October 7, 2021

Buhari’s penultimate Independence Day speech: A litany of failures

By Olu Fasan

LAST week, President Muhammadu Buhari gave his penultimate Independence Day speech. Penultimate, because it was his second-last speech for that occasion. Next year, at Nigeria’s 62nd independence anniversary, President Buhari’s speech will be his swansong, his last.

He won’t be in office to give the speech for Nigeria’s 23rd independence anniversary in 2023. That will fall to his successor! All of which made last week’s speech somewhat important.

Surely, it was a unique opportunity for President Buhari to show how his administration has transformed Nigeria and the lives of Nigerians. He should have answered, with incontrovertible evidence not mere assertions, this question: “Are Nigeria and Nigerians better off today than they were in 2015?”

President Buhari’s speech didn’t answer that question. Rather, it was full of empty rhetoric and platitudes, outlandish claims of achievements, and a litany of excuses for failure.

In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell said that political language is designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. That’s what President Buhari’s speech did.

For instance, Buhari claimed credit for infrastructure and legislation, such as the controversial Petroleum Industry Act. But, leaving aside their deep flaws, the infrastructure projects and legislation are mere enablers, not drivers, of progress. They won’t, in themselves, transform Nigeria.

Yet, President Buhari was self-praising. “A lot has been achieved in the last six years on many fronts”, he said, adding: “But critics misdiagnosed incremental progress as stagnation”. How can “a lot” be “achieved” and yet progress is “incremental”?

Before his election in 2015, Buhari promised “transformational change” on national security, the economy and corruption. Yet, over six years later, what Nigeria has seen is not transformational change, not even stagnation, but utter retrogression.

Take the economy. The fundamentals were still relatively strong when Buhari assumed office in 2015. But under his government, the economy is comatose: exchange rate, interest rate, inflation, foreign investment, non-oil export, unemployment, poverty, debt – name it –they reached their worst levels in decades. Buhari blamed the economic condition he inherited and the COVID-19 pandemic, but these are mere excuses for policy failure.

What about national security? Well, in 2015, insecurity was limited to the North-East and North-West. But under Buhari’s administration, the whole country is insecure, as murderous bandits, kidnappers and herdsmen militias spread across Nigeria, killing, maiming and ravaging with impunity.

Professor Wole Soyinka recently told the Financial Times: “Even during the civil war, I do not believe we devalued humanity as much as we do today”. Yet, Buhari promised to make Nigeria safer; to protect lives and property. He has failed utterly to fulfil that promise!

Then, take corruption. In the early days of his administration in 2015, Buhari was described as the”new Sheriff in town”, whose body language alone would fetter corrupt officials. Yet, later that year, his first budget was marred by allegations of “budget padding”, and his government was subsequently dogged by corruption allegations, forcing him to sack, reluctantly, some of his top officials.

Truth is, Buhari has failed to hobble corruption. Indeed, according to Transparency International, corruption perception has worsened in Nigeria, which ranked as the second most corrupt country in West Africa in 2020!

Yet, despite the litany of failures, President Buhari audaciously declared in his Independence Day speech: “No government since 1999 has done what we have done in six years to put Nigeria back on track”.When I read that statement, I couldn’t help thinking that President Buhari was taking the mickey out of Nigerians, basically insulting the people.

The best government since 1999? How preposterous! Where, for instance, was Buhari when a post-1999 government freed Nigeria from debt peonage? The Obasanjo government negotiated a 60 per cent write-off on Nigeria’s official (Paris Club) debt, about $35bn, and paid off the rest, leaving Nigeria debt-free. President Buhari’s administration has not achieved that great feat; instead, it has, perversely, returned Nigeria to debt peonage!

In 2015, Nigeria’s external debt was $7.35bn; over five years, under Buhari’s administration, it rose to $23.57bn in 2020 and is rising! Every economist knows that the biggest worry about debt is the cost of servicing it.

Which is why debt service-to-revenue ratio is a more important indicator of debt burden than debt-to-GDP ratio. Yet, under Buhari, Nigeria is spending 97 per cent of total Federal Government revenue on debt servicing!

Of course, the problem is compounded by Nigeria’s economic woes. Growth is anaemic; non-oil exports have collapsed; and foreign investors have virtually abandoned Nigeria. Last week, the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission, NIPC, said that only 7.65 per cent of the $203.89bn foreign investment inflows expected between 2017 and 2020 were realised; 92 per cent or $188.29bn of investment opportunities were lost.

Now, with foreign investors avoiding Nigeria like the plague, with the economy recently declared worst in 38 years, and with the security situation also worst in decades, how on earth could President Buhari say that his government has “put Nigeria back on track”?

There’s no space to address other provocative statements in the president’s speech. But one must not go unanswered: his view on national unity. President Buhari repeated the hackneyed statement that “Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable” but outsourced the task of working for that unity to traditional, religious and community leaders, while he’s, himself, doing everything to destroy the same unity.

I mean, how could President Buhari boast about arresting Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Adeyemo but say nothing about leaders of the homicidal bandits and Fulani herdsmen militias?

How could he threaten the “high-profile financiers” of the separatist agitators,while keeping mute about Boko Haram sponsors, despite the US offering to expose them? Truth is, Buhari has long played ethnic, sectional politics with Nigeria’s unity and security.

Well, President Buhari’s penultimate Independence Day speech is revealing. It shows a leader who hasn’t “put Nigeria back on track”but is leaving it worse than he met it – poorer, more fragile, more divided. A legacy of failure!