Thursday, 12 November 2015

Buhari: Time To Go Beyond Body Language

President Muhammadu Buhari
by: Ayo Olukotun


“Forging a popular coalition requires a galvanising inspirational agenda” – Stephen Kinzer

The Sokoto State Governor, Aminu Tambuwal, I believe it was, who introduced the concept of body language into our ever expanding political vocabulary. Tambuwal, at the time Speaker of the House of Representatives, had daringly accused former President Goodluck Jonathan of encouraging corruption through his “body language.” Since that time, the concept has come to stay and was most recently adapted to describe efficiency markups in some sectors of the Nigerian economy as a result of the fear of President Muhammadu Buhari. For example, a noticeable increase in power distribution, which has since been reversed, was a few months ago attributed to the sanitising effect of Buhari’s body language, by which it is meant that various operators hitherto negligent, simply did what is right for fear of possible sanctions from the President.

It will seem therefore that for a season, Buhari’s acclaimed body language was a healthy tonic for institutions and agents which have long forgotten their mandate and mission, and have slumbered into various degrees of irresponsibility. The problem, however, is that body language, very hard to pin down as a concept, is difficult to delimit or granted empirical content, since it belongs to the realm of gestures, facial expressions, and sign language. Indeed, I can confirm that the mystique of body language has retreated, to the extent that power generation and distribution have regressed to their earlier, desultory pace, at least in the South-Western part of this country. Protracted blackouts, chaotic and anxious waiting at fuel stations are now the stuff of everyday life. As this piece is being finalised, several towns are caught in the throes of long queues for fuel which are sold at soar away prices. In other words, body language must now be replaced by effective and lasting policies that can stand the test of time.

The other reason for disquiet is the tattered state of the economy, illustrated by rising job losses in the midst of climbing inflation, which is currently put at 9.5 per cent. For the average citizen, this means that, at the time when essential items are being priced out of reach, he no longer has a job with which he can absorb the shock of rising prices. That apart, the tardiness in making clear an economic direction, has kept operators and institutions too long in a guessing game, in which they can only hedge their bets.

Hopefully, as the ministers-designate finally settle down to work, much of the uncertainty will be removed, but it is another matter to expect that the economic and social problems which have accumulated will go away in a hurry. That is another way of saying that it is time for Buhari to go beyond the spin-offs of body language, and create policies that will define his legacy and place in Nigerian history. Before proceeding with the analysis however, I request the reader’s indulgence to enter a short take.

The death, a few days ago, of Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, J.D.Y Peel, has robbed Nigeria of an illustrious student of its religion and social life. Peel wrote copiously about Nigeria, especially on Yoruba culture and religion; and spent considerable time teaching and mentoring generations of Nigerian scholars, both in his native Britain, and in Nigeria.

I was fortunate to have learnt at his feet in the years when he lectured at the Obafemi Awolowo University. As it often happens, the relationship transcended the formal roles of lecturer and student, broadening into a warm personal fellowship, which allowed him to make constructive suggestions about career development. He was very often in and out of Nigeria throughout the entire span of a distinguished academic career, and many will recall that one of his last engagements in Nigeria, was a lecture he delivered at the 90th birthday celebration of the Afenifere leader, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, at the MUSON Centre in Lagos.

Beyond his academic pedigree, Peel will be remembered for his humanity, large-heartedness, and the ability to express profound truths in simple and accessible language. He will be sorely missed by the academic community and his wide network of friends in Nigeria and beyond.

To return to the main subject of this discourse, it is important for Buhari to revitalise his flagging change agenda, by painting before us, a clear vision of where he is taking us. As the award winning journalist and author, Stephen Kinzer, quoted in the opening section informs us, articulating an inspirational agenda, around which the people can gather, is the stuff of great leadership. In recent weeks, and as Sam Omatseye recently argued, Buhari is beginning to sound as if overwhelmed by Nigeria’s problems, rather than providing a road map out of them. He has talked too often about Nigeria being broke and about the predatory ravages of his predecessors in office. He has told us less about what he intends to do within or outside the box, to confront these challenges.

True, with the price of oil, down to $44.3 per barrel, the Nigerian situation can be, on the face of it, disheartening, even for brave souls. However, leaders who are transformative and visionary, rather than merely restorative or conventional, see opportunities to re-engineer in national adversities. For example, the United States President, Franklin Roosevelt, turned the Great Depression into an opportunity to reinvent the American state through bold Keynesian policies. In a minor replay of that epic achievement, President Barack Obama employed adroit economic policies, including a stimulus package to lift the US out of depression. Leaders who are mindful of their places in history are not allowed the luxury of psychological depression, or of emphasising how desperately bad, the nation’s circumstances are.

There is another reason why Buhari must move quickly and strategically to lift us out of the woods, rather than stay, bemoaning the problems. This is simply, that in a four-year electoral cycle such as we have, and given the frenzied jostle for power in our context, only two years are devoted to governance. The other half of the cycle is devoted to electoral competition, direct or indirect, and political shenanigans. What this implies is that Buhari, and the new ministers, when they resume work, have much less time than they imagine, to make a mark on the mounting tally of problems, structural or contingent. Consequently, we should now begin to see noticeable strides in the areas of our current woes, before the exigencies of political competition and electoral rivalry overtake the nation.

On the economy for example, the downturn in oil prices, provides an opportunity to mainstream alternative sources of revenue, which for long have been neglected because of the oil bonanza. If we succeed at doing this, as well as retrench the heavy tide of government expenditure on salaries and consumables, we would have learnt the lessons of the current adversity and create a more buoyant nation. In the same vein, we need to get the electricity generation equation right, by diversifying power sources, and protecting the supply of gas.

At any rate, these times call for courageous leadership, and a willingness to innovate outside familiar boxes.

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