Okey Ndibe – Buhari’s Disappearing Presidency

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President Muhammadu Buhari is dangerously close to leaving Nigerians disillusioned. Forget about his failure (as at this writing) to announce his cabinet, bad as it is. For me, the deeper disappointment lies in the near-absence of the president’s voice from the national conversation.

Let’s begin, however, with the least important element of Mr. Buhari’s so far lack-luster Presidency. It’s approximately three months since Nigerians voted for Mr. Buhari, on his fourth try, to be their president. By any objective measure, three months is more than enough time for a man who sought power with a certain persistence to figure out his cabinet.

The president’s explanation for his tardiness in unveiling a cabinet is two-fold. One is that his predecessor, President Goodluck Jonathan, had been less than fully cooperative with his transition team. The second: that he wants a thorough background check done on potential ministers to save himself the chore of firing ministers shortly after nominating them.

There are, I suggest, two other—perhaps even more important—factors that Mr. Buhari chose not to name. One has to do with Nigerians’ (unreasonably) high expectations from the Buhari administration. Aware that his cabinet will be the most closely scrutinized of any recent president, perhaps Mr. Buhari has succumbed to a sort of partial paralysis or suspended animation.

Of equal significance is the impression that President Buhari has yet to find an effective formula for resolving the conflicting demands and expectations of various factions within the fractious family of his political party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). In Nigeria and elsewhere, the disposition of ministerial posts is an instrument for rewarding various “stakeholders” who contributed, in one way or another, to a political victory. President Buhari’s unusual and bizarre string of IOUs includes real or perceived debts to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, and former Governors Bola Tinubu and Rotimi Amaechi.

Leadership involves a measure of deliberation, prudent and pragmatism. Yet, even when we allow for Mr. Buhari’s official explanation, the grand scale of public expectation, and the intractability of intra-party squabbles, one insists that the president’s snail pace is troubling. It has left some of his most fervent fans scratching their heads, scrambling for answers.

In the end, it should not matter whether Mr. Jonathan cooperated with his successor’s transition team or not. Candidate Buhari presented himself as the answer, the epitome of change, as a man capable of addressing Nigeria’s perennial problems. Nigerians subsequently hired him, in a veritably historic election, to be the chief minder of their business of state. It behooves the president to find ingenious ways of doing his job without making excuses. He may well take off in the near future, and soar as a leader. For now, however, one finds no justification for his inordinate delay in achieving a goal as basic as composing a cabinet. The delinquency suggests a failure to prepare for the task ahead.

And I say this as somebody who was on record as expecting little from a Buhari Presidency. I always stipulated that the singular gift that the man would bring to office was a modest lifestyle and a legacy of self-restraint in the department of material accumulation. I was certain that a country like Nigeria, deeply deformed by its elite’s greed, could use a man of Mr. Buhari’s ascetic temperament. But I was just as certain that the challenge of leading a complex country demanded more, far more, than a man who would not lose his head in the presence of lucre.

That Mr. Buhari, a serial seeker of the Nigerian presidency, has squandered three months since his election, a month since his inauguration, without naming his cabinet, points, quite simply, to a level of unpreparedness. And if our brand new president is unprepared in personnel matters, how is he to tackle the weightier issues of unemployment, infrastructural dilapidation, terrorism, a shambolic healthcare system, educational crisis, and electric power woes?

Which brings me to a more disquieting aspect of the fledging Presidency. Mr. Buhari’s handlers would wish to frame his disappearance from public discourse as evidence of a deliberative cast of mind. But one must ask: Is there no aspect of Nigeria’s malaise that the president has figured out a set of proposals? Is there no area where he feels the need for urgency?

It’s remarkable that, in one month as president, Mr. Buhari has not laid out a single policy proposal on any of the major national issues that concern the millions who voted for him. He has not specified even the outline of what he intends to do about Nigeria’s educational system, which has been on life support for some time. He has not defined a pathway to a healthcare system worthy of the name. With the price of crude oil still relatively low, the theft of Nigerian crude at an all-time high, and crude oil exports at wishy-washy levels, Nigerians must gird themselves for a long spell of hard times. Yet, our president has not made any pronouncement about the shape of things to come. He has not cared to remind Nigerians that the days of dependable oil revenues are, possibly permanently, behind us.

In the Nigerian imagination, President Buhari’s antipathy to corruption was supposed to strike fear in the hearts of past plunderers and stay the hands of current custodians of the public trust. Yet, Mr. Buhari has not revealed any strategy for combating corruption, or recovering hundreds of billions of dollars stolen by public officials, including many of his APC cohorts. I daresay that his silence on corruption is the biggest letdown, so far, of the Buhari Presidency. If care is not taken, the idea will soon gain ground that it’s business as usual, as far as corrupt practices go.

In a rare soul-baring moment, President Buhari confessed that his age, 72, is an impediment to his effectiveness. It was a devastating confession, one that Nigerians had better reckon with as we re-calibrate our fantasies about the new president’s superhuman powers. Those who saw in Buhari the answer to all questions having to do with Nigeria must adjust their expectations quotient.

The question is, when did Mr. Buhari realize that age would be a debilitation? If he felt that age or infirmity would hamper him, why did he present himself for office? Was he not always aware that, even for those who view the Presidency as a four-year ticket to endless jollification, the office poses arduous challenges?

One has the sneaking suspicion that age may not be the sole issue here. As I proposed before the elections—and now reiterate—both the APC and the dismissed Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) are ideologically indistinguishable. The drama in the National Assembly, where the PDP essentially stole the APC’s thunder in determining who and who will shape Nigeria’s legislative agenda, has demonstrated this essential fact. Nigerians must hope that Mr. Buhari not been hemmed in by forces he has little power to shake.

Time will tell. But this much one can claim with confidence: the first month of the Buhari Presidency has been far, far from inspiring.

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