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Tinubu’s first year

While driving back to work from Minna yesterday, I got engrossed in thoughts that were probably none of my business. I was thinking about what…

While driving back to work from Minna yesterday, I got engrossed in thoughts that were probably none of my business. I was thinking about what President Bola Ahmed Tinubu could be thinking about as the 2024 rolls out today.

Tinubu will hit his first year in May, and also, this will be his first full year in office. What is he thinking about right now? Is he already carried away by the ceremonial part of the job, like receiving governors and other dignitaries who have been trooping to his house for Christmas visitations? Or is he thinking about how he could revive his flailing Renewed Hope programme if it ever meant anything in the first place? What will Tinubu’s first year in charge be like? Are we going to have more of what we had in the last seven months of 2023 or will there be a significant change in gear in the New Year?

Those thoughts engrossed me as if it was my job to worry about them, when in fact it probably isn’t. Perhaps I got engrossed in those thoughts because time is so crucial for a new leader, and the first full year most of all. But how political leaders use time in Nigeria is a cause for concern, or at least should be. For those interested in how government works in Nigeria, or rather, why it does not work much, one of the most profound lessons of governance in this country is to be gleaned from Malam Nasir el-Rufai’s Accidental Public Servant—a book that all those interested in government in Nigeria should read.

According to El-Rufai, political leaders in Nigeria are often compelled to spend more of their time on activities that have little bearing on government business proper. On any given day in office or outside of it, El-Rufai says, such activities might include receiving guests who visit for unofficial business, spending hours on phone calls over non-government business, attending events that may not be related to your official business, or those with little impact on governance, among others. The lesson, then, is that any leader who wishes to achieve much must avoid being held to such activities as much as is politically feasible.

For Tinubu, it is actually much more important than that. The president has gone through the second half of 2023 largely unscathed from the sort of cruel criticism that Nigerians generally haul at their leaders even though some of his policies have thrown the whole country—where things were already bad—into a tailspin. All new leaders, regardless of how they came to power in Nigeria, tend to enjoy some measure of goodwill from citizens, at least for a while before things started to get hot.

So clearly, some of Tinubu’s goodwill in Nigeria must remain; but for how long? This New Year should provide the president with an opportunity to get back to wherever he had dreamed of taking Nigeria, if at all there was such a dream. The two policies of subsidy removal and devaluation of the naira are clearly not working as planned. If anything, the two, both singly and combined, have conspired to send the prices of goods sky-high as official inflation hits a 20-year roof; and looking set to get worse for short term.

Yet, official inflation figures are not always the same thing as what households and individuals feel in markets or their pockets. The official inflation figure now stands at 28.2 per cent (things could have changed between the time this figure was announced about two weeks ago and now). But for many goods, particularly food, the inflation rate could well be worse than the official rate. For example, a litre of fuel now sells for between N617 to N690, depending on where in the country or at what station you buy it. That is an increase of about N170 per litre from what it sold by 1st June (or about 90% of what it sold on May 28th), when prices of fuel throughout the country adjusted to Tinubu’s “subsidy is gone” on Inauguration Day.

Of course, other goods and services have followed the prices of fuel upwards, inflicting so much pain on Nigerian families. Meanwhile, the predicted gains from subsidy removal are simply nowhere to be found in government’s accounts. They are not reflected in the budget and the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation has said that the NNPC Ltd has not accounted for it. Clearly, then, the subsidy policy has, so far, not worked out according to plan. The wage increase of N35,000 monthly to federal and state civil servants, as well as the promised cash transfers of N25,000 per household to 15 million poorest families have also not worked out as planned either, at least not from the numerous accounts of the presumed beneficiaries throughout the country.

Subsidy, it appears, has simply refused to go, whether the naira devaluation is significantly different. It has doubtless contributed to the soaring inflation, and will continue to do so as long as forex liquidity, the real problem, persists for the near term. However, devaluation has also meant plenty more naira for the federal government and the states to spend. Monthly FAAC accruals and allocations to all tiers of government have improved significantly since June, due mainly to the devaluation of the naira and almost nothing else. So, it is both a blessing and a curse at the same time.

So, as 2024 rolls out, Tinubu’s job is cut out for him, regardless of what the president says in his customary New Year address to the nation. First, he will need to significantly ameliorate the rough edges wrought by the policies of his own hands, whether by making the palliatives work much better or by seriously addressing the structural problems that stymy the effectiveness of these policies to work as planned.

The World Bank has predicted that if the government stays on course things will get better soon enough, before the next election. But the same World Bank also points out how worse things will get if things continue like this. The president would be better off thinking out an original plan to get things better rather than rely on the predictions of others.

Second, the president will really need to work out a serious vision for Nigeria that goes beyond mantra and rhetoric. Nigerians have been long used to mantras like “Renewed Hope” from their leaders, to the extent that they no longer mean much to them. What does this term mean? In what specific expectations could Nigerians pin Renewed Hope? Does it mean completed roads or railways throughout the country or free and quality healthcare for all? Does it mean support for small and medium scale businesses in order to create the jobs he promised young people? Tinubu must identify a few things he will do that will give meaning to his government’s political and policy mantra.

Finally, Tinubu will do well to remember that he asked for this job, as he himself has said several times. Nigeria is before him now, and whole a new year is before him now. By next January, we should all know what the ”life-long ambition” has been all about.

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