President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Without prejudice to what transpires at the Presidential Election Tribunal on the 25 February election, and the request by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and others that the proceedings should be televised live – no problem about that, as long as the parties involved can bear the cost in defence of the ideal of transparency – it seems certain nonetheless that Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, president-elect and presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the ruling party, would be sworn in as president of Nigeria on 29 May. The Federal Government has set up a Transition Committee, the President-elect has also set up an Inauguration Committee with some Nollywood stars named unto that committee already behaving like party boosters on social media. While the Election Petition Tribunal continues to keep, hopefully to its promise that it would consider every application on its own merit, Tinubu and APC are already preparing for their own Coronation ceremony on 29 May, complete with jollof rice and aso ebi parties and a scale of pomp and pageantry that could rival the Coronation of King Charles III of Great Britain on 6 May. Nigerians are very good at imitating the colonial masters. No one should be surprised if Tinubu arrives at the Eagle Square on Inauguration Day on a horse-drawn golden carriage. The morning after, he would swing into action, real time.
The sword of power would have been handed over to him. He would have such authority and access to resources that his challengers in court cannot hope to match. He would in fact have been placed in a position to exercise authority over those who are challenging him, their businesses and their needs. Even the courts would have taken notice of the fact that Nigeria is under a new dispensation. Tinubu has been in politics for a long time. He knows what power means. He has been a Senator. He has been Governor twice. He has been a Godfather in Nigerian politics for more than two decades. He has been a kingmaker. He is a veteran of the game. The real threat to our democracy is that we may have been presented with a fait accompli, while the lawyers shuffle papers and quote dead authorities and precedents in order to earn their pay. Even if the matter goes all the way to the Supreme Court let it be noted that the apex court is a court of law and also a court of public policy. This is why there is merit to the emerging argument that our electoral system needs further reform, and the Constitution must be amended accordingly to ensure that post-election, all election petitions are determined before anybody is sworn in. That is what they do in Kenya. Why not in Nigeria? For now, Bola Tinubu and the APC will benefit from this omission in the Nigerian Constitution. But the people’s consciousness has been awoken. Legal frameworks emerge on the basis of lessons learnt. Those who doubt the integrity and the legitimacy of the process that made the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to declare Tinubu as President-elect are bound to stay on this question until it is resolved, ahead of future elections. Such persons have the right to raise questions.
For now, therefore, let us reflect on the reality of a Tinubu Presidency that stares us in the face. He has not yet been sworn in, he is already acting as President. He has since moved into the Defence House, the traditional residence for Nigeria’s President in waiting. The other day, the Rivers State Government invited him to commission two projects and a two-day holiday was declared to host him. His supporters are now taking out family attires, the famous aso ebi. Materials have been submitted to tailors and fashion designers. No one should be surprised if Tinubu invites the opposition party leaders to his inauguration and quite a number would show up on D-Day. Has Action Alliance (AA) not withdrawn its petition at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal without giving any reason? For Bola Tinubu, 29 May would be a significant moment – the day that the kingmaker of many years takes the throne for which he had long prepared himself. His campaign slogan was “Emilokan” – “it is my turn”- 29 May would be a culmination of a life-long ambition, carefully executed over the years, from the days of NADECO struggle to Senatorial position, Governorship, and a crafty, deliberate, even if cynical construction of power, name recognition and influence. It would be history made on 29 May, because Tinubu would have become the third South Westerner and the fifth Southerner – after Aguiyi Ironsi, Ernest Shonekan, Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan to lead Nigeria.
In 1966, July, in the heat of the counter-coup, Brigadier Babfemi Ogundipe who was next in line to Ironsi had to flee abroad when his Northern aides threatened to kill him. In the First and Second Republics, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was most prepared for office and leadership never achieved the dream of becoming Nigeria’s President. In 1993, Chief MKO Abiola who emerged winner of what has been adjudged the freest and fairest election in Nigerian history was denied victory because the military led by General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the election. When Tinubu wears the Presidential sash on 29 May, he would have succeeded where other clearly accomplished Yoruba sons “failed”. Such is the irony of life, but it is also the reason why Tinubu as a Nigerian President from the South and from the South West would be assuming a heavy burden of history. Being President alone, even for a week is probably enough for him – his name would have entered the annals of history. But that cannot be enough. The President-elect must not look forward to the fulfilment of naked ambition. He cannot go to Aso Villa in Abuja to drink tea, eat free food, and pick his teeth afterwards with toothpick. I dare say that toothpicks should be banned from Aso Villa forthwith. When a man sits on the stone of destiny, he sits atop a huge responsibility.
Bola Ahmed Tinubu as presidential candidate engaged Nigerians with an 80-page manifesto which he titled “Renewed Hope”. I would be surprised if he has read his own manifesto. It took some time for that manifesto to be announced. His campaign managers disowned several versions before they finally decided on the 88-page document. Now here is the deal – in Nigeria, political manifestoes are written by a hired team who put out textbook ideas and tell the people what they want to hear which is why all the presidential manifestoes in the 2023 presidential election mouthed the same platitudes, an expression of the lack of clear ideological lines in contemporary Nigerian politics. This is the reason why under the Buhari administration, we had the interesting experience of a sitting president denying some of the contents of his own campaign manifesto. The ideas were not his, they were put there by the political jobbers aiming for the right sound bites. Nobody should be surprised if Tinubu also distances himself from some of the verbiage in his campaign document. But we expect him to reduce his priorities to clear, policy choices that can be monitored. No verbiage, just very clear actionable points. President Umaru Yar’Adua (2007 – 2010) had a seven point plus two special interest issues agenda for Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan (2010 – 2015) announced a Transformation Agenda with four special targets to seek profound changes in social, economic, political and the institutional structure of the country. President Muhammadu Buhari (2015 – 2023) eventually reduced his campaign manifesto to a specific three-point agenda. President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu is advised to follow the same pattern. I propose the following actionable, eight-point agenda, not necessarily in their order of importance.
One: The first big elephant in the room that the Tinubu administration has to deal with when it assumes office on 29 May, right after the inauguration banquet, is the removal of fuel subsidy. It is first and foremost a matter of law. Both the Appropriation Act 2023, and the Petroleum Industry Act 2021 prescribes a window of exit from the petroleum subsidy regime that does not extend beyond 1 June. There is no provision for the funding of subsidy in the budget beyond that point. The Buhari administration had cleverly avoided taking responsibility for removing fuel subsidy and shifted the goal post, claiming there could be “consequences” in a Bloomberg interview. The same administration has further saved itself from public backlash by saying it has secured an $800 million facility from the World Bank for the provision of palliatives, but it is now up to an expanded committee, including the in-coming administration’s team, to take a decision on this. It looks like a set up to me. Buhari would walk away as the man who was wary of “consequences”. Tinubu will be required to use his head to break the coconut. If the subsidy remains beyond the provisions of the law, and no attempt is made to amend the law, Tinubu would be starting off his presidency by breaking the laws of Nigeria.
The government would have set out on a note of illegality. It would be akin to the Buhari administration violating the Procurement Act and the CBN Act with regard to the CBN Ways and Means, and here on the eve of Buhari’s departure, the National Assembly says it has approved the violation of the law. When the legislature breaks its own laws, and does so with immunity, then a country is in trouble. If it may be any consolation to those who are opposed to INEC’s declaration of Tinubu as president-elect, the truth is that the man is going to inherit a troubled nation. The country is broke. After 29 May, it may not be able to meet its financial obligations. The question of fuel subsidy is a kind of poetic justice for Tinubu. In 2012, he and his allies organised designer protests at Ojota, Lagos and elsewhere to oppose fuel subsidy removal. If we had removed subsidy then, Nigeria would have since adjusted. Tinubu is saddled with the evil day that he postponed. He must either show courage or act cowardly. Economists, for more than two decades, have not changed their position, from Lagos to Washington DC, that a fuel subsidy regime is unsustainable. It is important to state this because there are some ruling party hangers-on who have been saying that once Dangote Refinery comes on stream on 22 May, then government can remove fuel subsidy. The two must be separated. It would be the ultimate act of cowardice to use the Dangote Refinery and the expected 650,000 barrels a day as the fall guy for years of government incompetence. It is either Tinubu has the courage to act, or he would take a cowardly option, which would again postpone the evil day.
Two: Revenue is a problem. We have been told this again and again by Nigeria’s financial managers and that the main challenge is to widen Nigeria’s revenue base. The Bretton Woods institutions in their Economic Outlook Reports on Nigeria have said more or less the same thing. Nigeria’s next administration has to find ways of increasing revenue. The easiest recommendation is to say government has to collect more taxes or widen the tax base. Nigerians are already groaning under the weight of too many taxes and they can’t see what anybody does with the taxes, and so, whatever government proposes, the people are suspicious. Tinubu, given his reputation as the man behind Alpha Beta, the tax collection agency in Lagos, would find it difficult to tell Nigerians to pay more taxes. They would think he just wants to hand over Nigeria to Alpha Beta and collect bigger shares of the cake. Tinubu cannot be a tax collector of Nigeria. He will be resisted by everybody! His advisers must therefore look at other options. He has to prune down the cost of governance, starting with his own example. He must start by implementing the Oronsaye Report on Governance. All forms of duplication must be eliminated. There must be legislation telling governors and Local Government chairmen that they cannot have more than two assistants, a maximum of five, and that everybody must stop going about as if they have just inherited the world. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that if Nigerian leaders stay at home for medical care, they can survive. Everyone, including the president, must be told clearly that whatever they cannot treat in Nigeria may as well kill them. We are in the age of technology. Jumping around at public expense to treat gout and arthritis is unacceptable. Whoever wants to do so must show proof that they are spending personal funds! Tinubu must address Nigeria’s health sector crisis.
Three: Tinubu has been a long-time apostle of federalism. He has written a book on it. Symposia have been held in his honour on the subject. As governor of Lagos State, he took President Olusegun Obasanjo to court on the subject of the creation of local councils and the true reading of Section 162 of the 1999 Constitution. He won. I am not very sure that President Obasanjo has forgiven him for that. He now steps into the same shoes that Obasanjo occupied. He cannot run an imperial presidency! If that sounds like another curse of nemesis, Tinubu must be made to realise that given his own antecedents and causes that he championed, he has to show that he truly believes in federalism. One of his first tasks must be to support the devolution of powers, give the states more responsibilities and make the Federal Government more compact and effective. Anything otherwise would be used against him. He could come across as a hypocrite on the question of federalism, and he would have allowed OBJ to have a very good, last laugh in this emerging game of thrones.
Four: Tinubu has been a champion of a special status for Lagos. He is now in a position to make that happen. But he must resist the temptation to be a Yoruba or Lagos president. It is not only Lagos that deserves a special status. He must add to that agenda, Kaduna and Enugu. He must be the president of all of Nigeria, a unifier, not a divisive village chief. The same Lagosians who did not vote for him on 25 February would expect that he should do more for Lagos. He must not repeat the error of ethnic irredentism in Nigerian politics. He must avoid a winner-takes-it-all approach.
Five: He must sanitise the budgeting and procurement processes. Six; he must take a quick look at the foreign exchange regime. Seven: empower the security agencies, particularly the police. Eight: respect media freedom and the demands of Nigerian youths. These are low-hanging fruits. We wait. We watch.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.