June 6, 2011 Back Page article published in This Day Newspaper Atedo N A Peterside OON
Notwithstanding his deft management of the constitutional crisis that erupted following the incapacitation of his predecessor, the jury was still out on President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) after he became President following the death of Umaru Yar’ Adua in May 2010.
What a difference a year makes; a landslide victory at the Party Primary of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was followed by credible general elections and an emphatic personal triumph in the Presidential elections. It is clear now that there is more to GEJ than good luck. This time, he is the architect of his own destiny.
Having won the elections outright in 7 Northern States and in 16 of the 17 Southern States, whilst holding unto a good second position in most of the remaining 13 States, GEJ earned himself as firm a nationwide mandate that any Nigerian can genuinely dream of. In sharp contrast, GEJ’s closest challenger, Major-General Buhari failed dismally. Indeed, a nationwide opinion poll commissioned by ANAP Foundation and conducted by NOI Polls (in association with Gallup) before the elections found that Buhari had a shockingly dismal followership in the South, where his expected share of percentage votes was 5%, 0% and 0% respectively in the South-West, South-South and South-East geo-political zones. With GEJ also expected to win in the North-Central zone, that left Buhari’s strategy in tatters, notwithstanding him being a front-runner in the North- East and North-West zones.
Many enlightened voters disliked the PDP because they wanted change (after 12 years), but very few of them had the stomach for the brinkmanship that would arise by electing Buhari as President when his party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), had secured less than 10% of the seats in the Senate, as opposed to the PDP which held a clear majority of seats. Buhari promised a poverty eradication agenda and blamed past leaders for the country’s failure to achieve its economic potential but was desperately short on specifics and his own poor, repressive and almost ruinous human rights’ and economic track record as a military head of state in the 1980s did not help matters.
Buhari promised change, but was reported to have spoken in favour of mob justice at a campaign rally by asking his supporters to feel free to lynch anyone that they “caught” rigging the elections. At the opposite end of the spectrum, GEJ cautioned his supporters not to spill a pint of anyone’s blood in a quest to secure a Presidential election victory for him. Many feel that these particular utterances best depict the difference between their two personalities. Little wonder that many who wanted “continuity” and many who wanted “responsible change” ended up voting for GEJ.
Those who fault GEJ for not taking tough economic actions immediately after his meteoric rise to President in May 2010 are not being fair. He needed to secure a firm personal mandate first. This was because many in his own party are caught up in a “feeding frenzy” (either as legislators or in executive positions). This entails fighting for a slice of the Federal Government pie. They team up with other vested interests and seek to block reforms that threaten to end their dubious game.
GEJ’s obsession with fighting poverty appears to be unshakeable. He is not the first Nigerian Head of State to come from a poor family. The difference is that some of his predecessors very quickly forgot about the urgent need to work towards the eradication of poverty when they entered the palatial office. GEJ is still saying the right things 12 months after he entered the exalted office and so many Nigerians continue to live in hope.
Nigeria’s Federal Government revenues (estimated at only N3.35 trillion in 2011) are too small and its recurrent expenditures (N3.33 trillion in 2011) are too high. In a nutshell, the cost of servicing the bloated government bureaucracy plus inefficient and wasteful maintenance spending consumes all the revenues. The Federal Government has to rely on borrowing to cover capital spending, most of which is aimed at improving Nigeria’s decrepit physical and social infrastructure.
Worse, a significant chunk of the capital spending that does take place is heavily politicised, poorly coordinated and often done in needless competition with the private sector. The entire system is riddled with perverse incentives which encourage over-manning, duplication and the initiation of new projects rather than the completion of unfinished projects.
Many politicians as well as sections of the trade union movement, the media and academia in Nigeria want a “free lunch”; they favour subsidised fuel and power, no consumption taxes, no road tolls, school fees or hospital bills, but believe they have a divine right to demand quality social and physical infrastructure. Politicians gleefully concurred in order to get elected.
A disaster waiting to happen? Hold your breath, for with its recorded GDP growth rate of 7.87%, Nigeria was still one of the fastest growing medium/large economies in the world in 2011.
The good news is that GEJ appears to be reform-minded. But then this also means that Nigerians may have to brace themselves for a string of long overdue corrective economic measures such as paying appropriate prices for fuel, electricity, healthcare and consumption. A clampdown on corruption and rent-seeking behaviour is in the offing.
Nigeria tore down its toll gates some years ago and so its motorists consume heavily subsidised fuel and pay a pittance in road taxes and fees on drivers’ licences. Compare and contrast this to German road fees which typically bring in more than 200% of the money spent building and maintaining roads. Unsurprisingly, Nigeria is unable to maintain even its most strategically important highways such as the Lagos-Benin road, large sections of which have long been in a deplorable state.
GEJ’s power sector reform road map encourages private sector participation and is based on the same sound logic that drove the rapid transformation of Nigeria’s telecommunications sector. If executed properly it should lead to the rejuvenation of Nigeria’s moribund electricity sector which generates only 4,000 mega watts currently. The need to augment Nigeria’s non-existent infrastructure has driven up the cost of doing business making Nigerian businesses globally uncompetitive. Many industries have folded, pushing the unemployment rate up to 21.1% at the end of 2010.
This figure masks very substantial regional divergences. Some of the poorer northern states are now notorious breeding grounds for sectarian violence, which is often sparked by irresponsible and/or cynical politicians.
Indeed, the CPC has come under fire because of several unguarded utterances by its leaders which, many argue, helped spark post-election riots and killings in Bauchi in the North East and Kaduna and Kano in the North West in April 2011. The Action Congress of Nigeria, which now has a stranglehold on power in the South-West zone, is a stronger, better organised and arguably more responsible opposition party and has double CPC’s senate seats.
GEJ has signified that he is ready to embrace change. Positive change has been elusive in the past because Nigeria typically had presidents who lacked the knowledge and political will to lead the change effort. He needs to quickly identify and empower perhaps half a dozen “Change Agents”, who are knowledgeable, committed, sincere and courageous to work closely with him and take ownership and control of his economic transformation agenda. They can be Ministers, Special Advisers or whatever. Ideally, they would constitute a “kitchen cabinet” or an “inner circle” that will have a lot more “bite” than the unwieldy Federal Executive Council which statutorily must have a minimum of 36 Ministers – one drawn from each State of the Federation.
There is change in the air in Nigeria. Jonathan’s Journey begins in earnest now following his inauguration on May 29.
Atedo N A Peterside is the President and Founder of ANAP Foundation, which is a non-profit organisation committed to promoting Good Governance. He is also the Chairman of Stanbic IBTC Bank PLC and Cadbury Nigeria PLC.
(Editor’s Note: An abridged version of this article was published in the Financial Times of London Blog on Post-Election Nigeria)