Buhari’s Pop­ulism Back­lash

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - The Fixes From The Managing Editor -

Pop­ulism has been prov­ing its met­tle. Its anti-im­mi­gra­tion va­ri­ety swung vic­tory for the “Leave” cam­paign­ers, when in June 2016 the UK held a ref­er­en­dum to de­cide whether or not to re­main in the Euro­pean Union. A ca­coph­ony of na­tion­al­ist and anti-es­tab­lish­ment cam­paign rhetorics de­liv­ered Elec­toral Col­lege vic­tory for Don­ald Trump in the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion last Novem­ber.

A fore­run­ner to these pop­ulist polling vic­to­ries was the elec­tion of Gen­eral Muham­madu Buhari as Pres­i­dent of Nige­ria in 2015. He ran an anti-es­tab­lish­ment “change” cam­paign, promis­ing to tackle en­demic cor­rup­tion that had sti­fled progress in the coun­try. In the pre­vi­ous three elec­toral cy­cles, he had roused the mul­ti­tude of Talakawas, the so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally de­prived large seg­ment of the north­ern re­gion, who idolised him as an in­cor­rupt­ible and aus­tere leader. His nar­row agenda reached a broader base in 2015 when some wily politi­cians from the South teamed up with him.

But as it is be­com­ing clearer, pop­ulist cam­paign­ers are not made for the chal­lenges of the time. They are sim­ply har­ness­ing pop­u­lar dis­con­tent. Neg­a­tive ef­fects of cap­i­tal­ist glob­al­iza­tion – which in­clude a dou­ble whammy of im­mi­gra­tion spike and out­flow of jobs through out­sourc­ing – have distressed some na­tive pop­u­la­tions in Western Europe and the United States. How­ever, Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May, who has been long noted for anti-im­mi­gra­tion, has yet to de­ci­pher a clear path for post-Brexit pros­per­ity of Bri­tain. Pres­i­dent Trump’s ego­ma­nia may even pre­vent him from ac­knowl­edg­ing his pol­i­cythoughts are im­prac­ti­cal for mak­ing “Amer­ica great again.”

The poli­cies of Pres­i­dent Buhari have only man­aged to plunge the Nige­rian econ­omy into re­ces­sion. Where he is not in­sist­ing on flawed poli­cies, he is main­tain­ing pol­icy la­cu­nae. How­ever, of­fi­cials of his ad­min­is­tra­tion have con­tin­ued to in­sist the eco­nomic down­turn was in­evitable, be­cause of past eco­nomic mis­gov­er­nance. This over­diag­no­sis now es­sen­tially de­nies the stack real­ity that what­ever the cause, the Nige­rian re­ces­sion has pro­longed be­cause of in­ef­fec­tive in­ter­ven­tion.

For ex­am­ple, af­ter four con­sec­u­tive quar­ters of eco­nomic con­trac­tion, the gov­ern­ment has no doc­u­mented re­cov­ery plan. This in­ep­ti­tude in eco­nomic man­age­ment was re­cently cited as the rea­son the World Bank and African De­vel­op­ment Bank with­held fur­ther dis­burse­ment of al­ready ap­proved loans to the coun­try.

Last year, Pres­i­dent Buhari and some of his min­is­ters went to China to mo­bilise loans with­out first doc­u­ment­ing the projects to be fi­nanced. Later, his let­ter to the Nige­rian Se­nate seek­ing ap­proval to bor­row $30 bil­lion over the next three years had no doc­u­men­tary pro­posal at­tached to it. These hap­pened in spite of the avowed strat­egy of the ad­min­is­tra­tion to use deficit fi­nanc­ing for in­fra­struc­ture projects to ‘re­flate’ the econ­omy.

Buhari’s pop­ulist anti-cor­rup­tion drive has also man­aged to help cre­ate a safe haven for corrupt politi­cians in the rul­ing party: All Pro­gres­sives Congress. Con­se­quently, the APC has been at­tract­ing politi­cians of ques­tion­able pedi­grees from the for­mer rul­ing party, Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Party. While cross-car­pet­ing in Nige­rian pol­i­tics has al­ways been driven by op­por­tunism, un­der this regime it has be­come a frame­work for es­cap­ing ac­count­abil­ity.

Pop­ulists are noted for pur­vey­ing world views that are flawed, some­times only by the slen­der­ness of the ideas. Pres­i­dent Buhari cam­paigned that he would make Nige­ria safe. This es­sen­tially meant a higher de­ter­mi­na­tion to ex­ter­mi­nate the deadly Boko Haram in­sur­gency in North-east­ern Nige­ria. 20 months into the ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Is­lamist ter­ror­ists have been largely de­feated. But while fight­ing Boko Haram, civil strife, kid­nap­ping-for-ran­som, re­li­gious geno­cide as in South­ern Kaduna, and ram­pant killings by Fu­lani herds­men have cre­ated a wider can­vass for in­se­cu­rity in the coun­try. State re­sponses to the new scourges of in­se­cu­rity have been ei­ther slow, ten­ta­tive or, at best, re­ac­tive.

Ir­re­spec­tive of the fail­ings of his­tor­i­cal and in­cum­bent pop­ulist lead­ers, pop­ulism will pos­si­bly con­tinue to gain fur­ther grounds in be­com­ing the strat­a­gem for se­cur­ing oth­er­wise im­prob­a­ble elec­toral vic­to­ries. But vot­ers need to be aware of the back­lashes of pop­ulism. The me­dia has a re­spon­si­bil­ity in this re­gard.

Dur­ing the cur­rent pop­ulist resur­gence, prob­a­bly no one would prove pop­ulism as fos­ter­ing in­ad­e­quate po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship as much as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. From run­ning an anti-so­cial po­lit­i­cal cam­paign, he has un­leashed a com­mu­ni­ca­tion team that pro­vided the pub­lic “al­ter­na­tive facts” – the eu­phemism for bla­tant lies. Yet it is too early to tell what risks his poli­cies will crys­talise.

To be sure, the is­sues that pop­ulist politi­cians latch on to are not il­le­git­i­mate. The ob­jec­tion to im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tions who refuse to in­te­grate with lo­cal cul­tures and are re­sis­tant to lo­cal laws is rea­son­able. Glob­al­i­sa­tion can­not con­tinue to erode lo­cal jobs and drive in­come in­equal­ity. And, in Nige­ria, the alarm­ing level of pub­lic sec­tor cor­rup­tion can­not be al­lowed to con­tinue, con­sid­er­ing the ex­tent it un­der­mines the wel­fare of the peo­ple and the de­vel­op­ment of the coun­try.

How­ever, vot­ers need to know that it is one thing to iden­tify a prob­lem. Solv­ing it may re­quire deeper pol­icy-think­ing, which pop­ulist dem­a­gogues are in­ca­pable of or dis­in­clined to do. Snake-oil sales­men may just worsen the mal­ady, or solve a prob­lem su­per­fi­cially while cre­at­ing big­ger ones.

Pop­ulist politi­cians are known to have con­trib­uted to the is­sues they say they want to solve. Buhari not only served in the corrupt gov­ern­ment of late Gen­eral Sani Abacha; he said the max­i­mum ruler was not corrupt. But now as pres­i­dent, he is pur­su­ing the repa­tri­a­tion of Abacha’s loot to help fund his cash-strapped gov­ern­ment. In any case, Buhari lever­aged the sup­port of some politi­cians al­ready in­dicted for cor­rup­tion to be­come Pres­i­dent.

The crux of the mat­ter is whether pop­ulist lead­ers can make real pos­i­tive change. It is not likely they would be able to do so. Pop­ulism is di­vi­sive; thus it is more likely to frac­ture the so­cial fab­ric. Its abil­ity to in­spire eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion is lim­ited by the ten­dency to side­line a sig­nif­i­cant part of in­tel­li­gentsia. A mu­tual dis­dain also ex­ists be­tween pop­ulist lead­ers and com­mu­ni­ties of ex­perts. Lit­tle won­der, then, that Pres­i­dent Buhari dis­missed min­is­ters as “noise­mak­ers”, and his cabi­net is light­weight on tech­no­cratic ex­per­tise. Is it any sur­prise the econ­omy is stuck in the rut?

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