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Buhari’s Last Card By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

There are now nine months left in Buhari’s administration. Out of those nine months, two are for the National Assembly to go on vacation and one is for them to spend on their individual squabbles and scandals and court appearances and scuffles on the floor of the Green and Red chambers and inside closed door meetings. So, essentially, President Buhari has just six months left to write and pass laws through the Senate and the House of Representatives. And in Nigeria, passing a law is not an easy task considering the time it takes for first reading and second reading and committee reports and paddings and un-paddings.

Come May 29, 2017, the music would change. Whether Buhari is interested in running for a second term or not, the whole political class will officially go into second base. That is when they dedicate all the resources at their disposal to the 2019 elections. Governors who are facing term limits will concentrate all their efforts in getting into former governors’ preferred prosecution protection hub called the senate. Those senators already drawing salaries and allowances that are eight times higher than what President Barack Obama makes will begin a massive operation to retain their seats in the senate. The operation entails more paddings, aggressive collection of bribes to get bills read, first, second and third times and to have bills killed or kept in a safe deposit box (e.g. Petroleum Industry Bill). Those in the lower House, the House of Representatives, will be doing the same thing too- adding to their war chest money to take on those in the senate for a chance to be promoted. A similar thing will replicate itself all across the political landscape from local government councilors to state Houses of Assembly.

In that environment, nothing gets done. Lawmakers who were not doing their jobs before, would be less likely to do so at this point. Knowing that re-election is not dependent on performance in office, but on how much money a politician has on hand to grease the palms of party officials, senior electoral staff, constituency leaders, law enforcement agents, senior lawyers and electoral probe judges, politicians default to finding money by all means. And with people dreaming of becoming president on both parties thrown into the mix, with their money influencing all the political actors in the arena, including the militants and the moneybags, real political advancement will be as good as foreclosed.

In essence, Buhari has six months to invest his political capital in something that will outlive him and his administration. So far all his investments have been on the fight against corruption. Those investments are likely to be liquidated by the next administration, whether it is a PDP or another APC administration. Everyone talks about how similar this Buhari administration is to the one of 1984. What nobody talks about is that should Buhari’s administration end now, what will follow will be similar to what followed when his former administration ended in 1985. And I doubt that Nigerians want to go there again.

Here is my guess of the thinking inside Buhari’s government. Despite the N1.06 trillion shortfall in revenue in the last six months, next month the government will start paying ex-militants. On September 22, they will start feeding school children across Nigeria. Sometime this month, the wife of the president, Aisha Buhari, will finally visit the US. Last week, after months and months of complaining about unfair and lopsided appointments, Buhari appointed two South East people to head NBET and RMAFC. And maybe down the road, the Buhari government will start paying the unemployed N5000 his party promised during the campaign. The hope is that all these gestures will ultimately change most of the negative perceptions dogging this administration.

The trouble with perception is that it is like cancer, it crawls from one thing to another. Also the longer it lingers, the harder it is to change. Late stage steps taken to change perceptions often fail to get the credit they deserve because some hearts have become hardened by then. Take for example the issue of appointments: Buhari could have had the same people he has around him without necessarily causing uproar over lopsidedness by simply announcing other appointments from other parts of the country while getting his core people he felt he trusted in strategic places. The complaint then might just be that he gave unimportant (yeye) appointments to others but not that he flagrantly ignored other parts of the country.

There are several external and internal factors responsible for where Nigeria is at present. Most of them are not Buhari’s own making. The things that are of Buhari’s making are the own goals he scored and his reaction to his opponents, as well as supporters, when they jeered. The Buhari team must be confident that their promissory good intentions would be sufficient at the end when they manifest themselves for all to see. The problem with that calculation is two folds. One is that trust lost costs more to regain. The second is that accumulations of distrusts and negative perceptions have a way of overwhelming good intentions of the most honest of governments.

Here are places where Buhari should spend his political capital in the six months left in his administration.

In January of 2013, a presidential committee on public service reform discovered that top government officials in Nigeria take home N1.126 trillion a year in salaries and allowances out of a national budget of N4.9 trillion. These public officers constitute just 0.013 per cent of Nigeria’s population. They include 108 senators who each make over $1.7m a year. That alone is $183.4 million N69 billion. Then the 360 members of the House of Representatives each takes home over $1.2 million, which amounts to $432 million (N165bn). Again, each state governor collects an average of N200 million naira a month just as security vote. In a year, they each get N2.4 billion naira. So our 36 governors take home N87 billion naira on security votes alone every year. Add our 38 ministers and ministers of state, 100 plus heads of federal and state agencies, over 432 state commissioners, 774 local government area chairmen or caretakers, almost 10,000 councilors and you will understand where the N1.126 trillion goes.

The government should send bills to the National Assembly to immediately reduce the cost of governance. This will entail compelling the Revenue Mobilization and Allocation Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) to cut the money paid to federal lawmakers and government functionaries. Along the same line, security votes for government officials should be scrapped from whatever statue’s book it is. Another way of reducing the cost of government is to push through constitutional changes that will trim the number of senators and members of the House of Representatives that we have as well as the provisions that said each state must produce at least one minister. All these can be signed and sealed before the 2019 elections.

While Buhari is best placed to take a stab at serious restructuring of Nigeria; implementing a form of state police, a reasonable resource control, and a decentralization of power that empowers the regions to function independently, there is little or no chance that he has the willpower or the capital to embark on such in the next six months. What he can do in the interim is to pave the way for that possibility in the future.

The best way to prepare the groundwork is to make a grand push for an open government. Whatever it takes, by passing bills or twisting arms, Buhari should make sure that he bequeaths the future generations of Nigerians an institutionalized open government. Nigerians should know how much their government officials are making, to the nearest kobo. Anyone who doesn’t want his or her salaries and allowances known should look for a job with the private sector. The declaration of assets should be compulsory and open. There should be no need to go to court under the Freedom of Information Act and beg for the release of assets declaration forms- a process that lasts forever with little chance of success. Structures like these will help institutionalize the fight against corruption, enhance it and give the Nigerian people the tools to understand it and be part of its advocate.

A country like Nigeria that has been under the influence of corruption for so long is a country in trauma. Looking at the real political calendar, Buhari is running out of time. Complex variables have greatly diminished the possible accomplishments anyone can expect from this administration. What is left now is for Buhari to trust the future generation of Nigerians with information that will help them make informed decisions about their lives. It is Buhari’s real last card, not the kitchen cabinet’s dream of implementing some magical policies that will restore the idealistic admiration most Nigerians attached to his 2015 campaign.

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo is the author of "This American Life Sef". "This American Life Sef" will be published in Nigeria by Winepress on August 8, 2016. His email address is [email protected]