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Democracy Day speech: Buhari fails to inspire national renewal and reform

By Olu Fasan

PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari did not speak at his inauguration on May 29. Instead, he gave a speech two weeks later, on June 12, the new Democracy Day. It’s quite odd for a newly sworn-in president not to give an inauguration speech. As this newspaper rightly said: “Speechless inauguration was wrong” (Vanguard, June 6, 2019).

But by giving a speech only on Democracy Day, it would seem that, since successive presidents were inaugurated on Democracy Day, previously on May 29, President Buhari regarded the new Democracy Day, on June 12, as the real inauguration day, while seeing May 29 as merely the constitutional swearing-in day. But, if so, why did he declare May 29 a public holiday?

Buhari

Why wasn’t he sworn in on May 29 without a public holiday and the pageantry, with the public holiday reserved only for the June 12 Democracy-cum-Inauguration Celebration Day?

June 12 epitomizes unbreakable will of Nigerians in face of tyranny- Ihedioha(Opens in a new browser tab)

In January 2013, President Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony took place in the White House, followed by a public inauguration, attended by world leaders the next day!

There was certainly no justification for having two public holidays with elaborate, state-funded jamborees to inaugurate the president. Moving Democracy Day from May 29 to June 12 clearly disqualifies the former as a public holiday!

So much for the wastefulness of two public holidays for the president’s inauguration, which, hopefully, won’t be repeated in the future. Now, let’s return to President Buhari’s speech.

To be sure, having decided to have the Inauguration Day separate from the Democracy Day, President Buhari should have given two speeches. His inauguration speech should have set out the broad direction, with a credible programme of economic and institutional reforms, for his second term; in contrast, his Democracy Day speech should have aimed to inspire national renewal and unity, with a clearly defined agenda for political reforms.

But even if, as it turned out, Buhari gave only one speech, he ought to have addressed both issues – economic agenda and political programme – in an omnibus speech!

Sadly, the president’s Democracy Day speech was full of platitudes. He started with his usual self-congratulation. For instance, he claimed he ensured this year’s elections were free and fair. Yet, the European Union Election Observation Mission said in a damning report last week that the elections were not transparent and marred by significant irregularities and systemic failures.

Surely, President Buhari should admit that his refusal to sign the Electoral Bill and his abuse of incumbency, such as militarising the elections and suspending the Chief Justice of Nigeria in the middle of the elections, created the conditions, including the climate of intimidation, that seriously undermined the credibility of the polls.

But instead of contrition, you get a sense of complacency. Indeed, there’s no clue in the speech that Buhari will undertake radical reforms to transform Nigeria’s structurally weak and dysfunctional economic, political, social and institutional landscapes.

For instance, he said: “None but the most partisan will dispute that in the last four years we have made solid progress in addressing these challenges”. Of course, once he concluded, self-referentially, that he “made solid progress” in his first term, despite the anaemic economic growth, the widespread unemployment and the grinding poverty, the rest of his speech was about continuity not change, about more of the same not new direction!

Take the economy. If you were looking for any serious and credible commitment to market-based reforms that would open Nigeria to foreign investors and unleash the animal spirits of enterprise in this country, you would be disappointed. Instead, the speech was suffused with the usual command-and-control economic planning and anti-free market policies. Yet, President Buhari said outlandishly: “With leadership and a sense of purpose, we can lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in ten years”, citing the examples of China and India.

Surely, Buhari’s speech writers didn’t study the trajectory of China’s and India’s economic growth and poverty reductions? How would Nigeria match their achievements when it is not willing to undertake even a tiny fraction of the far-reaching economic reforms, or embrace the openness to globalisation, that took them there? Clearly, President Buhari thinks that “leadership” and “a sense of purpose” in the wrong direction would produce the right outcome. No, Mr President, they won’t! Good intentions are not enough. You need sound policies, properly implemented!

Which brings us to the other critical issue that the president failed to address in his speech: political restructuring. Again, it’s all empty rhetoric. For instance, Buhari said: “We have been successful in forging a nation from different ethnicities and language groups”. Really? Is Nigeria a “nation”, properly defined? It’s nothing short of wishful thinking when a country’s president talks about unity but does little to engender it.

Recently, President Buhari said: “True federalism is necessary at this juncture of our political and democratic evolution”. Indeed, but what does he mean by “true federalism”? Why did he say nothing about political reform in his speech? He renamed the Abuja National Stadium after MKO Abiola. Great, but is that a substitute for restructuring Nigeria, for an enduring political settlement?

Truth is, Buhari’s Democracy Day speech failed to inspire national renewal and reform. Sadly, the new Senate rejected a motion to debate the president’s speech. Why wouldn’t they? The speech and the Senate’s docile response to it are, indeed, bad omens!

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