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Economic recession: Buhari and the challenges of emergency powers

By Dele Sobowale

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, 1863-1952. (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS).

“….reward and punishment [are] the two hinges upon which all government turns.” Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745.

Our founding  fathers in Africa  never wrote their own history. That partly explains why the Dark Continent remains the least developed of all.

Our continent remains in darkness, not only because its largest country suffers from self-induced low power supply; but because there is also self-induced low brain power supply as well.

povertypix1Even now, we still refuse to write our history or be guided by them. That is the tragedy of Africans – especially Nigerians who constitute one quarter of the African population. Was it not a living Nigerian president who asked that History should be deleted from our school curriculum? Can any leader of the USA, Britain, China, Japan, Brazil or Russia say that and not be put in a straitjacket?

Unfortunately, the foolish Nigerian leader is not alone in his disdain for history – even recent history. Even journalists and public opinion molders are uniformly ignorant of their own history.

Thus when an issue comes up, the reactions are generally emotional rather than analytical.

The current debate about proposed Economic Emergency Powers, EEP, for President Buhari is another example of debates being conducted without a glance at our history. Commonsense, which is not common in Nigeria, dictates that at least four questions be asked before deciding on whether to support or oppose such powers for any president; and Buhari in particular.

The first and most obvious question to ask is: have we tried Economic Emergency Powers before as a measure to tackle recalcitrant economic crisis? The answer is: yes, at least twice and Buhari was involved in one of them in 1984-5; Babangida in the other.

The second question is: did it solve the problem? The answer to that is: a definite No.

The third question is why was EEP ineffective if not counter-productive each time? The answer is: Buhari and Babangida came to power after crude oil which sold for as high as US$38 per barrel under President Shehu Shagari plummeted to under US$15-9.9 per barrel.

Then, as now, Nigeria, a mono-product economy, with little export capacity, was confronted with a severe dollar shortage and unfavourable terms of trade which could not possibly be corrected by any panic measure called EEP.

Neither Buhari nor Babangida succeeded in bringing additional foreign exchange on account of EEP.

The fourth question, which should guide our thinking at this time, is: is there a qualitative difference between the situation now and the one in 1984-1988? The answer is: No!

Nigeria is still basically a mono-product economy with very little non-oil export potential, price of crude has slumped from US$145, under Yar’Adua, to under US$45 under Buhari, and no panic measure, EEP included, will save the situation.

Let us go back a few steps and remind ourselves of some of the measures taken under previous EEPs by Buhari and Babangida.

For reasons that will become clear later, the historical precedents will be reversed.

One feature of IBB’s EEP will be discussed first. Then, some features of Buhari’s EEP will be highlighted as warning to those who, in the words of Anthony Trollope, 1815-1882, want to encourage “a man who is trying to slip a noose over every neck in this republic, that he might tighten it at his pleasure”.

THE IBB SCENARIO

Those of us working during IBBs regime and who have not forgotten what happened to them, would recollect the forced deduction of two per cent of the basic salary of certain classes of workers, to be accumulated in a pool and invested to boost the economy.

Former Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida during prayers to mark his 75th birthday celebration at the Hilltop, Minna, Niger State
Former Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida

Repayment was promised to us when the economy improved.  Unfortunately, the economy never improved sufficiently – despite the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, and until IBB stepped aside in 1993.

Till today no refund has been made to us.   EEP was employed to openly rob Nigerian workers with the impunity associated with absolute power.

Along the way, the same government which was robbing us of two per cent of our basic salaries spent close to N40 billion on the transition to civil rule. The Presidential Election of June 12, 1993, was annulled after spending that colossal sum – which is about N4 trillion in today’s purchasing power.

Nobody with any sense of history wants that again. The truth is, once granted such draconian powers, Heads of States, military or civilian, can never be trusted to use them for the purposes stated.   They would generally find a clause or two which grant them broad powers to turn democracy to autocracy. An elected President, who spent all his adult life in the military, has all the instincts of a dictator.

Therefore, granting him emergency powers is akin to placing our necks under the guillotine.

BUHARI IN 1984

Just in case you think that is scare-mongering, then consider this. Jonathan Swift had summarised the essence of governments embarking on changing the situation in which their nations find themselves. It is either reward or punishment; or their synonyms – carrot or stick. Buhari’s instincts are for heavy punishment, or its synonyms, long term imprisonment or the bullet.

If the reader is still in doubt, he is invited to go and read Gazzette No 39 of July 1984 and Decree 20 of that year. After persuading his colleagues on the Supreme Military Council, SMC, to grant EEP. Buhari promulgated Decree 20, which was even more draconian than Decree 4 under which two Guardian journalists were imprisoned for writing the truth. How a regime which claimed to be fighting corruption can punish truth-telling remains a mystery. But, that is a digression.

Decree 20 of 1984 prescribed the death penalty for three offenses which in any other country would have attracted no more than five years sentence. And the sentences passed by a Tribunal could not be appealed in any court of law.

So, total was the disdain for human life and the Judiciary demonstrated by that Decree that one wonders why, today, people regarded as intelligent and sane would again want to grant extra-ordinary powers to the Mr. President who may genuinely mean well but whose antecedents should frighten all of them.

As a general rule, what a person will do in any situation can be determined by what he did the last time when confronted with it.

If EEP fails Buhari will take the frustration out of fellow Nigerians and heads will literally roll. Can dried crayfish be bent? Or can a leopard change its spots? The answers are obvious to anybody with commomsense.

If so, now consider this. Nigeria had been fractured into the nineteen states (ten North and nine South) by the time Buhari seized power in 1984. Despite that, only six(6) Southerners were appointed to his cabinet. With the exception of the Ministry of Petroleum, which went to Tam David West and Finance to Obasanjo’s nominee, Dr Onaolapo Soleye, Minister of Finance, all the other important Ministries, including Education, went to the North. Only the 1999 Constitution forced him in 2015 to appoint Ministers from all the states. Where the constitution is silent – Special Advisers, Heads of parastatals, etc – the Buhari of 1984 is back in office with all his natural instincts.

The most lucrative parastatals, in 1984, CBN, NPA, NITEL, CUSTOMS, Nigerian Security and Mint Company, Nigerian Airways, and NEPA, also went to the North. That should warn those Southerners who are now eager to add more powers to the enormous powers of a president who still has to demonstrate that he is a truly Nigerian president and has shed his divisive and discriminatory instincts.

 

WHAT DOES BUHARI NEED EEP FOR?

President Buhari as he departs Nairobi Kenya for Abuja after participating at the 6th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) in Nairobi Kenya
President Buhari 

Furthermore, there is another question begging for answers.

The question is: what does Buhari need the power to do which he cannot do under existing laws? The basic problem is dollar scarcity on account of sharp drop in oil revenue. Will EEP bring in more dollars? The answer is ‘No’. The second problem is clear to all of us. The APC came into power unprepared for governance.

The slogan – CHANGE – was not accompanied with any blue print for economic management if they succeeded.

That was compounded by the President’s long delay in appointing ministers and assembling a competent Economic Management Team, EMT. Even the best lawyers and accountants in the world cannot constitute a good EMT – try as they may.

At any rate, the law is very clear regarding who owns the mandate. It is the party.   An EEP can only be granted to the President if the people are clear about what the party wants to achieve. Otherwise it becomes a gift to one person.

At the moment, there is no APC to speak of. Who wants to grant EEP to the gangs, yes gangs, at the National Assembly, to a party whose governor asks public servants to stay at home for two days every week?

Even if Buhari knows what to do with those powers, which is doubtful, he cannot alone achieve much.

Another poser here:   Does he know what to do? That is another question that the halleluyah chorus group must answer before stampeding the nation into a fatal trap.   Buhari is not a fool; so nobody should misunderstand the next sentence. But everybody has his limitations including presidents.

That was why on certain matters, Epicurus, 341-270 B.C, had warned us that “A fool, [or an incompetent person], if offered eternity, will not know what to do with it.”(VBQ p 62).

A president, given broad economic powers, unless he knows what he wants to achieve, will most likely do more harm than good in the end.   EEP has never worked in Nigeria and it amounts to a triumph of hope over the verdict of our historical experience for anybody to propose it now.  And it is potentially dangerous – given the president we have.

LAST LINE. Remember the story of the wolf and the sick lion. The sick king of beasts invited the wolf to come and pay a visit. The wolf refused – while pointing out: “I notice that all the footprints are coming into your den but none is coming out.”

EEP is a “lion’s” trap for the unwary of Nigeria.  It is easy to grant; it will be almost impossible to repeal if it is later found to be routinely abused.  “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Lord Acton, 1834-1902. (VBQ p 152).  The Nigerian president is already the most powerful elected president in the world.  Do we need to voluntarily turn ourselves to slaves by granting more powers, which at any rate, are not needed and will not solve our problems?

 


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