By Olu Fasan
DURING the 2015 presidential election campaign, the Economist magazine described General Muhammadu Buhari as a “sandal-wearing ascetic”, and a columnist for the London Times called him a “party pooper”.
To western commentators, Buhari was a disciple of the ancient Greek philosopher Seneca, who preached self-denial and stoicism, rather than of another Greek philosopher Epicurus, who advocated the pursuit of pleasure and the good life.
Of course, Buhari’s reputation for asceticism dated to his stint as military head of state when he came across as a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian, sworn to the ethic of frugality.
During his 2015 presidential election campaign, Buhari burnished this reputation by strongly attacking President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration for profligacy and vowing that, if elected, he would drastically reduce the cost of governance.
What’s more, Buhari pledged that he and his family would eschew the trappings of power and went as far as saying that his wife would not be called First Lady!
But in office, President Buhari has proved a contradiction: a supposedly prudent and austere leader who has piled up massive debt for the country, significantly increased the cost of governance, succumbed to enjoying the trappings of power and allowed his family and relatives to benefit from the spoils of office. Let’s start with the debt. Since assuming office in 2015, President Buhari has embarked on, as the Financial Times put it, “a borrowing spree”. He inherited an external debt of $10.32 billion in 2015, but by the end of 2019 he had ratcheted it up to $85 billion, about N27 trillion. In 2015, Nigeria was spending N953.6 billion to service its debt, but now, in 2020, it is spending N2.73 trillion.
The African Development Bank has expressed concern about Nigeria’s escalating debt. Writing in Forbes magazine in August last year, Ike Brannon, a former senior economist for the US Treasury and US Congress, said that “If Nigeria does not get its financial house in order, it will undoubtedly face some sort of financial crisis in the next few years”! How about that for an austere, prudent president?
Truth is, President Buhari loves big spending, big budgets. The Federal Government’s budget in 2015 was N4.4 trillion, but Buhari’s first budget in 2016 was N6.06 trillion, followed by N7.4 trillion in 2017 and N8.6 trillion in 2018. Those for 2019 and 2020 were N8.83 trillion and N10.59 trillion respectively. But if you looked around, you would hardly see any tangible evidence of where the money went. But why? Well, because nearly 70 per cent of the budgets went on recurrent expenditure, that is, the cost of running a bloated state!
Surely, the promise to cut the cost of governance has gone out of the window. For instance, during the 2015 presidential election campaign, General Buhari promised to sell off some of the presidential planes, but, in office, he did no such thing. Rather, in his first budget in 2016, he allocated N6.9 billion for the presidential fleet. In the 2020 budget, about N8.5 billion was set aside for maintaining the 10 aircraft in the so-called Presidential Air Fleet. Every budget since 2016 has included billions of naira for running the presidency, with an estimated N58 billion in this year’s budget.
It is hard, really hard, to avoid a comparison between President Buhari and the Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Both leaders were elected, in part, because of widespread public disgust with the spiralling cost of governance and abuse of power, and both, with a reputation for frugality, made promises to tackle the problems. But there is a world of difference between how both have behaved in office.
President Obrador refused to use the presidential plane and sold it off, flying coach class on commercial planes. He opened the Los Pinos presidential residence to the public, and remained in his modest family home while being driven in a Volkswagen.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that President Buhari should live on his farm in Daura or that he should be driven around in a jalopy or even fly on a commercial plane. But my point is that, compared with President Obrador, there is a very big contradiction between what Buhari promised about government profligacy, about his attitude to the trappings of power, and what is happening.
Mexico is four times richer than Nigeria, with a GDP of $1.2 trillion compared to Nigeria’s $398 billion; its GDP per capita is $9,797 while Nigeria has a miserly per capita income of $2,033. If any of the two presidents should be living expensively, with 10 aircraft and billions spent to run the presidency, it is Obrador, not Buhari! But, no, President Buhari is not living up to his reputation for frugality.
Take a few examples. I said earlier that Buhari pledged that his wife won’t be called First Lady. But now she is, with six state-funded special assistants to boot! In his first term, President Buhari had 36 ministers; now he has 43! The spoils system even extends to relatives, with Buhari reportedly giving apartments to extended family members in Aso Rock.
Hard to imagine the US president or the British prime minister doing that! And what about the president’s daughter using a presidential jet to attend a private event? All of this amounts to what the lawyer Femi Falana described as “privatisation of the presidency”.
The vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, once said that “the common man is Buhari’s priority”, adding that the president “goes to bed every night thinking about Nigerians”. But the common man, who lives in extreme poverty, on less than $1.9 (N685) a day, must be miffed that the president budgets N135 million for food in Aso Rock or that his daughter could hop on a presidential jet to attend a private social event! The allure of power is strong, but President Buhari must not yield to it; he must keep his vow of frugality!