Yar'Adua's year – by Reuben Abati

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 January 1, 2009

Yar’Adua’s year By Reuben Abati

YEAR 2009 will make or mar Mr. Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s Presidency. After more than 18 months in office, the incontrovertible evidence and conclusion among Nigerians is that the Yar’adua Presidency has been slow and ineffective. It has not done much to make a difference in the lives of the people. The seven-point agenda has been mouthed and repeated so often, it sounds like an echo of an ambition that is perpetually in the making. Hence, President Yar’Adua has been garlanded with all kinds of pejorative epithets: Baba Go slow, Father U-turn, Standstill President, an expression of the people’s impatience with the pace of his administration. In search of explanations for the seeming leisurely pace of a man who has been given the biggest assignment in the land and perhaps the most strategic position in the continent, leadership of Africa’s most populous nation and the sixth largest oil producing country in the world, Nigerians readily bought into the conclusion that ill-health is the biggest obstacle in the path of the presidency.

The President has fought hard to defend his biology, and has even had to take the Leadership Newspapers to court to show how sensitive he is about the subject, but in May 2008, he readily admitted that what is perceived as his slowness is actually an attempt on his part to study the Nigerian situation, to take stock and plan. He had argued that the bane of the developmental process in Nigeria has been the failure of planning. In a country where statistics are unreliable, records are hardly kept, and important files disappear from government custody or are set ablaze by thieves in official corridors, planning really can be an uphill task. Planning without facts is like a walk in a blind alley.

In President Yar’Adua’s case, his suggestion that he had spent a whole year planning was an admission of his own lack of preparedness for that high office. And between May 2007 and December 2008, this was most evident as the government changed its mind repeatedly. The budgeting process in 2007 and 2008 was so mismanaged, unspent funds had to be returned to the treasury at year-end or stolen by greedy state officials. Even speeches at public events became an occasion for politics and regret as the President occasionally said the wrong things (he did at the University of Ibadan 60th Founders day Anniversary and Convocation), and in another instance he had to disown a speech that been delivered on his behalf at the Obafemi Awolowo University Convocation ceremony.

Even the massacre in Jos was mismanaged by the Federal Government. Nigeria runs a funny security arrangement whereby although state Governors are called Chief Security Officers in their states, the actual Chief Security Officer for all the states is the President who exercises direct control over all the state security agencies. The order to move the security units to Jos did not arrive until the violence had gone on freely for hours on end, with disastrous consequences. Where was the Chief Security Officer of Nigeria? An embarrassed and marginalised Plateau State Government has now taken the Federal Government to court. It has also set up a parallel Commission of Enquiry.

Sympathetic observers have noted that the Yar’Adua administration may have seemed somewhat tentative because of the prolonged litigation over the 2007 Presidential election which distracted the President’s attention. But that was resolved before the end of the year 2008, with the Supreme court ruling in two different cases in favour of President Yar’Adua. And so he enters 2009, with a confirmed victory at the polls, assurances of his own good health, not by doctors but by him, and at last, he has managed to put together a cabinet which he says can do the job. All the planks seem to be in place in his reckoning. So he really thinks. In 2009, Nigerians will not expect their President to give excuses. The tentativeness and the U’turns of old if they were to be repeated in this new year will amount to an insult. We expect the Yar’Adua government to be more purposeful, more determined and better focussed. For future purposes, Nigerians must worry about a governance system which requires elected public officials to start planning only when they get into office, such a system which does not guarantee stability and a continuity of the governance machinery. If the Yar’Adua government were again to show signs of dithering and flops in 2009, it would have written itself off the pages of history by its own accord. Nigerians are impatient for good reason.

To be fair to President Yar’Adua, he is, in private, a most articulate man. He is very eloquent about the issues that should constitute the priorities of the Nigerian government. He is analytical in his reasoning and most convincing in laying out what needs to be done. But the same can be said for many other Nigerians. We are a country of eloquent and analytical persons. But to move this country forward, eloquence and paralytic analysis is not enough. Soporific planning is worse. What Nigeria needs is a hands-on confrontation with the issues of development. In 2009, President Yar’Adua must provide the leadership that Nigerians are asking for. It is in this year, that he will show whether he truly merits that office or not. His true electoral victory does not lie with the courts of law, but his performance in office. With the international price of crude oil tumbling, with a credit crunch making a mockery of neo-liberal capitalism, with Nigeria seized by de-industrialisation and a growing army of jobless and angry youths, with insecurity in the land and doubts in the minds of many, Nigeria is indeed in desperate need of visionary and pro-active leadership. It won’t be an easy task, but government must be seen to be making an effort and achieving results, not sleeping on duty.

By the end of 2009, ambitious politicians would again begin to jostle for the 2011 general elections. Each time this happens in Nigeria, politics cruelly replaces governance. Thus, the people are forever short-changed. There is so much wastage of time and ability built into the culture of Nigeria’s emerging democracy. President Yar’Adua is in a privileged position to make a difference. This is the decisive year when he cannot afford to fail Nigerians. If he does, he risks the possibility of his four years as President being written down as Nigeria’s wasted years. It is a terrible verdict that he must work hard to avoid. Like other people of the world, Nigerians are impressed by what they see, what they hear and what they feel in their private lives. President Yar’Adua must give Nigerians the opportunity for hope and faith. Now is the time.

In both his Budget 2009 presentation before the Senate and his Christmas message to Nigerians, President Yar’Adua had again restated his priorities, breaking down the seven-point agenda to specific deliverable targets. His government wants to provide motorable roads across the country through a concessioning process. This certainly doesn’t require endless planning. Have the partners been identified? When are they moving to site? The East-West road is a death trap, just like other Federal roads across the country. Transportation is key to the development process. Since May 2007, the only major response by the Yar’Adua government has been the spectacle of the former Minister of Transportation, weeping profusely to lament the decay of the Lagos-Benin highway.

The Yar’Adua government also wants to address the power supply crisis. This is almost like stale news. What Nigerians are waiting for is results. In the case of the power crisis, they are in fact asking for a miracle. To underscore the seriousness of the situation, President Yar’Adua should attempt the experiment of outlawing the use, sale, rental, repair, and importation of power generating plants in Nigeria for a month. The country will come to an end, and we will all revert to where this country belongs – a primitive, dark age. The use of generators hides the shame of our nation. Can President Yar’Adua tackle the already existing emergency in the power sector? He has talked so much about it. If he fails, Nigerians will always remember how he and his predecessor, former President Olusegun Obasanjo merely wasted public funds chasing the dream of regular electricity across Nigeria. Something that is taken for granted by other countries. It bears restating that a country that runs on generators, and that is perpetually in darkness can neither achieve the Millennium Development Goals, nor the so-called Vision 20 2020 target.

President Yar’Adua wants to take on the Niger Delta Question in 2009, so he has created a Ministry of the Niger Delta. The people of the Niger Delta can no longer be fooled. President Yar’Adua should move trucks and machines to the Niger Delta and begin a concrete process of development and renewal. The Governors alone can’t do what is required. This is not about bureaucracy. It is about the Nigerian state showing for once that an emergency indeed exists in that part of the country.

The President is also promising Nigerians electoral reform in 2009. Putting together a new Electoral Act and amending parts of the Constitution is so easy. Putting the new codes of legislation into practice is where the challenge lies. The litmus test of President Yar’Adua’s sincerity will come in the lead up to the 2011 elections. Will he subscribe to the PDP-must-rule-for-60 years project and thereby use state machinery to impose his own political party on Nigerians by force? Ghanaians next door are putting their democracy to test: they are having two run-offs to determine a 2008 Presidential election that has now moved into a new year. There may be hiccups but what the Ghanaians are doing shows much enlightenment. In Nigeria, elections are often determined by such anti-democratic factors as the will of Godfathers and the given right of an empty incumbency. Much of the problem with Nigerian democracy is not legal, but cultural. Electoral reform must include a cultural re-orientation of Nigerian politics.

But what President Yar’Adua must also worry about is the creeping death of social mobility in Nigeria. There is a terrible war of the classes going on in our country, between the rich and the poor. The rich are getting richer and exploiting the poor, those social institutions which used to provide the poor an opportunity for mobility and advancement have been destroyed. The schools are out, industries are laying off staff, they are closing shop. Education is becoming worthless. Only the children of the rich get good education because their parents can pay for it. They are the only ones who get good medical care. Poor Nigerians of the past produced children who went past the rich of old on the social ladder because there was in that other Nigeria a lot of emphasis on merit and ability. But today, background is the most important factor. A country where social mobility is conditioned by background,, where people are robbed of the natural capacity to hope and aspire is a dangerous society. This is why there is so much violence in the land. President Yar’Adua is called upon to appreciate the urgency of the Nigerian problem and provide the leadership that this moment requires.


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