BUHARI: Can Buhari Government Meet the Aspiration of the Working Masses?
Socialist Democracy: May-June, 2015 Edition
BUHARI: Can Buhari Government Meet the Aspiration of the Working Masses?
By Peluola Adewale
The Financial Times’ William Wallis ranked the March 28 Presidential Poll in Nigeria as one of the “most significant political events on the continent since the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa brought an end to white majority rule”. Some have also described the unseating of an established political party in Nigeria as Africa’s “Berlin Wall moment” as revealed by Razia Khan Head of Africa Macro Research, Standard Chartered writing in the Financial Times on April 1.
Though, this is not the first time an incumbent president has been defeated at the polls in Africa. Nigeria is a special beast where the ruling party is a behemoth with a monster war chest and an all-powerful president that can deploy at will the huge resources and apparatuses of the state into a contest. What happened in Nigeria is not in any way a revolution. Neither is it in any way near the popular mass revolts of Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. However the electoral defeat of a sitting president for the first time in Nigeria’s history is a watershed that could help strengthen the belief of the working masses in their ability to remove any capitalist government.
Indeed, it was the failure of the labour movement to build a mass working peoples’ political party that landed the working masses craving to change an utterly failed president into the hand of Muhammadu Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). If the working people had had their way they would have removed President Goodluck Jonathan back in January 2012 during the biggest mass protest and general strike in the country’s history. It was the capitulation of the labour leadership that made it impossible. The major lesson of all the general strikes and mass protests since the return to civil rule is the imperative of a mass working peoples’ party that could wrest power from the thieving capitalist ruling elite, but this has been lost on the successive labour leaderships as they subscribe to the same ruinous neo-liberal capitalist ideology.
Perhaps, the fear of another possible mass revolt against President Jonathan that could threaten the foundation of the system forced the organs and defenders of capitalism to distance themselves from him and promote Buhari as the alternative, even though they had to that with “heavy heart”. The western media pulled no punches in the brutal assault on Jonathan. For instance, the Economist called him a failed president while the New York Times described him as lousy. Tim Stanley, who visited Nigeria as a guest of the Adams Smith International, writing in the Spectator, a weekly British magazine associated with the right wing of the ruling Conservative Party, pooh-poohed the President Jonathan’s campaign posters that say ‘Nigerians demand continuity’. This is, he wrote, “as farfetched as saying that chickens demand to spend more time in the company of foxes” (Spectator January 31). It was also clear that the western political leaders, especially from the US and Britain, also wanted him out.
Truly, President Jonathan’s government was a monumental failure. This government was the luckiest in term of revenue as oil was sold around $100 for the most part of its rule and it thereby amassed $420bn between 2010 and 2014. Yet there was nothing fundamental to show for this in term of infrastructure development and living conditions of the ordinary people. The government was so anti-poor that it increased the petrol price from N65 to N147 shortly after it had amassed $94bn oil revenue, the biggest ever revenue in a year. So much was the paucity of the achievements of the government that the spokesperson of the president had to publish and circulate on the social media a picture attempting to portray the YaoundÃ©-Doula Road in Cameroon as the Enugu-Port-Harcourt Road in Nigeria to deceive the electorate.
The fact that Nigeria inadvertently became the Africa’s biggest economy as a result of the GDP rebasing and also one the world’s fastest growing was played up as a monumental achievement of the government. This impressive economic feature, as the Economist magazine put it “is largely despite the government rather than because of it, and falling oil prices will temper the boom”. The Wall Street Journal called it a “triumph of demography”. In other words, it is the huge population of the country, the biggest in Africa, and high oil price that accounted for the economic growth and not the policies of the government. Besides, despite the huge oil wealth and the so-called growth the unemployment and poverty rates were on the increase. Nigeria has the third biggest population of the extreme poor people in the world. But to President Jonathan, the number of the people with private jets in Nigeria shows that the country is not poor!
This explains why President Jonathan did not deserve a single vote from ordinary Nigerians. Indeed he would not have got any vote even from the Niger Delta if not for his ethnic identity. For instance, while a group called Rivers Elders and Leaders Council (RELEC) were canvassing support for him they admitted that if the people of the state were to base their decision on what Jonathan had done for them, the president would not get the people’s votes. The people were asked to vote him to ensure that the Niger Delta region maintained its relevance in the governance of the country (ThisDay, March 14, 2015).
In Otuoke, a village in Bayelsa State where the President Jonathan was born, a woman told the Guardian (London): “Of course, we will still vote for him because he’s our brother but, honestly, I can’t say we’re happy â€¦ This is the president’s home town and you can see how it looks. See us sweating here because there’s no electricity” (March 25, 2015).
According to this newspaper, it was only the sprawling mansion built by the president and the pair of smart two-storey houses he built for his parents that had electricity in the village.
The newspaper also observed that while former militants such as Dokubo-Asari have become multimillionaires on government contracts there’s little sign of money trickling down, with Bayelsa having a distinctly sleepy, provincial air. Meanwhile, flagship electricity and education projects have had barely any effect in communities such as Otuoke.
President Jonathan himself noted at his campaign rally in Port Harcourt Rivers State that he had been criticised by people in the region that his presidency had not favoured the area and promised to redress the situation when re-elected (ThisDay, January 28, 2015).
The Western media has however attempted to present the failure of President Jonathan to perform well in spite of huge resources as being a result of his personal failing and not the failure of capitalism. For instance, Tim Stanley titled his scorching censure of the Jonathan government: “Only capitalism can save Nigeria” (Spectator, January 31). They seem to disassociate capitalism from the failure of Jonathan’s government.
They are however wrong. It is an undisputable fact that President Jonathan rivalled Military Dictator Ibrahim Babangida who introduced the infamous Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) as the most loyal agent of capitalism in the history of Nigeria. First instance, Jonathan carried out Africa’s biggest privatization with the privatisation of the power sector. The public electricity company was not only sold at a loss of about N400bn but government has also continued to subsidise the private owners with public fund. Besides, according to Henry Boyo, despite the privatisation of power, government’s sustained expenditure in the subsector still exceeds the consolidated funds brought in by the new owners of our power infrastructure. Yet, electricity has not improved while the consumers are made to pay for service not enjoyed with a high tariff being charged. Worse still, the government has totally ceded the power to fix tariff to the electricity distributors. It should be instructive to note however that the Buhari government may not be different. For instance, Muhammadu Buhari, at a town hall meeting with the organized private sector during the electioneering, was reported to have said that, “We agree with the privatisation of the power utilities but we believe it must go further to transmission.” (Vanguard, February 2).
Besides, the Jonathan government has crippled the local refineries with little or no investment in the last six years. Rather, it allows the so-called private sector operators who are heavily subsidized to import fuel to the country and make super profits. Nigeria has an unenviable record of being the only member of OPEC that imports refined petroleum product. A sizable portion of the foreign reserve is lost to the importation of fuel. This is partly why the foreign reserve had been so badly depleted by the time the oil price started to slump. As a result the naira has been devalued and inflation is on the rise.
All this has further shown that the Jonathan government is run for the profit-first interest or greed of a few at the expense of ordinary Nigerians and economy.
However, what has made Jonathan an easy sacrificial lamb of the crisis of capitalism is the egregious corruption that was associated with his government and his inability to guarantee the much needed harmony amongst the ruling elite. The past leaders who were as much corrupt at least put up an anti-corruption faÃ§ade, but Jonathan did not seem to have time for such pretext. On a national television, he said he did not “give a damn” on how Nigerians took his refusal to emulate his predecessor, the late Musa Yar’Adua, who openly declared his assets in 2011.
Truly, he did not care about the reality or perception of corruption in his administration. His visibly corrupt ministers were treated as sacred cows. For instance, he did not see anything wrong in the Minister of Petroleum, Deziani Madueke, embarking on self-serving globetrotting on private jets at the expense of public funds. He gave a state pardon to former Governor of Bayelsa, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was convicted for corruption in Nigeria and a fugitive from the United Kingdom where he jumped bail while facing money laundering charges in court. The organization that campaigned for his re-election, Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria (TAN), was formed and led by Andy Uba, who was among those indicted in the N2 trillion fuel subsidy payment scandal by a panel set up by the President Jonathan himself after the January 2012 general strike and mass protest against fuel price increase. The spokesperson of Jonathan’s official campaign organization, Femi Fani-Kayode, still faces corruption charges in court. Worse still, President Jonathan unashamedly tried to deodorize corruption by theorizing on the difference between corruption and stealing and stated that what many people see as corruption in the government is mere stealing!
Therefore for the masses, corruption is the main reason Jonathan has failed woefully and in Buhari they have a man with the reputation of being ascetic and incorruptible, something that is a rare attribute for an average bourgeois politician in Nigeria. Buhari himself seems to believe that once the evil of corruption is tackled every other thing will fall into places. Indeed, in all his speeches since he declared interest in the presidential election for the fourth time, the issue of corruption has been the constant refrain and a potent weapon used successfully against President Jonathan.
At his Chatham House London speech, Buhari said, “in the face of dwindling revenues, a good place to start the repositioning of Nigeria’s economy is to swiftly tackle two ills that have ballooned under the present administration: waste and corruption. And in doing this, I will, if elected, lead the way, with the force of personal example. On corruption, there will be no confusion as to where I stand. Corruption will have no place and the corrupt will not be appointed into my administration”.
In the same speech, he added, “we will plug the holes in the budgetary process. Revenue producing entities such as NNPC and Customs and Excise will have one set of books only. Their revenues will be publicly disclosed and regularly audited. The institutions of state dedicated to fighting corruption will be given independence and prosecutorial authority without political interference.”
While Buhari has explained how to create measures to mitigate corrupt practices in the revenue collection, for the expenditure of the resources he seems to rely only “on the force of personal example” and non-appointment of the corrupt in his administration. This is obviously utopian. First, a major avenue of corruption is contract system in which the contract sum is usually inflated. Without the democratic control of resources and projects by the elected representatives of workers and relevant professional, there is no guarantee for judicious spending of any allocation. This for instance explains why all the resources that have been spent on the power sector since the Obasanjo government have largely gone down the drain.
Besides, many of the characters around Buhari are as corrupt as can be found in any administration since the return to civil rule. Many of them will see the financial contribution to his campaign, albeit from the looted public fund, as an investment that must be recouped with a return. More importantly, it is capitalism especially the neo-liberal agenda which Buhari has subscribed to, albeit with a tinge of statism that promotes corruption as it discourages public spending on infrastructure and social program and therefore leaves more resources for looting. Privatisation policy, for instance, which the Buhari administration will continue, is the mother of all corruption as already revealed in the power sector privatization where the public utility was sold at giveaway price in order to satisfy the profit-first interest of the so-called private investors.
However, the major challenge for Buhari is how to meet the expectation of the masses that have built huge illusions in him. Many capitalist commentators have already started making excuse on his behalf. For instance, Renaissance Capital stated that Buhari would be coming into office at a time when Nigeria’s fiscal and external buffers (Excess Crude Account and Foreign Reserves) are at their lowest in several years which implies no access to savings to offset the decline in revenue. The group also estimated that based on the reduction of budget benchmark from $77.5 per barrel in 2014 to the proposed $53 in 2015 the revenue is likely to drop by one-third compared with the fiscal last year. It therefore concluded: “Buhari’s administration will have to work with very limited resources, which will significantly constrain its ability to fulfill its election promises.” (Guardian, April 8, 2015).
The masses should expect attempts to implement austerity policies as administered by Buhari in his previous stint in office between 1983 and 1985. Then, according to the Renascence Capital, “his administration cut spending by 15 per cent, temporarily banned hiring, hiked interest rates, froze capital projects, and cut imports to reduce the balance of payments deficit.”
Already, the outgoing government has made some difficult decisions behind which Buhari administration can try to hide to continue anti-poor policies. For instance, the capital expenditure has been cut to N700 billion for 2015 as compared to N1.1 trillion in 2014. Indeed, the capital budget on road network was cut from about N100 billion to a paltry N11 billion. The Senate has also approved the increase in the Value Added Tax (VAT) from 5% to 10%. The government has also applied for $2bn loan facility from the World Bank to finance the budget deficit. Already, the government has budgeted N943 billion (more than capital expenditure) to service a total debt profile put at $67.7 billion (N11.2 trillion) as at December 31, 2014. The government which had earlier increased the electricity tariff by 50% in January has given the distribution companies the license to impose charges on the consumers as they wish.
But Buhari will be under two conflicting pressures, ordinary Nigerians’ expectations and the demands of a worsening capitalist economy. This can create the situation where mass pressure or struggle forces Buhari to give temporal concessions to working people which then the government and capitalists try to undermine.
Despite the falling price in crude oil, monumental resources can still be made available for diversification of the economy, provision of basic infrastructure and creation of jobs if only government abandons neo-liberal capitalist policies as well as nationalize the commanding height of the economy and placed under democratic control and management of the working class. But this would need a government representing working and poor Nigerians that would break the grip of capitalism so that it could begin to plan the use of Nigeria’s tremendous resources in the interests of the majority, not a tiny handful. Until that happens the best we can get in a capitalist economy like Nigeria’s which is dominated by the major imperialist powers/investment is that a number of the ruling class will invest in simpler products like building materials, refining and foodstuffs or assembling foreign produced goods like autos. But even this limited investment is also threatened by the dwindling public funds since state intervention in form of bailout, tax holiday, sales of government bonds, import duties exemption etc., will not be as available as is used to be.
Unfortunately, many labour leaders seem prepared to turn a blind eye to the austerity policies that will be implemented by the incoming administration of Buhari. In a statement the General Secretary of the NLC, Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson, said, “There is no pretence that the collapse of the global oil prices, which put the Nigerian economy in crisis, is still very much on ground. The new administration is coming in at a time in which these challenges are still there and there is not much happening around the world to alter the situation, for instance, the oil prices.” (Guardian, April 8, 2015).
The President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) Dr Nasir Fagge, has also been reported to have called on Nigerians to rally round Buhari in order to give him the desired support needed in moving the country to the next level. He was also said to have assured that on the part of ASUU, the union would do everything possible to ensure that it worked with the incoming administration to move the country in the right direction. Also betraying the illusion in Buhari, Fagge was quoted to have said, “With a new administration in place, it is my belief that issues surrounding insurgency, education, power and health will be given priority attention.” (Vanguard, April 1, 2015).
It is not for the labour leaders to show understanding or help resolve the crisis of capitalism. If Buhari does not want heat he should not have come to the kitchen. The trade unions must place the demands on the new administration and plan to resist attacks on the working people. The NLC and TUC must not shy away from demanding a new national minimum wage as the current one has been rendered untenable by inflation. The government should not be allowed to make the working people and the poor pay for the crisis of capitalism. Trade unions must demand that all the political office holders are placed on the salary structure of civil servant as well as democratic control of projects and allocations by the elected representatives of the relevant working people
Buhari has already said, “We will use savings that arise from blocking leakages and the proceeds recovered from corruption to fund our party’s social investments programmes in education, health, and safety nets such as free school meals for children, emergency public works for unemployed youth and pensions for the elderly”. The trade unions and other mass organizations of the working people must be prepared to force Buhari to fulfill this electoral promise. The trade unions must also ensure that the jobs that the incoming ruling party has promised to create are not the slave, insecure jobs like Osun state OYES where the workers are paid party N10, 000 per month and without right to trade union.
Given the disposition of many labour leaders, who appear currently in love with Buhari and helped promote mass illusion in him, there may be hiatus in class struggles in the coming period. But this may not last long as the struggles, in spite of the labour leaders, will break out as the impact of the austerity policies becomes no longer unbearable to workers and masses.
In Buhari with his anti-corruption image, the strategists and defenders of capitalism have used their last joker to save the iniquitous system from a defeat in Nigeria. Therefore, socialists must launch a serious ideological offensive against capitalism and continue the demand on the labour movement for the formation of a mass working peoples’ party on a socialist program that will be prepared to take over power as soon as the bubble of illusion in Buhari burst