By Olusegun Adeniyi
Citing widespread irregularities, Malawi’s Constitutional Court in February 2020 annulled the result of the May 2019 presidential election which returned then incumbent President Peter Mutharika to power. In the court-ordered re-run election held four months later, the main opposition candidate who previously came second, Lazarus Chakwera, was declared elected in what remains unprecedented on the continent. While Kenya’s Supreme Court in 2017 became the first to nullify a presidential election (where the incumbent eventually was returned), Malawi is the first (and to date the only) African country where a presidential election result was nullified, and the previously defeated opposition candidate then won the rerun election.
However, winning an election is one thing, presiding over a country is a different ballgame altogether. The last three years have seen the economy of Malawi in freefall. For instance, as of the time Chakwera succeeded Mutharika in 2020, the country’s inflation rate was 8.63%. By September this year (2023), inflation had jumped to 27.8 percent. The foreign exchange situation is not any better. An American dollar exchanged for 760 Kwacha (Malawi’s national currency) in December 2020. Today, it is 1,678 Kwacha to a dollar. To say that life is now very difficult for an average Malawian is an understatement. But most fair-minded people would not blame the current hardship in the country solely on President Chakwera.
In a way, one can also do a rudimentary comparison between Malawi and our country. The circumstances of most Nigerians under President Bola Tinubu have become even more desperate than under President Muhammadu Buhari whom he succeeded just six months ago. On the morning of 29th May 2023, shortly before Tinubu’s inauguration, a litre of PMS was selling for N238. Today, it is N617 with queues resurfacing at fuel stations. As for the Naira exchange rate, it was officially N461 to a dollar on 29th May. The official exchange rate today is N805 to a dollar. That of course does not tell the complete story. Such is the arbitrage gap that, with the Naira now exchanging for between 1150 and 1250 to a dollar in the black market, there is more illicit money to make today from currency racketeering than under any previous administration! Meanwhile, most Nigerians are experiencing excoriating hardship.
The question is: Do we blame Tinubu for the situation we have found ourselves today? Any objective analyst will concede that the president inherited a bad economy and the choices he has made regarding fuel subsidy removal and merging the exchange rates were designed to correct some of the distortions that brought us to where we are. I wholeheartedly endorse both decisions which ought to have been taken many years ago. The problem with Tinubu is that he wants to lead not by example but rather by mouthing platitudes. While demanding sacrifices of Nigerians, he and other government officials want to continue to live ostentatiously. That is where Tinubu may need to borrow a leaf from Malawi.
Following last month’s devaluation of the Kwacha, prices of goods and services have risen astronomically in Malawi. Last week Wednesday, President Chakwera addressed his country men and women on their challenges. “I know that there will be some who created this mess that I’m now cleaning up, who will be the loudest in calling me names, claiming that I am the problem, and calling on citizens to attack me. But I’m not intimidated by that, I’m here to serve Malawians. And to do so, I’m prepared to do things that are painful as long as they are the right things,” he said in his national broadcast. “The most painful thing by far has been the recent devaluation of our currency to correct the false value of the Kwacha based on nothing and rebuild true value in the Kwacha based on production and exports. I know that this decision has caused a lot of pain and I know that all of us now have to make big adjustments in spending so that we can prioritize those areas that are most productive and stay the course until our economy becomes productive and profitable again. In making those painful adjustments, I myself have to lead by example.”
From that point, the Malawian president rolled out his plan for shared sacrifice between public officials and the people, starting with himself: “Effective immediately, all of my international trips between now and the end of the fiscal year, beginning with my trip to Cop28 at the end of this month, are canceled. By extension, I am putting a freeze on all publicly funded international trips for all public officers at all levels, including those in parastatals until the end of the financial year in March. All cabinet members currently abroad on publicly funded trips must return to Malawi with immediate effect. Any travel deemed absolutely necessary by anyone during that period must be submitted to my office for my authorization.
“Secondly, I order that all fuel entitlements for cabinet ministers, principal secretaries, directors, and all members of senior management of public institutions should be cut in half with immediate effect. Thirdly, until further notice, I order the Secretary to the President and Cabinet to circulate to all public institutions the criteria for local trainings and local travels that would be acceptable as well as a cap on how much of their budgets can be spent on allowances for such trainings and trips. By doing this, I am effectively ending the practice of draining public coffers to spend on allowances for useless activities…”
The president of Malawi has resolved that ‘draining public covers to spend on allowances for useless activities’ will not advance the cause of progress in his country. But the reverse is the case in Nigeria, despite scary statistics on the level of deprivation in our country. On Tuesday, Stears report, using World Bank figures, revealed what most of us already suspected: Nigeria has a very large population but a tiny consumer market. The total number of Nigerians who can spend approximately $10 daily is put at 3.7 million, less than two percent of our population. Yet, nothing exemplifies the disconnect between political office holders and the populace more succinctly than what we call budgets which, as I have long concluded through several columns, are no more than the simple sharing of public funds.
Early this month, President Tinubu submitted to the National Assembly a needless 2023 supplementary budget that was passed almost immediately because there was ‘something’ in it for both the legislature and the executive. Practically all the ‘capital projects’ are consumption and luxury items: N5.095 billion to purchase a presidential yacht, N4 billion to renovate the Aso Rock residential quarters of the president, N2.5 billion to renovate Aguda House for the vice president, N4 billion to renovate the Lagos (Dodan Barracks) official residence of the president, N3 billion to renovate the Lagos official quarters of the vice president, N1.5 billion to purchase vehicles for the First Lady’s office, N2.9 billion to replace the presidential operational pool vehicles, etc. And to imagine that all these expenditures are from borrowed money!
With President Tinubu leading the way in such reckless spending, many governors have taken matters to the ‘next level’, including states where salaries of workers have not been paid for several months and default on pension arrears is measured in years. You now hear of multimillion Naira ‘fragrances’, purchase of half a billion Naira bullet-proof vehicles for powerful assistants, funding aircraft charter services in hundreds of millions of Naira, etc. Even ministers are not left out in this display of official recklessness. Last week, the Minister of State for Defence, Bello Matawalle, who lost his re-election bid as Zamfara State Governor earlier this year, visited his hometown of Maradun, escorted by a large contingent of soldiers and several military vehicles in a gross abuse of office. The video clip of his ‘triumphant entry’ to his community is as obscene as it is provocative.
Last week, President Tinubu touted his achievements as Lagos State governor. “To me, if you didn’t mention me in the Guinness Book of Records, I’d find a way to insert myself because I did it without expectation.” I do not want to argue with the president on his stewardship in Lagos or his competition with Hilda Bacci for a place in The Guinness Book of Records. But regardless of whatever may be his achievements (and I happen to believe he did well as governor), Lagos was never remarkable for prudent management of resources or an austere tradition. In any case, today’s Nigeria is about digging ourselves out of the depth of adversity. That requires a different leadership template from what is currently on display. The president may have taken two critical decisions on the economic front, but he has not backed them with supporting policies. Besides, in his maiden address to the National Assembly joint session yesterday, Tinubu highlighted some of the macroeconomic challenges confronting us as a nation without promising to make any sacrifice. The mechanical speech was also devoid of empathy for what Nigerians are currently going through, despite expecting more citizens to enter the tax net.
When in June I wrote the column, ‘My Convoy is Longer Than Yours’, following the outrage that greeted the extraordinary convoys of both the president and senate president, Godswill Akpabio, I argued that those who lead their people in difficult times cannot live like emperors or revel in ostentatious lifestyle. “What was on display is a metaphor for profligacy and abuse of public resources that have come to define officialdom in Nigeria,” I surmised. “The real issue is whether a government that preaches sacrifice can continue with such indulgence, especially at a period when many people are going through hard times.”
Human nature predisposes people to act primarily in pursuit of self-interest. But as I also wrote in that column, the essence of government is to subordinate the personal convenience of individuals to the imperatives of the common good. “Yet, the crisis of present-day Nigeria is that there is little in our code of public conduct that encourages moderation or sacrifice. Rolling back conveniences, no matter how little, are usually some of the first steps public officials take when their country battle economic downturns.”
That exactly is what President Chakwera has done in Malawi. Is it too much to ask of our leaders in Nigeria?
Folu Olamiti’s Day
Today at the University of Ibadan International Conference Centre, respected veteran journalist who spent most of his career at Tribune Newspapers where he edited all titles (and became the Managing Director), Folu Olamiti will present his book, ‘A Peep Into the Past’ which combines his memoir with a collection of landmark articles spanning five decades. A Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Olamiti had a very distinguished career in journalism before retiring to media consultancy. It is the totality of that experience and exposure that he brings to bear in writing this highly revealing book that reflects on Nigeria.
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