Friday, May 29, 2015

President Buhari: Day One

President Buhari
Photo: Wikipedia
Today marks the beginning of President Buhari’s administration, and while I’m grateful I won’t have to read about Goodluck Jonathan and his wife’s antics, I am not swayed by the jubilatory mood that has taken over some Nigerians.

Like most Nigerians, I am looking for a president who can proffer better solutions to our daily problems. However, whether Buhari, who has to deal with the same crop of corrupt politicians that surrounded the out-going president and his antecedent, can offer any real solutions in the next four years remains debatable and highly implausible. Even without the burden of corrupt politicians and lawmakers, the task of sanitizing Nigeria in her current rotten state would be an enormous undertaking for anyone, let alone a 72 year old man.

For instance, Nigeria’s National Assembly is quite accomplished in living off the fat of the land. In the last four years, lawmakers passed a measly 106 laws out of 1063 bills, yet they’re the most paid in the world. In a month, lawmakers earn an estimated 20 million naira (100,000 USD) in salaries and allowances, while 70% of Nigerians are forced to eke out a living on less than a dollar a day

In addition, the National Assembly refused to slash its annual operational budget of 150 billion naira (750,000,000 USD) following the steep fall in oil prices, while huge financial sacrifices were being made by the ministry responsible for the construction and maintenance of roads.

Another incomprehensible phenomenon plaguing Nigeria is the perennial fuel scarcity. With no fully functioning refineries, Nigeria, a major oil producer, is at the mercy of unscrupulous oil marketers, who import fuel to close the deficit and make astronomical profits not only from the government’s shady subsidy remittances, but also by invoicing for refined products that were never imported. The subsidy payments are a sham as Nigerians, for the most part, pay above the discounted price of 97 naira per liter at the pumps.

Just last week, these oil marketers flexed their muscles, reminding Nigerians who was boss. They threatened to shut down their depots if the Federal Government didn’t pay the 200 billion naira (1 billion USD) owed them. The government balked at the figure, claiming it was inaccurate and should be verified.

But even if the claim wasn’t disputed, the question of how the Government was going to pay hung in the air like a foul stench. You see, the Nigerian Government is broke, so broke it is borrowing to pay civil servants.

Evidently, the government was between a rock and hard place, and decided to brazen through its ‘we will not pay the figure quoted. Do your worst’ narrative. And doing their worst was exactly what the marketers did.
Queuing for Fuel in Lagos
Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty
In a country where businesses and private citizens alike are compelled to own generators because of the mercurial power supply, it wasn’t long before the debilitating effects of the artificially created fuel scarcity became apparent. It started with one of Nigeria’s largest banks sending its customers messages, notifying them of shortened working hours, followed by some radio stations announcing the same. MTN Nigeria, a major telecommunications company warned subscribers of impending network difficulties, while hospitals complained they may halt operations if the situation continued.

Even people who managed to escape using their generators weren’t left out of the debacle. Those who didn’t have fuel in their cars, had to choose between staying home or walking long distances to work, since public transport was few and far between.

The nightmare had barely begun, and everyone groaned. Luckily it didn’t last long.

The government, realizing the train was taking a turn for the worst, decided it was best to invite the real owners of the country to the negotiating table. The meeting was held behind closed doors, an agreement was reached and the depots were opened within hours.

Once again, short-termism saved the day, and Nigerians heaved a collective sigh of relief. The migraine was gone - but for how long, no one knows. What’s for certain is that the migraine will keep recurring until those fraudulent subsidy payments cease.

Every Nigerian, at least those who aren’t living in ivory towers, knows filling stations - with the exception of the government owned NNPC - sell way above the official price, so why hasn’t the government scraped the subsidy?

While the oil subsidy scam is just the tip of the iceberg that, in theory, can be scrapped with the stroke of a pen, what about Boko Haram and our ill-equipped military and police? Or even our legendary corrupt judiciary and dangerously high unemployment rate?

How will President Buhari’s administration tackle these intractable problems?

And what of the infamous 20 billion dollars in oil proceeds the NNPC should have remitted into the Central Bank’s account, but still remains unaccounted for? While Buhari’s comment about probing Jonathan’s administration sounds refreshing, it should be noted that Nigeria has a long history of probes that yielded nothing.

Realistically, it’s going to take a succession of governments and plenty of hard work to move Nigeria from the gutters. So to think that Buhari will lead Nigeria to the Promised Land is like wishing for snow in the Sahara. He can only lay the foundation. It’s left for his successors to continue building…or completely break it.