After the euphoria that characterised the inauguration of a new federal government last Friday, and the partying that would have marked its immediate aftermath, attention gradually turns to the design of a “to-do list” for the Buhari government. Depending on whom you talk to, a smorgasbord of ideas is readily proffered. Immediate worries put resolution of the problem with fuel supply at the fore and centre of most such lists. Sundry other supply shortages (water, physical and social infrastructure, etc.) put in appearances at different levels.
Structural concerns are plenty. By how much to restructure the centre, for instance? Okay to move the defence headquarters to Maiduguri until the low-intensity insurgency in the North-East is pacified. However, does this also strengthen the case for moving functions of the federal government close to their immediate responsibilities? How about moving the central bank and the ports authority back to Lagos? And the oil bureaucracy as close to the upstream sector as possible?
Then there are those niggling worries over the character of our federation. Do we need, and how much, to devolve power to provincial and municipal governments? Is “subsidiarity” a principle around which we may organise this space, going forward? What role for the market?
All these notwithstanding, arguably, the biggest challenge before the country over the next four years is to restore popular confidence and trust in this democratic experiment.
May 29, 1999 was the culmination of an “epic” battle for the soul and direction of the country. Up to that date, a succession of self-interested leaders had subverted the national interest in defence of narrow perspectives on the purpose of governance. Weary, and having rapidly run down its moral bank balance, the military contrived a transition to civil rule that left it with a lot less eggs on its face than its conduct in the six years leading up to the 1999 transition justified.
The people were no less weary. However, they were willing to give this “democratic experiment” a chance to work. It also helped that the mantra from the heirs to the new regime spoke volubly to the need for the larger number of our people to earn the “dividends of democracy”. In the event, the past 16 years have been most Darwinian. Only the very strong have survived, in a landscape that each day becomes more post-apocalyptic. The strong have then corralled around restricted and increasingly restrictive interpretations of what our collective interests ought to be.
For the rest of us, resources became scarcer. Queues accessing these resources lengthened. Private living spaces constricted. And public spaces have become less habitable. Living in Nigeria has not turned exactly Hobbesian; but it has reached as close to that idyll as any people could get.
Incidentally, 32 years ago, we were in a similar cul-de-sac: scarce resources; lengthening queues; an exhausted people. In desperation, we reached out to a caudillo, whose cachet was built around law and order. Discipline. Crime bursting. And a fight to prevent the country’s integration into the global hard drugs supply chain. These were the hallmarks of that period. They were not enough, though. For there was an economic environment to the national body of problems that was not responsive to strong-arm tactics. It was the major contribution of the Ibrahim Babangida government that it husbanded the economy’s conceptual and practical transition from the old propensity for dirigiste solutions, to our current trust in the market as the economy’s growth engine.
In his discussion of how Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte turned caudillo, through the French coup of 1851, Karl Marx, paraphrasing Hegel, observed that “great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice…: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. If anything remains of this insight, then the biggest threat faced by the Buhari administration is of this transition to “farce”. We have tried the two dominant motifs of his administration before: our yearning for a strongman, whose strength helps stabilise the polity; and questions around how best to manage the economy.
The experience of the caudillo (December 1983 to August 1985), and our first flirtation with a “market-led economy” (August 1985 to August 1993) all ended tragically. Frustration of both of these motifs over the next four years is a real and present possibility. But a lot more would be at stake, thereafter, than whatever we presume to include, today, in our “to-do list” for the Buhari administration.