Buhari’s Populism Backlash
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?