The Cattle Rearer Chronicles — Absence Made The Heart Grow Fonder
President Muhammadu Buhari left Nigeria for the UK on January 19 2017 on a 10 day vacation and returned to the country on March 10 2017, more than a month beyond his promised return date. His prolonged stay in London was for health reasons, as his doctors required him to undergo tests and get some rest (we have since learnt that he underwent extensive medical treatment which included blood transfusions and possibly some chemotherapy going by the significant hair loss). One good thing the President did prior to leaving the country was to handover formally to his vice, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, sending a letter to the National Assembly to that effect. This ensured there was no constitutional dilemma and spared the Presidency a few blushes such as ensuring a new Chief Justice of the Federation was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in.
While President Buhari took his time to get better and strong enough to return home, the government made strides in his absence such that there were some calls for him to take his time. Unshackled from the largely redundant VP role, Professor Osinbajo injected new life into the Buhari administration criss crossing the country especially with trips to the South East (where President Buhari hasn’t been) and the South South (heartland of the militancy decimating Nigeria’s oil production). As Acting President, Osinbajo has shown a sense of urgency that has largely been missing in the 20 month Buhari administration, addressing some key issues himself such as the visits to the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos and the Kaduna International Airport.
The Enabling Business Environment program got a shot in the arm with visa on arrival approved and a secretariat set up to push through other reforms. The Central Bank of Nigeria relaxed its exchange management policy and has flooded the market with Dollars to strengthen the Naira (obviously not sustainable but it is being said that this is a precursor to a flexible regime). On the back of a successful $1Billion Eurobond issue, Osinbajo wrote to the National Assembly for a further $500Million Eurobond issue, hoping to strike while there was still positive sentiment around Nigeria’s foreign currency debt (the $1Billion issue was about 8 times oversubscribed). Osinbajo also signed 7 bills into law while rejecting 4 on the basis of legal challenges, his legal erudition coming to the fore.
Perhaps the biggest outcome of the Osinbajo Acting Presidency has been the launch of the Economic Recovery and Growth plan 2017–2020, released earlier this week. A bold plan, showing a lot of the coherence that has been missing from the Buhari administration since it came into power May 29 2015. With Osinbajo as head of the Economic Management Team, it can be said this has been his baby all along and perhaps has been in the works for a while. It is however interesting that it was released at a time in which President Buhari has not only been absent, but also not in the right condition to push back on any issues he may ideologically disagree with.
The principles of the Plan are as follows:
Focus on tackling constraints to growth.
Leverage the power of the private sector.
Promote national cohesion and social inclusion.
Allow markets to function.
Uphold core values.
While the principles look to be spot on and if allowed to drive the program should bring positive outcomes, one can’t help but wonder what President Buhari would make of points 2 and 4 given his well known statist stance. President Buhari showed his wariness of the private sector by pointedly refusing to include them in his economic think tank, as done by other administrations, as well as his refusal to privatize the refineries. He has also shown a disdain for a market led economy through his stance on the Naira and deregulation of the downstream sector (the pricing review that addressed most of the issues with fuel availability last year happened while he was away on vacation).
It is fair to say that had President Buhari been fully functional and in great health it may have taken some doing convincing him to go along with this, perhaps that’s why its taken this long to bring out the plan. His return and imminent resumption of his powers casts a pall of uncertainty over the full implementation of the plan as designed. At a time Nigeria needs to begin her push back to growth, being held back by an ailing statist president and his cronies is the last thing the country needs. There is a lot of work to be done and no time to waste as by next year the election cycle will kick in and there will be a lot of distractions.
While the President was away, he earned praise for handing over properly to an able deputy. The strides made by Acting President Osinbajo may have made for unfair comparison but still reflected positively on the administration (according to NOI Polls, the approval rating of the Buhari presidency went up from 41% in December 2016 to 50% in February 2017). Now that President Buhari is back and plans to get back in the saddle on Monday 13 March, it is hoped that the lethargy that was the hallmark of the pre-Osinbajo Acting Presidency era will not return to plague the nation once again.
In the final analysis, given his health status it may be best for President Buhari to step down and hand over permanently to his vice president. It could be the one selfless act that offers redemption and creates a lasting legacy for him. It is time for Mai Gaskiya to truly live up to his moniker and accept the truth — that he may no longer be the right man for the job and perhaps it is time for him to do what is best for his country and the people.