In May 2019, an NTA State House correspondent interviewing President Muhammadu Buhari dropped what I consider to be a huge Freudian slip midway through the session. After a few seconds of obligatory flattery and sweet talk, he asked the question, “How would you describe yourself? Who is Muhammadu Buhari?”
Perhaps no one noticed, but Muhammadu Buhari has been in Nigeria’s public service since the 1970s, serving as a state governor, cabinet minister, head of state, Petroleum Trust Fund chairman and ultimately president. All things being equal, the journalist should never have thought to ask that question. Forty years is plenty of time to get to know who somebody is, after all.
After over four decades in his high-profile public career, however, it is still difficult to pin Mr President down on anything solid and substantial. What is his foreign policy position and worldview? We all have theories about that. What is his economic ideology? We all have our theories about that. What is his vision for Nigeria? Once again, apart from sound bites and statements from his media aides, we are shooting in the dark.
Who exactly is Nigeria’s president and why is this information important for us to know?
Nkrumah-type socialism or plain old confusion?
A few months ago in this column, I wrote an analysis of Buhari’s governing ideology, where I painted a picture of a Hugo Chavez wannabe stuck in the 1970s, convinced that the future lies in subsidies, social interventions, import bans, capital restrictions, price controls, asset nationalisation and smallholder agriculture. I argued that this particular brand of left-wing populist economics, introduced to Pan African governance circles by the Soviets in the 1960s, is all that Mr President knows and is willing to know.
On the surface, I might have been spot on. With every utterance calling out business owners for not being patriotic or hinting at the return of yet another discredited Nkrumah-era policy, Buhari and those around him look and sound increasingly like a group of adolescent Tyrannosaurus Rex awkwardly waddling around Abuja in 2019, completely unaware that they are supposed to be extinct. What my analysis failed to account for though, was that regardless of the dinosauric posturing of the Buhari administration, it is not actually pursuing an African socialist agenda of any description except in the media.
Unlike Chavez and Nkrumah who actually achieved certain things that made the Venezuelan and Ghanaian lower classes idolise them, Buhari’s socialist credentials are completely fictitious. Chavez, for example, established Mission Mercal, a state-owned chain of retail stores with over 16,000 outlets distributing food at up to 40 percent below market prices, in addition to a network of 6,000 soup kitchens offering free food to underprivileged Venezuelans. Nkrumah on his part is revered in Ghana for unprecedented investment in public infrastructure, much of which still serve Ghana to this day.
Buhari, on the other hand, has now had a total of 6 years and a few months as head of state across three stints, but it is impossible to point to any supposed left-wing policy of his that has had any comparable impact. TraderMoni? Ten thousand naira ($30) is hardly a life-changing sum even to the poorest Nigerian. Border closures and forex restriction to boost local food production? These have ended up as failed, counterproductive measures that tried to get the cart to pull the horse, and only succeeded in making everything more expensive for everybody – but especially for the poor.
Capital controls and exchange rate manipulation? FDI collapsed to $1.9 billion last year from $4.7 billion in 2014 – less in both absolute and proportional terms than Ghana, a country several times smaller than Nigeria. VAT increase? This has been well established as a consumption tax hike that disproportionately affects poor households who spend a greater portion of their income on consumption. In other words, it will penalise the poor whom it purports to help, and become a mild, soon-to-be-forgotten irritation for the seedless grape-eating class it supposedly targets.
Buhari’s economic policies have benefitted absolutely no one. The poor who make up the vast majority of Nigeria’s market are significantly worse off than five years ago, and getting poorer still. The aspirational middle classes are furiously queuing up at foreign embassies and high commissions to flee the country if they can. The rich so-called “one percenters” – a number of whom I know personally – are nonplussed at the general state of things, but also unwilling to stick their necks out to criticise a famously paranoid and vindictive administration.
The sense of contradiction even extends into Buhari’s personal life, where he is supposedly a poor and austere man, but also happens to have a family with some extravagant tastes. Yusuf Buhari for example reportedly crashed a motorbike worth $157,000 in December 2017. To put that in perspective, Nigeria’s per capita GDP of $2,340 multiplied by its average life expectancy of 53 years comes to about $127,000, meaning that the total average value a Nigerian will create over the course of their lifetime is about $30,000 less than the price of the power bike that Yusuf Buhari totalled.
So, which one is it? Is Buhari the ascetic champion of the masses and enemy of the arrogant elite in his clench-fisted glory, or is he himself a member of that political and economic elite? Is he the man who views Nigerians who have any sort of foreign tastes with contempt, or is he the guy whose kids attended the British School of Lomé with two of my sisters? Is he the man who believes that autarky improves local productivity, or is he the man who hops on a flight to London whenever he has a mild stress headache?
Does Buhari want to help the poor as his media rhetoric indicates, or does he want to punish them as his policy outcomes suggest? Is Buhari a “socialist” trying to help the poor, or is he a disaster-capitalist working to disrupt the economy for the benefit of certain business interests? Does he abhor those known for waste and conspicuous consumption, or is he, in fact, an in-law to a family of petroleum oligarchs?
Since all these statements cannot be true at the same time, the correspondent’s question from May’s presidential media chat then takes on altogether more loaded connotations: “Who is Muhammadu Buhari?”
What Buhari’s lack of ideology says about Nigeria’s nationhood?
A few months ago, I had a long chat with a respected mentor and senior colleague, Richard Ikiebe of Pan-Atlantic University. He made the point that every successful country in the world has an ideology permeating it that informs all aspects of national decision making. This ideology, he said, is clearly and unambiguously expressed in the constitutions of these countries.
The constitution of the US makes it clear that the US is a democratic republic organised along the lines of capitalist economic ideas and liberal social ideas. There is a stated and unsubtle emphasis on personal freedoms and the right to accumulate wealth and property. China’s constitution, on the other hand, underpins a country characterised by state-led capitalism and strict social conformity. Both countries are the most successful at wealth creation in modern history, so clearly their ideologies are working for them.
Nigeria, on the other hand, has no animating ideology whatsoever. The constitution is a generally bland, often problematic document that effectively leaves the overall direction of the country at the discretion of whoever is in Aso Rock. For 16 years from 1999 to 2015, Nigeria was led by presidents with pro-market tendencies, and the undeniable result was Nigeria’s largest and most sustained period of broad economic growth since the 1970s. Since the change of government in 2015, all meaningful growth has screeched to a halt because the man in power does not trust the market, but also isn’t really a socialist – or at least a particularly good one – either.
What this means for us is that we now have to see constitutional reform as the main political goal over the coming four-year cycle – not which “zone” the next president will come from, or who has yet again received exclusive divine communication about the identity of the next president. Our political energies must focus on reforming our constitution and making it a truly representative document capable of delivering the type of results we want to see – regardless of who sits in office.
As it stands, civilian democracy is already the longest unbroken type of administration in Nigerian history, having exceeded the 16-year period of 1983 – 1999 in 2016. The next fight should be to create a constitution with an explicit ideology encouraging prosperity and freedom. For Nigeria to grow into a new phase of development, our institutions must become bigger and more powerful than the president – whoever he or she is.
“Who is Mr President?” should never again be a question that the lives of almost 200 million people should hang on.