It is possible, someone has said, to campaign in poetry – just so long as you don’t intend to govern that way.
Since its assumption of office in May this year, the administration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, GCFR has found it necessary to govern in prose, given that what it inherited from successive governments – and especially the immediate past administration – has turned out to be, not only as bad as critics, analysts and commentators said they were, but worse. Not only that, Nigeria, for the better part of the last 40 years, has stood precariously on the edge of a precipice – poised between the very real prospect of recovering her bearings and moving intentionally towards the actualisation of her immense potential (on the one hand), and the equally real prospect of economic collapse and socio-political implosion.
To complicate matters further, the worsening conditions in the land have as their flipside the rising, indeed sky-high, expectations of the populace, who, frankly, at this point, want to see nothing less than a government that wields a magic wand that can wave their problems away, and conjure solutions out of thin air. The absence of such a wand – and the palpable frustration of the populace as a result – has put the government of Pres. Tinubu in an especially difficult position. It is a perfect storm indeed, and how government responds to it will have far-reaching implications for the state of the so-called ‘social contract’ between the leaders and the led.
No one understands this more than President Tinubu, who knows that, having set such a high bar in his previous position as Governor of Lagos State, any less impactful performance now, as the nation’s Chief Executive, would invariably be seen as a tragic anticlimax to a political career that will provide historians and commentators with many talking-points for years, if not decades, to come. If his performance as President turns out to be below-par, even the most charitable of his critics will dismiss his gubernatorial tenure as a fluke, while his political opponents and other naysayers will ascribe his ‘modest‘ (as they will see it) achievements in Lagos to factors other than his mettle as a leader and his ability to influence positive outcomes.
The recent Cabinet Retreat held at the Conference Centre of the Aso Villa, the seat of the Nigerian Presidency in Abuja, underscores this understanding on the part of Pres. Tinubu. The crux of the President’s exhortation to his ministers was: Produce optimal results – or get sacked.
Why is this exhortation important? One, on previous occasions, the President himself had asked Nigerians to hold him to a higher standard as far as his government’s intervention in the issues that affect them is concerned; to not ‘pity‘ him on account of the onerous nature of his assignment at this time; to not accept excuses or politically-correct talk that doesn’t translate into the outcomes they deserve and should rightfully expect, and so forth.
Two, many (if not most) of the functionaries who worked with him during his stewardship in Lagos State (arguably Nigeria’s most challenging sub-national entity to run) and helped him position that state on its present pedestal, are still with him as he takes on the infinitely more challenging task of resetting the nation’s fortunes and positioning it for sustainable growth. So, they are conversant with their principal’s developmental template, his ideological orientation and political preoccupations, and even his quirks and idiosyncrasies, if any.
And three, his not-so-subtle threat to dismiss any non-performing minister is real – as the experience of those who have worked with him in the past has shown. In fact, his erstwhile Chief of Staff (and eventual successor in Government House, Alausa, Ikeja) Babatunde Fashola, SAN, recounted in a recent TV interview the number of times his principal (then-Governor Tinubu) summarily ‘fired’ him from his CoS job, only to ‘re-hire’ him a mere few hours later on each occasion – usually when an emergency or crisis came up or seemed imminent (and prompt, effective action was required). Needless to say, Fashola’s ability to provide the needed solution to each emergency endeared him to his principal in the end – and the rest, as they say, is history. Far from being a sign of capriciousness or erratic behaviour on the part of Asiwaju Tinubu, the Fashola example, and others, demonstrate Tinubu’s uncompromising insistence on the bottom-line, and his readiness to do away with anything or anybody who stands in the way of the actualisation of a stated objective. This attitude is a refreshing departure from that of the last two Presidents, namely, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, who at times seemed incapable of relieving even the most obviously incompetent of ministers of their duties (as if paralysed either by emotional attachment or by the vested interests to whom the two leaders owed their high office).
Two important components of good leadership and result-oriented stewardship, such that the President is demanding from his team, are accountability (also referred to as transparency) and sensitivity to the public’s mood at a given time. These attributes are, admittedly, at a premium as far as governance in Nigeria is concerned, but at no time are they in greater demand than now, as the majority of Nigerians feel the bitter effects of years, even decades, of bad governance characterized by economic mismanagement, visionlessness, nepotism, corruption and lack of transparency, and plain old incompetence.
Keenly aware of the raw nature of public opinion and discourse in these days of anomie, especially in the aftermath of a bruising election and a slew of painful economic reforms thereafter – the Tinubu administration has sought to position itself (and rightly so) as a government that is willing to do what it is asking Nigerians to do in the midst of the present challenges: mitigate problems and maximize opportunities for growth by tightening their proverbial belts in anticipation of harder (but ultimately temporary) economic times.
This awareness is what informed the Presidency’s response to the erroneous impression created in the public imagination by the recent news of the National Assembly’s approval of a N2.1 trillion supplementary budget as proposed and submitted by the Presidency – which reportedly included a N5.09 billion allocation for a ‘presidential yacht’, a N2.9 billion allocation for sport utility vehicles (SUVs) for the Presidential Villa, as well as a N19 billion allocation for the replacement of operational vehicles in the Presidency and the renovation of the President’s and the Vice-President’s lodges. The full breakdown, according to these reports, shows as follows: ‘Purchase of SUVs – N2.9 billion; Replacement of Operational Pool Vehicles – N2.9 billion; Renovation of Residential Quarters for Mr. President – N4 billion; Renovation of Aguda House (the Vice President’s Residence) – N2.5 billion; Computerization and Digitalization of the State House – N200 million; Construction of Office Complex within the State House – N4 billion; Renovation of Dodan Barracks – Official Residence of Mr. President – N4 billion; and Renovation of Official Quarters of the Vice President in Lagos – N3 billion.
Understandably, the response among the general populace (especially on social media and the blogosphere) to these reported allocations has been vitriolic, to say the least. The sheer force of public outrage at what many Nigerians see as a breathtaking display of insensitivity on the part of the political elite has prompted the Presidency to issue a clarification of the modalities of the supplementary budget proposal – mainly to the effect that President Tinubu had NOT requested the purchase of a presidential yacht for his use (for the simple reason that he did NOT NEED one to be able to perform his duties effectively).
In a statement signed by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Tope Ajayi, the Presidency added that the ‘yacht’ in question was listed under the Nigerian Navy’s proposed capital expenditure of N42.3 billion. Ajayi also challenged the federal government’s Budget Office to explain to Nigerians why such an expenditure was needed in these tough times. “I must readily admit,” he added, “that the one reason our budgeting system has been a subject of public attack is the very simplistic way some of the line items are described by the civil servants who prepare the budget.”
As Ajayi rightly noted, the controversy over the misnamed presidential yacht in particular has not been helped by the seemingly insatiable appetite of some sections of the Nigerian media for undue sensationalism – the type that tickles and titillates in order to sell papers and online views, but provides zero enlightenment as it focuses on shadow rather than substance, and throws more heat than light on the subject under review. “It is important to say,” he wrote, “that journalism should enrich public enlightenment and not create an atmosphere of siege.”
He described as ‘poor reporting‘ another tendency on the part of certain sections of the media, namely, that of ALWAYS reducing State House budgetary provisions – whether for food, vehicles or other material comforts – solely to the persons of the President and Vice President.
“When the State House makes provisions for food or for vehicles,” the media aide lamented, “it is reported as if it is the President that will use all the vehicles or eat all the food. We have had such inaccurate reporting in the past. A President and Vice President cannot, for any reason, spend N20 million naira to eat in a year … as first and second families.”
Wondering how much food ANY individual can possibly eat, Ajayi said, “… We … read headlines that Tinubu, Buhari, Jonathan or whoever the President is, wants to spend N5 billion on food and catering in a year, when in actual fact such budgetary provisions are made to accommodate many state events, meetings, hosting of VIPs and foreign dignitaries, and even visits by other Heads of State, bilateral and multilateral meetings that the State House will deal with in a given year. “
The clarification by the Presidency is not only masterful but timely, because the impression created in the public mind by the ‘presidential yacht’ story portends untold dangers if allowed to fester. It is the considered opinion of many stakeholders that even if it is true that a provision was made for such a luxury vessel by the Nigerian Navy (perhaps as a gesture toward the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces) the President should reject it as a matter of principle and a demonstration of his solidarity with the plight of the masses at this present time – not least considering the rather unpalatable fact that a large amount of the funds being allocated in this manner are to be sourced from foreign loans. No country desirous of growth in the short, medium or long term borrows to fund the luxury lifestyles of its ruling class.
Again, it is necessary to warn, at the risk of sounding alarmist, that news of this sort, combined with the dire situation Nigerians are facing right now, as well as their long-standing cynicism toward the genuineness or otherwise of government intentions, is an invitation to a response capable of disrupting law and order. As a matter of fact, an overview of social media reports and online commentaries on this matter (of a presidential yacht and SUVs, etc.), shows that there are millions of Nigerians who will take even the Presidency’s clarification with the proverbial pinch of salt. It is how we have become configured by our experience over the years.
We simply DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING OUR LEADERS SAY.
The only way to address this toxic atmosphere of cynicism, scepticism and distrust among an already angry populace, and to prevent what it might lead to, is to match these clarifications with prompt and effective confidence-building action, action that removes all doubt as to the government’s sincerity and its determination to ensure that the masses do not suffer any more than they already do – for ANY reason whatsoever.