Matthew Cuomo, about the line between campaigning and governing.
Cuomo considered the campaign trail in terms of a poetic excursion where everything is sunny, possible and doable. But after the raft of promises and optimism comes the ‘prose’ part, where governing becomes a protracted and messy process, defined by middle of the road compromises, which may sometimes make the poetic posturing of the soapbox moments appear like attempts to find the proverbial oasis in the desert.
For President Muhammadu Buhari and his ‘ruling’ All Progressives Congress (APC), the wide world of difference, which exists between the carnival of the campaign trail, and the gruelling realities of governing, is apparently sinking in. As expected, President had sensed the coming difficulties from the litany of expectations. This was why not long after he was sworn in; he attempted to moderate the projections of citizens who had been so busy building castles in the air.
The expectations were so huge that Nigerians for the first time introduced the novel concept of ‘body language’ into the nation’s governance lexicon. The body language thesis was built on the notion that even without a clear policy roadmap, those under the President’s administrative authority in the governance chain could sense what they were supposed to do by observing his Spartan demeanour.
As such, the frenetic pace with which an institution like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was hauling in suspects in cases of graft was credited to the President’s legendary body language. Others talked of how hitherto comatose refineries had begun to produce, all on the account of the President’s magical body language.
This newfound ‘instrument’ of governance gave ordinary citizens more than enough materials to spin exotic and larger than life tales about the capacity of the President to turn around the fortunes of the country within the shortest possible time.
Soon some sycophants began cashing in on the firmament by floating a group, which made the sole project of “standing with Buhari,” the singular reason for its formation. But knowing how such groups have corralled other governments to the graveyard of hubris in the past, the President quickly distanced himself from the group.
Body language conceived as a sole tool of effective governance soon took a hit, when unconscionable elements in the Budget Office of the Federation went ahead to heavily pad the 2016 Budget estimates, which the President submitted to the National Assembly amidst fanfare. President Buhari had to wield the big stick by sending the culprits out of that institution. Consequently, other serious social and economic problems needing surgical work, the manner in which they were tackled remained to haunt the government and citizens. Nigerians, who enthusiastically prepared to cash the promissory notes issued during the campaigns soon began to encounter brick walls. Through a series of outright and subliminal messaging, the government’s mouthpiece, Information Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, began a subtle walk back on documented promises. Against the tide of popular opinion, he made spirited attempts to distance the President from a number of promises said to be made by the APC during the campaigns.
The first set of casualties were, campaign documents, pamphlets and leaflets, like My 100 Days Covenant with Nigerians, which the party did not disown during the scramble for votes. The APC went on to imply that some of those documents were fanciful creations of exuberant supporters who attempted to run parallel campaigns to get Buhari elected. When a frontline and highly respected civil society organisation, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) provided data to show the rate of promise fulfilment by the administration, Presidential aide, Shehu Garba, responded in a withering tone in which he alleged partisanship.
But beyond the poetry of campaign promises, the government has had to reverse itself severally on a number of policy positions signalling a clear lack of clarity on some fundamental issues. The current raging issue of deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry or what the government narrates as price hike dictated by the foreign exchange crisis, is one case in point. When the President visited the United States in July 2015, he addressed Nigerians in Diaspora on the issue of subsidy. He demanded for the definition of subsidy, as well as the identity of those who were actually subsidising whoever was being subsidised. The President even went on to accuse those calling for the removal of subsidy of pushing for a situation in which a litre of petrol would cost N500. All these he pointed out, would have a serious impact on the prices of goods, services, transport and rent for the ordinary Nigerian.
The Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, who, a few months back, was painting very optimistic pictures of the oil and gas sector, similarly amplified the position of the President. The minister regaled Nigerians with sweet stories of how the Port Harcourt and Kaduna refineries had begun producing up to 90 per cent of their installed capacities. At another point, he enthused that some refined products would have to be kept in a strategic reserve, a statement that implied that so much was being produced to warrant a substantial chunk being stored up in reserves.
All the while, the government did not make it clear that the combined domestic refining capacity put together could barely met 50 per cent of domestic consumption. Nigerians were therefore taken unawares when fuel queues, which they thought were gone for good with the exit of the previous government, resurfaced. And so when the announcement was made that the price of petrol had been hiked to give marketers a band of up N145 to sell the product, many citizens who would have ordinarily supported government’s decision felt let down.
The effect of this roundabout turn in government policy in the case of the fuel crisis was further accentuated by the absence of a clear road map towards ending fuel importation. It would appear from government pronouncement that the thinking is that by pushing for some forms of price elasticity, investors would get encouraged to build refineries to shore up the domestic refining capacity. However, the reality is that those in the business of importation of refined products are not ready to give up the easy route of importation. They will clearly never be interested in domestic refining, which would take a longer time for cost recovery and profit making. These are some of the contradictions that have underlined the recent hike in the price of petrol.
Another instance of unclear changes in policy would be gleaned from the series of diverse pronouncements on the N5000 Conditional Cash Transfer scheme for unemployed Nigerians, which at some point became a subject of intense debate. The APC had expressed the intention to do conditional cash transfers to poor and vulnerable Nigerians. At another time, the pronouncement from the late Minister of State for Labour and Productivity was that there was a dearth of data for the purpose of such conditional cash transfers. The latest talking point of the government now is that eight million Nigerians would benefit from the government’s safety net programmes as provided for in the 2016 budget. Again, the different narratives from within the government comes with a tendency to confuse, making the target of policy unclear.
Similarly, when the case of how the Governing Councils and Vice Chancellors of 13 Federal Universities were sent packing, is considered, the impression comes across that close to one year on, the APC government of change is still learning to apprehend the often unwieldy machine of governance. The President had to apologize, just as he noted the laws setting up the councils had been breached. All these notwithstanding, there is the vocal school of thought, which has posited that Nigerians should cut this government some slack. This school points to the serious damage that was done to the economy, as well as the sleazy revelations that thus far emerged about how public funds were pilfered in the previous government.
The alibi therefore is that for Buhari and his friends in the APC to sufficiently get grips of the governance machine and deliver on their promises, they would have to address the systemic damage that was inflicted on the national treasury. Added to this is the iron clad armour of integrity, with has shielded the President from recriminations on account of what some have described as gaps in the overall communication and governance processes. As the APC government marks its first anniversary as the governing party in about a week’s time, Nigerians would be hoping that the lessons learnt so far would result in positive developments for the economy and the polity. If it turns out not to be the case, then many would be inclined to believe the view of the early cynics who have been twisting the acronym of the party to read: All Promises Cancelled (APC).