President Muhammadu Buhari delivers the first televised speech since returning home after three months of medical leave in Britain, in Abuja, Nigeria August 21, 2017. Nigeria Presidency/Handout via Reuters
President Muhammadu Buhari

Buhari’s Semi-final Speech

By Azu Ishiekwene

“My countrymen and women, every new government inherits problems. Ours was no different. But what Nigerians want are quick solutions, quick solutions not a recitation of the problems inherited.”

– President Muhammadu Buhari, October 1, 2015

After Sunday’s Independence Day speech, President Muhammadu Buhari will have only one more Independence Day speech before his current term ends.

It will be the third in his presidency, but it might well be his most important yet. It’s a speech that would be measured not by what he’s going to say, but by what he has done in the last two and a half years.

On October 1, 2015, much of Buhari’s speech was on the war against Boko Haram. In keeping with his promise to make security a priority, he rallied the West African sub-region – and even members of the G-7 – against Boko Haram, putting the terrorists on the back foot only five months after taking office.

He was confident that in spite of the infrequent but deadly attacks on soft targets, the war would be won by December of that year. We believed him, not because he said so, but because for the first time in years, monies and supplies to troops in the frontline were no longer being diverted. Soon, the results were showing as lost territories were being reclaimed.

New areas of security concern – kidnapping, violent gun crimes, armed robbery, deadly attacks by herdsmen and a flare-up in ethnic tensions – are threatening to erode the gains made in the war on Boko Haram; but no honest assessment of Buhari’s record will deny that the Boko Haram snake has been severely scorched.

Also, in his 2015 speech, Buhari spoke about the economy – another pillar of his government’s promise. “In addition to (sanitizing) NNPC,” he said, “I have ordered a complete audit of our other revenue generating agencies mainly CBN, FIRS, Customs, NCC, for better service delivery to the nation.”

Except if rodents have eaten the audit reports, I’m not aware that the words have left the page since the president made them two years ago. If the institutions have been audited as the president promised, what happened to the reports?

Instead of the improvements that Buhari promised two years ago this week, allegations of nepotism in recruitment continue to dog a number of these institutions, while sweetheart deals are still rife.

I hope Buhari’s speech on Sunday does not make any fresh promise to probe or audit anything. Any such pledge would make it a mocking speech, except he tells us what happened to the audits he promised two years ago, and also the outcome of the more recent probe of the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, and the former Director of the National Intelligence Agency, Ayo Oke.

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Last year, Buhari gave his longest Independence Day speech yet, longer by 1,280 words than his first as civilian President and certainly longer than his similar-day speech in October 1984 when he was military Head of State.

I’m not sure that was a good sign. The Chairman of LEADERSHIP Group, Sam Nda-Isaiah, said one of the lasting management lessons he learnt from Pfizer was that speeches are longer when results are failing.

Buhari may have been tempted to lengthen his speech to cover the government’s initial confused response to the economic recession, which has driven families and businesses to the depths of despair. But long speeches are not a substitute for bread and butter.

A government that promised change, led by a man who has run for office four times, has to do more than offer excuses for why a few influential members of his government are not living change and the people are not feeling change.

This time last year, the President laid out a fairly comprehensive plan to get the economy going again. Specifically, he said, “the country should be self-sufficient in (food) staples by 2019”, and highlighted power, road and rail construction as areas where his government would double efforts.

It would be foolish to expect a bounty of agricultural harvest in one year, especially for a country whose current import bill for rice – just one staple – is currently $2 billion, and roughly the 1984 equivalent of the total value of import licenses issued by Buhari in his first coming for the importation of raw materials, machinery and spare parts put together.

There’s considerable activity going on to make the country self-sufficient in rice production, for example. But beneath the façade and all the noise about locally produced and branded rice, players who are finding it difficult to compete against cheaper Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Brazilian brands are filing false claims about owning rice mills just to get on the gravy train of concessionary loans or foreign exchange from the government.

Buhari’s speech last year mentioned improvement in power supply from the previous year by about 2,000 megawatts, thanks largely to the reduction in sabotage on the gas lines. But we’re losing steam again even without fresh attacks on the gas lines.

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Buhari can talk about power till the oceans run dry, if he does not do anything about the perennial problem of gas shortage, the dwindling power supply will worsen. Twelve of the major power plants that generate our electricity rely on gas.

Unfortunately, NNPC and the Nigerian Gas Company are managing gas the typical government way: opaquely. They don’t care much and can’t be bothered, because let’s face it; it’s a government monopoly.

Until the Bureau for Public Enterprises is allowed to do its job and gas supply, which accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s power feed is transparently privatised, whatever Buhari says on Sunday about power should be taken with a kilowatt of salt.

The president must find the courage to bury the demons in the power sector – up and down the value chain – starting with gas supply.

His speech on Sunday would be incomplete without his anti-corruption report card. It’s been the main point since 1984, when he warned that “the public service must abandon corruption, incompetence and the slow pace of executing programmes because the days of easy money and reckless spending are over.”

His scorecard so far has been mixed. A combination of internal rebellion in the presidency, sabotage in the legislature and malicious obstruction in the judiciary, not to mention the President’s poor health, has significantly undermined the anti-corruption war.

What Nigerians want on Sunday is not a long lecture of self-praise, but concrete steps by the President to put his house in order and show that he still has some fire left in him.

And after the quit notice, the hate speeches and the python dance, it’s gratifying that Igbos living in the North will not need visas yet to visit Kaduna, which might have been the case from Sunday, October 1.

As the President makes his last but one speech before his current term ends, Nigerians are watching to see not just what he says but how he would deal with genuine calls to restructure the country, a major item on his party’s agenda, which he abandoned – just as he abandoned his party – almost immediately after he was sworn in.

*Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and board member of the Paris-based Global Editors Network

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