Tuesday, May 30, 2023 11:30 am
By Waziri Adio
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu took charge as the 16th President of Nigeria from from Monday 29 May 2023. Except and until the courts decide otherwise, he will, for the next four years, be the leader of Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. Tinubu has made no secret of the fact that occupying the highest office in the land is his life-long ambition. Though his name did not get on the ballot until the 2023 electoral cycle and he did not even feature once as an aspirant until last year, Tinubu has reportedly been on this presidency project since 2007. Sixteen years after, he now has his coveted prize, but clearly in challenging economic, social and political circumstances that many would not have imagined when he started dreaming years ago.
He wanted the job badly, now he has it. Now, he has to show that he is up to the task and that the 16-year quest was not solely driven by personal ambition. It is setting up to be a turbulent period. And he should expect no understanding or sympathy. He is not likely to get any. In fact, he should expect strong and sustained hostility in some quarters, given the temper and the outcome of the 2023 polls. His administration may not even have a honeymoon period, or may have the shortest ever. So, he should brace himself for a cold reception. Yet, he should be ready to give the game of his life. Nothing short of an A-Game will do for this period.
Tinubu has no option but to hit the ground running. He doesn’t have the luxury of time that others had. He needs to announce his major decisions quickly and clearly. He needs to name his cabinet and other key appointees with despatch, and give his team members clear deliverables and timelines. Leaders are as good as their teams. Tinubu’s capacity to move the needle in these challenging times will depend largely on the competence and credibility of his key appointees. The team also needs to be inclusive to ensure proper reflection of our plurality. There would be pressure to give priority in appointments to people from his ethnic stock or from his party or to people who helped him to power. That is the road to ruins. He should avoid it like a plague. He should go for the best hands available not just within his party but also across and beyond party lines.
As president, he has his job well cut out for him. There is a lot to do, and there will be the temptation to want to do so much at once. This is another trap that he should resist. He will need to prioritise, and not spread too thin. While not ignoring other areas, he will need to identify three to five key sectors that his administration wants to focus intensely on. His choice of the priority areas should be guided by the potential to address key and multiple national challenges.
The ultimate decision is his, but I will reiterate here three areas that I had highlighted in previous interventions on this page.
The first is the need to prioritise national healing. Over the last few decades, Nigeria has become an increasingly divided country. This is largely due to the failure to embrace and sustain healing as an urgent national priority and to stick to equity as an abiding article of faith. Also implicated here is the unchecked machination of those who manufacture, magnify, manipulate and mobilise identities for narrow ends. Electoral contests provide one of the biggest playgrounds for identity entrepreneurs, especially in electoral cycles that expose our natural and manufactured cleavages.
The 2023 electoral cycle was a classic test-case, and as feared, it exposed our papered-over divisions. The same-faith ticket of the ruling party (which cannot be divorced from Tinubu’s ambition) triggered the open and secret mobilisation of religious identities for electoral purposes. Regional, ethnic and generational identities were also thrown in the mix, highlighting various shades of entitlement mentalities and elevating the electoral value of combustible identities.
Stripped of some remarkable surprises/exceptions that should be held up as markers of progress, the outcome of the 2023 presidential poll largely exposes how our politics is still wedded to primordial sentiments. Apart from regional bloc votes in most of the north east, south east and south west, there were dangerous campaigns about: ‘your own is your own’; ‘two Muslims are better than one’; and the candidate of the church. This is bad news for a country still struggling with managing its diversity. The post-election phase remains one of the most toxic ever.
The climate is complicated by the fact that for the first time in the 4th Republic, the winner of the presidential election did not poll up to 50% of the valid votes cast. Two things must be emphasised here: one, scoring more than 50% of the votes cast is not a constitutional requirement—what is required is to score the highest number of votes and to meet the spread requirement, which is at issue for the first time in this republic; two, a winning candidate securing less than 50% will always be a probability once the election is very competitive, as we had in 1979 when Alhaji Shehu Shagari polled only 33.77% of the votes cast and still became the president. By comparison, Tinubu scored 36.61% of the valid votes cast in 2023. Had any of the other two candidates won, it is unlikely that this scenario would have been avoided given how competitive the 2023 presidential election was.
The complication, however, is that this means that a significant majority of the voters did not choose the winner—66.23% in Shagari’s case and 63.39% in Tinubu’s. The extra complication is that this sizeable majority in Tinubu’s case coincides with significant ethnic, religious and demographic constituencies. This makes a compelling case for prioritising accommodation, not as a political ploy to secure legitimacy or acceptance but as the right thing to do. Tinubu should make peace with the fact that some people will never accept him as the winner of the election or as their president. It goes with the terrain. Late President Shagari had to contend with this in a section of the society and the press even after the Supreme Court confirmed him the winner of the 1979 elections. Tinubu should do right by all, irrespective of their attitude to him.
The instinct to adopt a winner-takes-all approach is natural and there will be the temptation to see appointments as spoils of war. This will not only be wrong but can potentially exacerbate the growing sense of hurt and alienation by sections of the country. It is thus important that the president, in words and in deed, treats all segments of the country fairly and equally, including those that didn’t vote for him and especially under-represented groups like women, youth and people living with disabilities. Over-compensating will not be a bad idea in the interest of peace and unity.
The second area I want to highlight is the need to tackle widespread insecurity in the country. The importance of this cannot be over-emphasised. But suffice it to say that without security, whatever progress is recorded in other areas will be undermined. Also, securing life and property is a core and constitutional responsibility of the state and a public good that can best be delivered by the government. In addition, tackling insecurity was one of the few major areas that the candidates and the voters agreed should be a high priority during the campaigns.
Despite the best efforts of the outgoing government, Nigeria is today confronted with what has been aptly described as generalised insecurity. All the six geo-political zones are battling with one form of insecurity or the other. It is very important to build on what has been done to significantly reduce the incidence of and the fatalities from conflicts, crimes and terrorism in Nigeria.
This will mean having a more nuanced understanding of the drivers, triggers and manifestations of insecurity in the country, improving the quality of actionable intelligence and acting on time, enhancing coordination, improving resourcing, increasing accountability and reviewing our security architecture to ensure that our armed and security forces are up to the current and future security challenges. Also, some of the security issues will demand deft political engagement.
The third area is the economy, which to put it mildly is not in a good place. Almost all, if not all, economic indicators are worse than they were eight years ago: GDP growth rate, inflation rate, interest rate, unemployment rate, poverty rate, public debt, budget deficit, excess crude account etc. The new government needs to take some urgent steps to facilitate job creation and poverty reduction and to bring our public finances to good health. The federal government needs to improve revenue collection, spend more smartly, and block wastes/leakages. Some of the urgently needed measures will not be painless or popular. Some of them will be resisted, for both genuine and purely political reasons.
One of such is the ruinous and suboptimal petrol subsidy, which is billed to gulp as much as N6.7 trillion if kept for the entire year. If the 2023 budget stays at N21.83 trillion, this means that petrol subsidy alone will consume 30.69% of the budget and 63.87% of the expected N10.49 trillion revenue for the year (which is likely not be realised in full.) But the fact that petrol subsidy is an obviously and very inefficient use of public resources and a major burden on our public finance does not mean that its removal will not be resisted. The fact that the major candidates promised to implement full deregulation also does not mean they will not make common cause with those opposed to its removal.
Petrol subsidy removal is always going to be contentious for a number of reasons, including the probability of further spike in inflation, the disproportionate negative impact on the poor, Nigerians’ attachment to ‘the only thing they enjoy from their country’ and lack of trust in government. Petrol subsidy is thus not purely about economics. The government needs to have the skills and the courage to remove it, the humility to engage in frank dialogue with Nigerians and the discipline to implement an efficient and accountable programme for reinvesting the savings from petrol subsidy removal.
Some tax handles need to increase, the tax net needs to be widened, oil production and oil revenues need to significantly go up, some tax expenditures and waivers need to go, multiple exchange rates need to end, revenue generating agencies need to remit more and cost of collection for some fat and extravagant agencies needs to be removed or significantly reduced. The leakages and wastes must be addressed and revenues should be significantly bumped up. The instinct to resort to borrowing or to literally just print money should be contained. We cannot borrow our way out of this fiscal hole. According to the World Bank, Nigeria expended 96.3% of its revenue on debt service in 2022. This is not sustainable, and we need to make the necessary adjustments before we are forced to.
The economy is the fulcrum for everything else, both for the country and for the citizens. As the Americans would say, it is the economy, stupid. To signal that he gets it, Tinubu needs to appoint proper managers of the economy, and very early too.
The narrator in Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’ notes dreamily that “a dream can be the highest point of a life.” True. Now, Tinubu has achieved his highest dream. It may be for long, and it may not. No matter how long it lasts, he has the onus to make it count for Nigeria, and quickly too. The clock starts counting from Eagle Square.
* Waziri Adio wrote this piece for Thisday