President Muhammadu Buhari is, undoubtedly, a man of few words, almost taciturn, you may say. But he can be dramatic when he chooses without necessarily being exuberantly excited about it.
Last June 12, the day he launched the maiden edition of the nation’s new Democracy Day, I saw in him, as he read his speech, some flashes of inspiration that can be likened to a grand vision for the country – an ambitious desire, if not a plan, to take 100 million Nigerians out of poverty into prosperity in the next decade.
If China and Indonesia succeeded in doing so under authoritarian regimes, he said, so can Nigeria. And if India, the biggest democracy on earth, could do it, so also can Nigeria. Truth is we have had a good or bitter taste of the two systems. We have had a long run of military dictatorship, punctuated occasionally by civilian regimes. And if this is the requisite qualification for the great leaps cited in the president’s speech, then we’re truly on the way to prosperity.
Some people have expressed worry about the implications of President Buhari’s timeline – ten years, he said, when he has only four years to go. These doubting Thomases seem to have forgotten that governments are a continuum. Governments come, and governments go but policies, in civilised environments, stay, sustained and completed by the next administration. In any case, who says
APC, like the PDP, cannot have its own turn of 16 years of roaring success and sustainable endurance during which Nigeria, “with leadership and a sense of purpose” hopefully can have its own great leap.
Instead of speculating about a possible extension of term beyond two terms, what we should worry about in this vision of grand ambition is whether or not Nigeria, which has an abiding distaste for the best and the brightest, a country which, when it comes to leadership selection, has an uncanny proclivity to gravitate towards its second eleven, whether such a country like ours has the discipline and the capacity of the Chinese, the Indonesians and the Indians to take their people from poverty to prosperity.
India was way behind us in terms of human capital development; their education was suspect and sub-standard with their trademark poverty sprawling on the overcrowded streets of Indian towns and in the dark alleys. But they have overtaken us in various facets of economic development while we have traded positions with them. We have exceeded their level of poverty and become the butt of the international jokes as the poverty capital of the world.
President Buhari, sure of the fact that we are at the bottom today because successive governments in the past mismanaged resources and opportunities and had enthroned corruption, made bold to stand at the Eagle Square on Democracy Day to pronounce the nation’s grand ambition.
He anchored this ambition on good leadership and a sense of purpose the kind of leadership and sense of purpose that emboldened John F Kennedy on May 25, 1961 to stand proudly before the special joint session of Congress to announce America’s plan to send an American safely to the moon before the end of the decade.
It is relevant at this juncture to have a glimpse into the ingredients that made for the success in the countries the president had cited as good case studies. After many decades of dictatorship China, under the more visionary Deng Xiaoping, commenced the famous “reform and the opening up campaign” by focusing more on how to revitalise the sluggish agricultural growth.
He started by dismantling the communes of his predecessor, Chairman Mao Zedong, and allowing the return to family planning to stem the growth of the country’s over bloated population. By improving agriculture, the country poured revenues from this sector into its industrial and urbanisation programme and opened its doors to foreign investors to set up factories which took advantage of surplus manpower and low wages.
With a corresponding market reform in the late 70s, China lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty. The key to its success, according to some notable experts, had to do with implementing the right policies at the right time and in the right places.
With the backing of the World Bank, China’s current focus is on how to lift 55 million extremely poor citizens out of poverty by next year. Success in its economic growth, backed by technological advancement, is playing a considerable role in poverty reduction, promoting citizen engagement and job creation.
Access to internet is a vital tool in promoting human capital development while more people from the rural areas with the benefit of increased adult education are getting into the loop of the economy that is largely knowledge driven. Private sector participation, which was once a taboo in communist countries with closed economies, is changing the way businesses are done.
President Buhari who had, at the commencement of his administration in 2015, openly expressed his discomfort with the private sector and those who drive it, is now a convert to the modern ways of doing business. One is not surprised therefore that he publicly acknowledged the contribution of the sector by pledging that “we are more committed than ever to work with the private sector to improve productivity and accelerate economic growth.”
That is the way the Chinese and the Indonesians have gone. And that is the way India has gone, too. It is no wonder that many Nigerians now troop to India for medical tourism.
The president noted in his speech that agriculture and industrial output have recovered since the recession. He should not, however, be unmindful of the grave danger that increased insecurity is posing to agriculture. While he has nursed the noble and bold ambition to get more people out of poverty, armed bandits and kidnappers and herdsmen are increasingly driving more people into poverty. Fear of being killed by the herdsmen and armed bandits or being kidnapped by kidnappers have driven many farmers from their farmlands and small scale traders from their rural settlements. Thus they have been forced to abandon their livelihood to embrace penury.
The Emir of Katsina, His Royal Majesty, Abdulmumini Usman, brought this home poignantly to Audu Ogbeh, then minister of agriculture, who visited the emir in May ahead of the national launch of the distribution of seeds and other inputs to the farmers. In good times, the visit of the erstwhile minister and the programme would be a welcome development. But these are not normal times. The emir used the occasion to send an SOS message to the president. He said the agricultural programme was going to be a splendid waste of time and resources if the farmers, terrified by fear, cannot go to their farms.
For emphasis he said: “Every day I receive reports of kidnappings and killing from district and village heads. Tell the president we have to take care of our people first. All these programmes, good as they are, cannot succeed without security.”
And the emir is not alone in his lamentation. Insecurity has taken hold of the nation. And yet there is no let up. It is not exactly the kind of situation that propelled China, Indonesia and India to lift their people, in millions, from poverty to prosperity. Though terrorism and insecurity, as rightly acknowledged by the president, are “world-wide phenomena and even the best policed countries … are finding it difficult to cope,” in Nigeria, they are putting a dampener on even well-laid plans. They may transform the vision and the grand plan of the president to lift 100 million people out of poverty into prosperity into a tall order and an unattainable proposition.
Perhaps the answer to all our fears will come from the “strong team of Nigerians” the president plans to assemble in the next four years coupled with the promised leadership and a sense of purpose that the team will engender.
We need that leadership and sense of purpose across board or we are doomed.