Fuel, naira scarcity: Brinkmanship of the worst kind

Fuel, naira scarcity: Brinkmanship of the worst kind

While the Muhammadu Buhari administration was still contending with months-long fuel supply crises, it incomprehensibly immersed itself is a highly disruptive naira redesign policy. The closing months of last year were a nerve-racking ordeal for Nigerians; but the opening weeks of 2023 have proved even more debilitating. Why an elected government would allow that conflation of crises to occur, not to talk of doubling down on the policy triggers, beggars belief. After watching for months as fuel scarcity numbs the country’s productive nerves, the administration eventually set up a 14-man steering committee to address the problem. Little will come out of the desultory effort, for what the crisis needs is rather quite obvious and even simple, not panels and committees. Mercifully, for the self-contrived and self-inflicted naira crisis, there have been no committees to afflict the nation’s collective sensibility.

The fuel supply crisis began inauspiciously about five months to the epochal February/March 2023 general election. It has worsened. The naira crisis also began ominously weeks to the presidential election, and it has tested the resolve of Nigerians and pitched them against one another in banking halls and on the streets. After first appearing to be shell-shocked, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which ought to be plying the country with electorally mollifying policies and programmes weeks to the polls, has denounced the fuel and naira contrivances as awkward efforts to sabotage the polls, procure an unfavourable outcome for the party, and possibly enthrone the undemocratic contraption of interim government. These were apocalyptic echoes of 1993 as this newspaper’sTuesday columnist Olatunji Dare analysed two weeks ago, not to say reminiscences of 1984 when the same President Buhari embarked on jaded economic policies that needed overzealous and misdirected security agencies to unsuccessfully intervene.

Realising that it was the major beneficiary of the apparent confusion in government, the leading opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, have either dissembled or kept conspiratorially silent. First, Alhaji Atiku, who has turned an enthusiastic apologist of the Buhari administration, supported the naira policy, but when he saw the reaction on the streets, joined others to ask for deadline extension to ease the burden on the people. Finally, he returned to default setting by insisting that there should be no more deadline extensions, regardless of the pains. Never in the history of Nigeria, and especially at election periods, have the opposition and the government been on the same page. This observation, and many more telltale signs, has led the leaders of the APC, which include their presidential candidate and the progressive governors, to wonder whether there were no plans to sabotage the elections or preclude power shift to the South in favour of the PDP candidate.

APC leaders became more convinced about the sinister plot to sabotage the elections and forestall power shift when it took them more than a week to get an appointment to see the president on the crisis. The president eventually conceded to a 10-day deadline extension for naira swaps. Prodded to do more, considering the pains the naira policy especially was inflicting on Nigeria’s unbanked and poorly banked communities, which were in their scores, the president has asked for a seven-day period to let him reflect. Had he led a parliamentary government, he would have received a vote of no confidence immediately, for he would be accused of seeing himself as distinct from the party and suffering Nigerians. Some analysts suggest that two trillion naira had been mopped up from the system, but only about N300 billion was injected. For a disparity that is punishing, cruel and provocative, the administration’s response was shambolic and even vexatious. There have been no strategy meetings by the administration, there has been no attempt to mollify the angry public or find urgent measures to ameliorate the naira scarcity, and the president has not called for a daily briefing nor found it pragmatic to speak to Nigerians daily and give them hope. Instead, he has waited to be placated, and continues to treat the angry public with aloofness, if not condescension.

Finance minister Zainab Ahmed, yes the same minister who tore at the policy and disclaimed it last October, has begun to speak patronisingly about the relevance of the policy and why Nigerians without a naira, old or new, in their hands must endure the pain a little longer. She spoke without conviction, was probably put up to it, and may privately be distressed by the administration’s needless and unforced economic policy errors. Information minister Lai Mohammed at first attempted some evasion when the subject of the administration’s sabotage of the elections was put to him, and began to speak endearingly of the president being focused to deliver free, fair, and credible elections. Sensing how deeply dissatisfied everyone was with his response, he came out a day later to suggest that the president was fully behind the APC presidential candidate and the party. No one believed him.

But the revelation in all this is the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor himself, Godwin Emefiele. If the policy was entirely his, and he only secured the approval of the president, he must be a tragic central banker. But given his unconvincing explanations, the way he knitted his brows and winced when he addressed the public or the legislature on the subject, it seemed the policy was dumped on him. And since he lacks the discipline to manage the apex bank, especially seeing how obnoxiously political he has become, he was always fated to incompetently execute so obscene and so brazenly provocative a policy. He is harried by the secret service for allegedly financing terrorism, and had had to be guarded by soldiers on his return to the country to manage the tragic naira redesign policy. And to save his neck, he has begun to scapegoat banks for the miscarriage of a voodoo economic policy that is now seen to be evidently more political than economic.

The Buhari administration may be underestimating public anger over the policy. Nigerians can’t see why they cannot collect their money over the counter within the limit stated by the law and CBN rules. The president asks for seven days to look into pleas to relax the policy. His instincts probably tell him how elastic the patience of his countrymen has become due to years of tyrannical abuse. It remains to be seen whether he is right. What is not in doubt is that the new naira policy replays his 1984 currency exchange policy which similarly miscarried and angered the public. Both the president and Mr Emefiele appear convinced that the stated objectives of the policy will be realised. They may also be grossly mistaken. The benefits of the policy pale in comparison with the costs. What is even more disturbing is that the policy, perhaps kept secret to entrap ‘thieves and currency traders and hoarders’, was not presented before the cabinet or council of economic experts to advise the administration. A few people, perhaps instigated by shadowy characters within and around the administration, met and decided on the policy, and then began to implement it post-haste. The policy will not yield the dividends its designers expect.

Worse, the Buhari administration, left with just a few weeks in office, now seems bound to go out in a blaze of conspiracy. Kaduna State governor Nasir el-Rufai continues to give the president the benefit of the doubt, though he also acknowledges the presence of saboteurs and fifth columnists in government. It is unlikely he is not just being diplomatic. Right from when the administration, in acknowledgement of the electoral calendar, kick-started the APC angle of the ongoing election cycle, the president had hemmed and hawed, uncertain who to back and what latitude to give the country’s as well as his party’s democratic institutions. Despite many denials, few trust his commitment to the party’s choice and, beyond perfunctory statements, to the subject of rotation of the presidency to the South. He assented to the overthrow of his party’s executives in June 2020, and approbated and reprobated in the election of the APC presidential candidate. But because of his discomfiture with political strategising, his private and hidden wishes have been repeatedly thwarted.

It is now not only his party that believes he is against them, even the country is also unable to discern his loyalties. Worse, the PDP, which is the main beneficiary of the president’s vacillations and controversial economic policies, also knows this and has either kept discretely silent or cleverly acquiescent. The result is that the APC governors who know that their fortunes are tied to their success at the presidential poll have successfully and even defiantly distanced themselves from the president and his radical and mistimed economic amputations. Instead of pillorying the APC, Nigerians have begun to look contemptuously in the direction of the administration’s economic planners. Why the president appears inured to the possible consequence of watching his entire legacy wiped off is hard to explain. But should APC lose the presidency, with the collateral damage of losing many legislative and state elections as well, it is not just the party that will be obliterated, the country itself may be irreparably fractured by the upheaval of another northerner succeeding President Buhari. Northern governors realise this danger; but the president who should emblematise his party and Northern politics is ambivalent in his contemplations and last-minute surgeries. 

Between justice and street activism in Osun

Moments after the Osun Governorship Election Petition Tribunal declared the All Progressives Congress (APC) Gboyega Oyetola winner of the July 16, 2022 governorship election, protesters and supporters of the two leading parties in the election took to the streets. Neither side showed how street demonstrations could influence judicial proceedings and outcomes, let alone sway the views of the long-suffering public. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had on July 17 declared Ademola Adeleke of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) winner of the poll after scoring 403,371 votes to Mr Oyetola’s 375,027 votes. But suspecting vote padding, contrary to the presumed unassailability of INEC’s Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) machines, the APC candidate had litigated the victory of Mr Adeleke. Though the governor was sworn in last November, it was not until a little over a week ago that judgement was finally delivered in the case.

It is pointless reviewing the case or judgement. The tribunal measured its view on what transpired last July during the election, insisting that Mr Oyetola proved his case in the main planks of his petition. By a judgement of two-to-one, it declared that the petitioner proved that Mr Adeleke forged academic qualifications, was not elected by a majority of voters, and that the election did not comply substantially with the provisions of the Electoral Act. Convinced that the petitioner had proved vote padding, the tribunal redid the arithmetic of the election and found and declared that Mr Oyetola scored 314,921 votes to Mr Adeleke’s 290,266 votes. BVAS, it turned out, contrary to what many people feared, was unassailable, but the process leading to the declaration of was neither entirely reliable nor immune to manipulations.

Mr Adeleke and his party have indicated that they will appeal the judgement. Nobody can or should dissuade them. But given the grounds of the petition and the coherence and plausibility of the judgement, it is unlikely they will find the legal grounds and logic to overturn the tribunal’s decision. Together with INEC whose credibility was somewhat impugned during the pendency of the case, Mr Adeleke had ample chance to forestall the outcome and entrench his dancing skills upon the wearied state. They will be unable to present fresh evidence, and must now rely on the interpretative deftness of the appellate court to undermine the tribunal’s conclusions. As far as law goes, not to say logic, including the incontrovertible BVAS report and analysis presented by INEC itself, that would be truly far-fetched. Often, reality stumps fantasy, except sometimes in literature.

Credit must be given to Mr Oyetola for maintaining doggedness in the face of widespread skepticism that he could prove his case. Given what was thought of BVAS, few believed that somewhere along the line between balloting and collation, a few things could go wrong that had nothing to do with the integrity of BVAS. Mr Oyetola was unconvinced, hence his persistence. It was clear, that he had not managed his re-election campaign with the suavity and expertise his party was noted for, nor had he avoided the unforced errors of antagonising key power brokers in the state. He leaned too heavily on his adroitness in managing the state’s resources, bringing order to the giddy disorder he met on the ground, and infusing an inspiring level of integrity in governance. To believe that these were enough to win an election hands down is to embrace fantasy in a national milieu that reeks of patronage and deep-seated governmental abuse. He risked losing the election last July, many analysts had argued, or if he would win, he would do it by the skin of his teeth.

Both election scores, before and after tribunal judgement, show that the governorship poll was a close call. Mr Oyetola had staked too much on his governance capacity to care about the limiting factor of his dour and uncharismatic style. Indeed, if INEC’s BVAS report had not dealt a fatal blow to Mr Adeleke’s case, or if Mr Oyetola had been ruled unable to prove his case, there would have been no protests on the annoying scale the governor’s crowd managed to pull off last week. The governor is of course not nearly as savvy as Mr Oyetola, for he lacks depth, finesse, and gravitas. Indeed, either now or in the future, he has no pretence to be called a leader, not to say governor of a state. But in a society as famished as Osun and one so dependent on government largess and patronage, the sometimes hedonistic Mr Adeleke was bound to have more charismatic appeal than his opponent. The tribunal has done a yeoman’s work for the state, pulling their chestnuts from the fire. Had the governor not been sacked, had he held the reins of office for four long years, the scale of the depredation he would have brought upon the state would be incalculable.

There is no amount of tutoring that will do Mr Adeleke any good: the country has seen his essential self, his real person, his worst and his questionable best. He might be affable and gregarious, but he simply does not and cannot ever measure up as a governor, not even if he were to rule through a regent, as this column suggested to him when he was undeservingly declared winner last July. For Mr Oyetola, the close call should serve as a lesson. He may be a great financial administrator, but he also needs to be a great leader of men, a leader with an instinctive feel for what his people are going through, their aspirations, their pains, their agonies, and how they see him as the great approximation and exemplification of their future hopes and personal, particularly financial, redemption. Hopefully, the appellate courts will sustain the reprieve given him by the tribunal; he will, therefore, remain in politics for much longer than he dared hope. Should that be the case, his close call with defeat and his eventual victory should present him a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make amends. He must.

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