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Vol 56 No 11

Published 29th May 2015


Buhari sets out his agenda

Against a chaotic economic backdrop, the new President promises to make government accountable and re-establish the rule of law

Popular expectations of new President Muhammadu Buhari were stratospherically high before his 29 May inauguration in Abuja – all the more so because chronic fuel shortages, increasing power cuts, billowing state debts and mounting pay arrears have haunted the final weeks of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan's government.

Buhari's immediate answer to this is a laconic, 'expectations are too high.' We hear, though, that his speech in Abuja's Eagle Square will give Nigerians and foreign officials, including United States Secretary of State John Kerry, both a reality check and a promise of positive change. The attack on grand corruption will go beyond rhetoric and Buhari is set to spell out how he will call the state oil corporation, which he helped to establish over 30 years ago, to account AC Vol 56 No 9, Rising hopes, falling revenues).

There is no shortage of worldly and smart thinkers in the ranks of the victorious All Progressives Congress (APC) but their success in transforming good ideas into practical policy will depend critically on more mundane matters, such as overhauling the civil service (AC Vol 56 No 9, APC to lead with a leaner team). So the choice of Buhari's Chief of Staff and the new Secretary to the Federal Government will provide a key signal. These appointments and the ministerial ones that follow in the next few days will give an idea of the leadership style of Buhari Mark II. For constitutional reasons alone, he will not be able to resort to the diktats and decrees that were available to Buhari Mark I (military leader, 1983-85). He will be sorely tried by some of the egotistical politicians who are claiming credit for his impressive win in the presidential election.

At every turn, Buhari insists it will not be business as usual. In his meeting with state governors last week, when they complained about their depleted treasuries, he told them to be realistic. He added, we hear, that they should not expect much influence over his choice of federal ministers. That was something of a shock to the governors, some of whom, in Lagos, Rivers and Kano, preside over budgets bigger than some smaller African countries.

Buhari's cabinet list will surprise many people, party insiders say. On 22 May, Buhari suddenly left for London, ostensibly to rest before his toughest assignment in his 72 years (see Feature, Delta, dollars and Downing Street). His allies say he had to get away from the frenzied lobbying of politicians and interest groups eyeing prominent positions in his government and to draw up the final lists of aides and ministers. His unscheduled sojourn took several party barons unawares, which may have been part of the intention.

After General (retired) Buhari sets out the ethos and goals of his government, his colleagues say his priority will be to ensure that state institutions work effectively, carry out agreed policy and are held accountable. The failure of the Petroleum Ministry to produce a credible audit of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) over the past five years typifies the state of most ministries.

Doubtless the APC's Abuja summit to debate policy on 20-21 May was an important preparatory step. It also offered a glimpse into the workings of the APC. Star of the show was Nasir el-Rufai, Governor-elect of Kaduna State and lead speaker on the panel that explored ways of reforming the country's dysfunctional public service. As a former head of the privatisation bureau and Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, El-Rufai knows of what he speaks. His session at the Transcorp Hilton was packed: his attacks on outgoing President Jonathan ('one of my favourite subjects') and the 'evil' NNPC drew much chuckling and cheering.

El-Rufai came to prominence many years ago on the platform of the People's Democratic Party, like many of the familiar faces in the new governing APC. Other former PDP leaders due to play roles in the new government include former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar and former or serving state governors Abubakar Bukola Saraki, Rabiu Kwankwaso and Rotimi Amaechi.

In 2013, El-Rufai released a tell-all memoir, which many assumed would end his political career. His landslide victory in the governorship elections points to the unpredictability of Nigeria's partisan politics. Seven years ago, he was in exile, returning home only when Jonathan took over. Five years ago, he was a loud critic of Buhari's presidential ambition. Today, he is one of the most powerful members of the new order, drawing on his tumultuous experience in government.

Surface calm
For the APC, which has swept to victory in the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as most of the states, the war is over but the battles are just starting. Since it was founded in 2013, the APC's goal has been clear: to end the decade-and-a-half rule of the PDP. It took just two years to achieve that.

The raggedy state of the PDP after its electoral collapse means that most of the APC's battles will be fought within its own ranks. One of the APC's greatest strengths has been to present a united front but there is plenty of convulsion behind the scenes. Insiders explain how the APC's campaign struggled with funding, especially in the six weeks that followed the election postponement. They also talk of scrambling to find a coherent response to the PDP's rabidly offensive style and of how good fortune was an ally as much as the dismal record of incumbent President Jonathan.

Even the policy summit at which El-Rufai shone drew its own share of grumbling. A meeting of the party's governors coincided with the opening day of the policy summit: that suggested that not all party leaders had agreed to the plan. Yet generally, the summit helped the party to foster its reputation for valuing ideas and innovation. The brains behind it was former Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, Director of the campaign organisation's policy team and the strategist who organised the widely praised primary elections that crowned Buhari as presidential candidate in December without undue rancour from his rivals.

For now, the unknown in the APC is the role of Bola Ahmed Tinubu, self-styled national leader of the party. Until the founding of the APC, Tinubu was the leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria, one of the three parties that merged to form the APC. As ACN leader, he commanded the politics of the south-west, historically the bastion of opposition politics. His first battle was for the vice-presidency. In the days following Buhari's election as presidential candidate on 6 December, speculation mounted that Tinubu had the vice-presidential slot. That would have broken the unwritten rule that precludes having presidential and vice-presidential candidates from the same religion (like Buhari, Tinubu is Muslim). Eventually Buhari settled for Yemi Osinbajo, a professor of law and Pentecostal pastor, who is seen as Tinubu's candidate (AC Vol 55 No 25, Political storm warning). Osinbajo served as Commissioner for Justice during Tinubu's first term as Lagos Governor in 1999-2003.

During the three-month campaign, observers watched for signs of a Tinubu wobble. Reports of his absence triggered speculation about his attitude to Buhari. At the end of the day Tinubu delivered. On the strength of Buhari's alliance with Tinubu's political machine, he won the majority of votes in five of the six south-west states in the 28 March elections. Previously, Buhari had failed to win a majority in any south-west state.

Yet with the national stage before him, Tinubu is having to struggle for relevance. His name features in most debates surrounding the election of principal officers to the lower and upper chambers of the National Assembly, as well as the appointment of ministers and presidential aides. Arrayed against him are activists and officials who accuse him of a domineering style. Working in Tinubu's favour are his machine and a knack for building alliances and working out compromises. He tells journalists that he is simply an adept talent spotter, preparing the country's next generation of leaders. A former associate likens him to Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the military leader in 1985-1993, who ran rings around the political and military elite.

Making the transition
Apart from Tinubu, the future of the APC will be hugely influenced by the state governors. When the party was launched, it had only nine. That rose to 14 when five PDP Governors defected late in 2013. Then the party emerged from the 11 April governorship elections with 22 seats in the 30 states where elections were held. Elections will be held in the remaining six states over the next four years. Progress on education and health services, as well as transport, will depend mainly on the state governments. Their record will shape the APC's standing almost as much as Buhari's national leadership.

In the first week of June, the National Assembly will see last-minute power plays, when legislators convene to elect their principal officers, such as the president of the Senate and speaker of the House of Representatives. The APC has 59 senators, lacking the two-thirds majority to elect new officers without consulting the PDP. Although the PDP lacks the votes to elect its own candidates, it has enough members to push votes towards its preferred APC candidates. The APC is divided over zoning, the practice of sharing political offices among Nigeria's six regions. Buhari insists he will not interfere in the selection of these Assembly officials.

Apart from managing such internal rivalries, the APC will have to adjust quickly from its opposition mindset, at least at national level, to one of problem-solving and perhaps, pragmatism. It will have to make that shift under the most testing conditions. A week before the inauguration, the APC's National Publicity Secretary, Lai Mohammed, issued a statement: 'Never in the history of our country has any government handed over to another a more distressed country.' Looking at lengthening queues for fuel amid ever more frequent power cuts while banks reduced their services, few people disagreed with such sentiments. 

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