Monday, August 31, 2015

On Buhari's Counsellors, Character and Competence

By Olu Akanmu

It is important that President Buhari should not squander his political goodwill early in his administration. He will need that goodwill to manage and navigate through complex and difficult economic conditions ahead. This is one of the governance lessons from the failure of former President Jonathan. The President clearly by the lack of clear fiscal action on the economy, his attempt to revamp the national airline, revamp the NNPC refineries rather than privatizing them seem to be economically oriented to big and populist government in a period of constrained fiscal resources.  Inevitable painful decisions are ahead on petroleum subsidy because they are not sustainable at least at present levels. We consume petroleum products far less as a nation than what we import. It has been estimated that at least thirty to percent of petroleum products get smuggled across into neighbouring countries due wide cross boarder price differentials. Yet, the Nigerian government pays for these huge subsidy. We are essentially subsidizing significantly fuel consumption in neighbouring countries at huge cost to the national treasury.  The other collateral effect is that the naira is perpetually under pressure as a very significant portion of foreign exchange available is used to support importation of petroleum products. The naira will positively appreciate to the dollar with positive collateral economic effects if we import less petroleum products or if we could keep our petroleum products at the level of our actual national consumption.

We support and commend the new transparency and anticorruption stance of government. Resources previously unavailable such as the LNG dividends are now being discovered to be made available to the people. These liberated resources are however meager compared to what is required to fix the infrastructure challenge and the rotten decay in social sectors like education, health and create jobs. The President will need to ask the nation to sacrifice at a point and negotiate the reordering of government fiscal commitments given meagre resources. It is in this context that the President would need all the political goodwill when he would have to take inevitable difficult economic decisions. The outcry against the President’s perceived or real sectionally lopsided appointments, which could potentially squander his political goodwill should therefore alarm or give the President serious concern. President Buhari needs to ensure that he does not by commission or omission confirm the fear-mongering by opposition during the Presidential elections that he would be a provincial President. This is another lesson to learn from the failure of former President Jonathan. He failed to remember consistently his national mandate and largely governed as a provincial President with “it is our turn” mentality screaming boldly out of his actions and inactions.

Wise kings surrounds themselves with wise counsellors. They know what wise counsel is and know where and how to find it. President Obama surrounded himself with the very best of political and economic brains in the United States taking a leaf from Abraham Lincoln by appointing even his rivals like Hilary Clinton. His executive team had strong public, private or academic sector pedigree. The only thing you could disagree with was the ideological orientation of his appointments and that is if you are republican. President Obama even appointed his mentor in John Kerry, who gave him his first national speaking platform at the Democratic convention, as his Secretary of State. Obviously, President Buhari is justifiably concerned with widespread integrity and character issues in our national leadership cadre. He is putting integrity and character as key qualifying criteria for his political appointments. The President should however recognize that he needs women and men with a combination of character and competence and not just character alone in his government. Despite the public relations script of the Presidency especially on his latest appointments, the merit or technical competence in those appointments are largely debatable. Character and competence are not mutually exclusive in leadership or public service. They should not be a substitute for each other. President Buhari must find people who combine both and appoint them into his government. Public servants or leaders with competence and no character will steal us dry while those with character and low competence will largely run a confused government with technically competent but corrupt elites and civil servants running rings around them. Good intentions does not guarantee good governance. A public servant must know and understand policy issues and know what to do to perform. 

The President also must show political savviness to hold together the “coalition of good” that brought him to power. He will need that coalition to govern in a democracy of plural interests where he does not hold absolute powers.  This will call for being politically pragmatic without compromising his core values of integrity. Political pragmatism combined with good values is equivalent to political wisdom, that which is necessary to build contingent pro-active coalitions and consensus and also knowing when to exert uncompromising executive authority in order to move the nation forward. While the President must “belong to nobody” so that he is not held captive by vested interests, he must build a broad level of trust with the “coalition of good” that has brought him to power by sheer political pragmatism and  savviness.  This trust is critical to hold his political coalition together.  President Buhari must develop personal and emotional touch with his various constituencies while keeping them publicly and privately focused on the larger ideals of “greater good of the nation”, selflessness and good governance.  The national assembly crisis of the President’s political party suggests that he must raise his ante significantly in this area.

Finally, we address the subject of defeating corruption on an enduring basis. Values set at the top matters and we commend the President on this. Suddenly, the anti-corruption agencies woke up from a deep slumber and electricity is now more available without an additional dime of investment. Beyond values however, we must strengthen the institutions meant to fight corruption to ensure they continue to live up to their purpose after President Buhari’s tenure.  The first task in this regard is to prevent the institutions from being captured by narrow and corrupt elite through the appointment of their lackeys into the leadership of those anti-corruption and law enforcement institutions including the regulators, the judiciary and the police. The President must be vigilant about nominees into his government, their nominators and their motives to ensure that these vested and narrow interests do not capture his government and critical state institutions even at policy level.  The second task is to strengthen our electoral process and institutions to ensure free and fair elections and ensure that people’s vote truly count. There is a clear correlation between corruption in a country and its level of free and fair elections. Every round of free and fair election purifies our national leadership and purge dishonest men and women from governance.  Good and evil produce after their own kind. We must elect good people who are likely to appoint their own kind to lead critical state institutions and set the right values in those institutions which over time may ossify into an enduring institutional culture fit for their institutional purpose.  President Buhari must therefore revisit the Uwais Electoral Reform Panel recommendations to strengthen INEC, criminalize electoral offences, promote internal democracy in political parties and reform political party financing. The third task is to review the enabling laws of the anti-corruption and law enforcement institutions to make them more transparent, publicly accountable and less susceptible to political interference. The Presidential Advisory Committee on Corruption should note this and take forward. We wish President Buhari well.

Olu Akanmu (Twitter @OluAkanmu) publishes a blog on Strategy and Public Policy on