It is a credit to Mrs. Aisha Buhari that interventions in national discourse by Nigerian first ladies have attained to the level of weighty policy-linked commentaries, which for most times ruffle feathers in government circles. No longer are we affronted, as in recent history, with pedestrian colloquialisms deployed as spousal back fender for narrow or utterly self-serving causes. We have in the present first lady a strong voice of advocacy for throngs of voiceless Nigerians in the backwaters of national attention. We have come a long way.
First Lady Aisha Buhari also comes firing from the hips. And you never know whether she was speaking by indirection for her husband, Mr. President, as in venting his private thoughts; or whether she was seizing a public platform to address her husband about indices of governance he may have missed, and which she may not have succeeded privately to make him get to terms with; or indeed whether she was committing sheer class immolation by speaking truth to power despite being herself in power as the President’s wife. But what you can be sure of is: she was speaking from her heart without hypocritical expedience.
The first lady lived up to this billing penultimate weekend when she decried poor governance that she considered responsible for insecurity and economic hardships in the country. Speaking at a general assembly meeting of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) in Abuja, she upbraided government functionaries for lack of social amenities and bad infrastructure, warning: “We either fasten our seatbelts and do the needful or we will all regret it very soon, because at the rate things are going, things are getting completely out of hand.”
According to the first lady, growing insecurity resulting from injustice had made it impossible for some Nigerians to travel to their native communities and live peacefully. She said her husband alone could not resolve the challenges facing the nation, hence that the leadership elite should work together to bring the country of out of the doldrums.
Aisha Buhari got more pointed along the line over responsibility for redressing the state of things. “The VP (Vice President Yemi Osinbajo) is here. Some ministers are here. They are supposed to do justice to the situation. People cannot afford potable water in this country while we have governors. Since this is the highest decision-making body of Islamic affairs, for those that are listening, we should fear God, and we should know that one day, we will return to God and account for our deeds here on earth,” she said.
Just as with her past interventions in national discourse, media reportage of the first lady’s comments at the NSCIA event disconcerted some functionaries of government – in the present instance, the state governors, who got running defensive with a deconstruction of what she had said. The Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) rebuffed insinuations that her rebuke was directed at its members, saying it was rather directed at the nation’s entire leadership elite.
Spokesman for the forum, Abdulrazaque Barkindo, argued inter alia: “Mrs. Buhari was (admonishing) anyone in position of power or authority to fear Allah in whatever they do because, according to her, as it is said in the scriptures, everybody would eventually account for his deeds before the Almighty God.”
Since the contention wasn’t that the first lady spoke at variance with the practical reality of this country, we can focus on the substance of her comments and not the blame game, which never seemed to be her concern when she spoke. The case made by Mrs. Buhari at the Abuja event was that hardship had become insidious in the land and there is need for concerted effort by the power elite to alleviate the situation.
It is helpful in our national conversation that no less than the first lady made this point. Because truth is: there is hardship in the country, and policy measures by government have not translated to relieving ordinary Nigerians. Indeed, some measures have compounded the challenge, while others portend making the burden more onerous for most citizens. The first lady’s intervention is a challenge to the leadership elite to decidedly apply governance towards practically relieving the masses.
But while she may not have intended her challenge to apply as follows, a logical thrust is the need for the Muhammadu Buhari administration to recalibrate its policy on the enduring closure of Nigeria’s borders. The government recently acknowledged spiralling inflation as resulting from the measure, which was necessitated by the leech effect of cross-border smuggling on Nigeria’s economy. It argued, however, that benefits from the border closure outweigh its adverse effects. Benefits cited by the government include a 30 percent drop in domestic fuel consumption as well as increased output by rice and poultry farmers, among others. And that isn’t mentioning heightened activity at the nation’s ports and consequential boost in revenue from Customs operations.
Upon close look, though, you would see that those benefits accrue to the government’s treasury at the cost of suffocating inflationary pressures on ordinary citizens, which the government hasn’t done much to alleviate. As they say in market parlance: how do the cited benefits affect the price of fish? Come along to the Main Street economy – among the worst you could get of a cannibal farm – for an answer.
International benchmarkers like the World Poverty Clock have said some 95million Nigerians presently live in extreme poverty, while the government for its part has flaunted an intention to lift 100million citizens out of poverty over the next decade. But statistics can be sterile, whereas experience on Main Street pulsates with survival drills. For instance, locally produced rice and poultry products now daringly match up in extortionate price tags with previously smuggled-in stocks that have been blocked out by the border closure. The reason for this seems to be that even though local producers are now advantaged by the border closure with a near-monopoly of the market, there isn’t sufficient incentive by government’s policy design to make them sell at production rather than opportunistic rates. The catch is, things are likely to yet get worse with the incoming Yuletide.
But the economy, as we earlier noted, is cannibalistic. While citizens are being compelled to pay higher for essential items like food, they pass the burden on by raising the price tags on their own goods and services. I was at the pharmacy lately and could barely suppress a scream at the geometric increase in prices previously attached to some basic drugs. On Main Street, even hospitals have markedly raised the costs of medical services, such that many citizens now take recourse to unorthodox medicare as a result of which not a few have died.
Meanwhile, even the government is neck-deep in the cannibal feast. It recently conceded to an upward review of the minimum wage and consequential adjustments and has built hikes in sundry tariffs – most notably the Value Added Tax (VAT) – into its budget law for year 2020, apparently to source revenue with which to fund the wage increase. Obviously, that is sheer round tripping with the purported benefit; because it is people who will benefit from the promised higher pay, and worse, many others who will not as they aren’t government workers, that would be wringed dry for revenue to fund the wage increase. Economy operators, including manufacturers and employers, have already warned that the tariffs increases would markedly spike cost levels in the economy when they come into effect.
Amidst indications that reasoned arguments will not change the government from its set course, the moral weight of the first lady’s intervention is quite welcome.
By Kayode Robert Idowu,