Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Look Back on President Buhari's First Year

As we approach the end of Nigerian President Buhari's first year in office, sworn in before celebratory crowds looking for change (May 29, 2015), the country will be waiting to hear his list of accomplishments, but better yet his timelines for implementing the vision, which brought him into office. There seems to be two schools of thought on what type of report card his administration should have. Yes, there are critics who primarily complain about changes taking place way to slowly, but there are those that still believe the government is trying to do the right thing and want to give it time to get there. If you are wondering where I fall, well, I fall into the latter category – very much supporting the need to give the government the time it needs to make the sweeping,  deep, and transformative changes that Nigeria needs and Nigerians want.
Certainly, with any new government, there are fits and starts, and the Buhari Administration has had its own over the last 12 months, coupled with critical economic difficulties making it hard for the President to fulfill his campaign promises. There have been 2 steps forward and one back on things like confusion over the budget submission; the long wait for ministerial appointments; and, on the economic side, challenges in protecting its currency (the naira) from devaluation. The President strongly believes that devaluation will hurt the poor and help the privileged. Drop in global oil prices have hit the country's reserves hard over the last year, along with its ability to pay its bills, or move forward on social sector improvements, particularly health, education, and job creation. As of May 24, 2016, oil prices were at $USD48 barrels per day, still $10 off the country's 2016 benchmark, and most of the of last year prices fell between $USD27-36. Luckily the new budget's benchmark has oil at $38 per barrel.

That being said here is the good news:
The list below list is not meant to be exhaustive but highlights some of the changes, followed by an analysis of their impact, gaps, and the expectations for Buhari's May 29, 2016 year anniversary remarks.

The Buhari Government has:
-- Committed to strong anti-corruption efforts; asked foreign governments, including the U.S., to help return $150 billion in stolen state wealth in foreign countries;
-- Moved to "zero-basing," of the budget, linking needs and costs, with a focus on  infrastructure development, social needs, manufacturing, and job creation; publicized his personal wealth (good first tone-setting step); and paid civil servants some of their unpaid wages;
-- Made gains against Boko Haram, including more international resources  to combat Boko Haram and returning more than 800 people held captive by Boko Haram and, two young Chibok girls;
-- Appointed new leadership to the problematic National Petroleum Company (NNPC);
-- Worked to carefully vet senior appointments (we will have to see how they all actually do); and
-- Announced the extension of the Niger Delta Amnesty for ex-combatants through 2018.

Looking at some of these key steps, what do they mean for Nigeria's bigger picture, keeping in mind that the President will have his own checklist of achievements and challenges when he makes his upcoming remarks?

Analysis on Steps Taken on Corruption & the Economy:
President Buhari is unshakeable on his quest to end corruption and his national and international reputation on this issue is virtually unmatched. His recent comment  "what I am demanding is the return of assets" checkmated British Prime Minister David Cameron, at his own London anti- corruption conference, following his remarks that "Nigeria and Afghanistan are the most 'fantastically' corrupt countries in the world," especially in light of his father being named in the Panama papers. Not being deterred over the calls for an apology and keeping his eye on ball, gained Buhari further international respect for his steadfastness to get state assets back and stop corruption in Nigeria from "being a way of life." (NB: The World Bank 2015 Ease of Doing Business Report  listed Nigeria 170 out of 189 countries rated for their lack of transparent and friendly business practices).

At home, the Buhari Administration has had to institute some difficult economic policies to protect the naira such as tightening foreign exchange. Some of these steps are linked to his anti-corruption efforts to block ways in which money has been stolen over the years; cash money being was one of the biggest methods by either former government officials or others of removing funds for decades, or through inflated government contracts.

Business & Investments Feeling the Pinch

So I get it. I know many businesses are feeling the pinch, but presumably these restrictions are short term for a few more months as the government fine tunes its checks and balances. As an example, in September of last year, the Buhari Government required all ministries to use their Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) accounts, called Treasury Single Account for all government monies. Meaning, ministries cannot deposit government funds into commercial banks – a past practice where it is believed substantial state wealth disappeared.  The other positive is that Nigerian companies have to provide the CBN with foreign contract information in order to obtain foreign exchange to pay clients or partners. All of these have been things in Buhari's anti-corruption tool box for both the country and foreign partners.

Further on the economy is the question of the oil subsidy. Efforts to remove it in 2012 caused strikes which left the country paralyzed for more than a week (I was in Nigeria during this period), and strikes are being threatened again as the Administration try this again. Depending on what happens between now and President Buhari's May 29, 2016 anniversary speech, it will be important for him to better explain in order to convince the public to get on board. They are not onboard now, particularly since in his campaign he promised not to do. He may have to balance this decision to go forward with also providing some social sector benefit in return. I say this because the average minimum wage in Nigeria is about $USD90 (or 18,000 at today's official exchange rate), and the fuel subsidy is one of the few things on which the average Nigerian worker has been able to depend. This doesn't begin to address the impact it will have on those already at the poverty level where the average daily is about $1.25 per day, or for those unemployed -- as today's unemployment rate hovers 7.6 percent. That being said, the fuel subsidy is not financially sustainable for the country so educating the public, along with some out-of-the-box thinking on other types of affordable social sector assistance might help.

Buhari's willingness to provide some "bailout funding" to ease the 6 month burden of unpaid civil servants wages was the right gesture. But the government does not having the resources to do more. The good will garnered on that is being tested daily as economic condition to toughen for workers.  

For a country which has Sub-Saharan Africa's (SSAfrica) largest population (estimated at 178 million) and its largest economy (Nigeria rebased in 2014), these are tough times for a country struggling to get its financial footing back, and keep investors engaged. We will look to President's Buhari speech in outlining his vision of the way forward on corruption issues, the economy, federal salaries, and jobs.

Boko Haram Military Campaign, The Internally Displaced:
In additions to actions on corruption and the economy, Nigeria's counterterrorism and military campaign against Boko Haram has had some gains over the last 8 months. The Nigerian military has retaken much of the territory that Boko Haram controlled and terrorized for more than two years. It is considered the most deadliest terrorist group in the world, overtaking the Islamic State. Nearly 800 civilians, who had been held captive by the group, have been either freed or found by the military. President Buhari also has used his international goodwill to further secure resources, and assistance from international partners such as the U.S. ( $250 million, through a variety of program); the United Kingdom (57 million); France, (with a pledge to provide, intelligence and training announced by President Holland in his May 2016 Nigeria visit); and, China, which rarely gets involved in these issues, saying it would  assist in finding the Chibok girls.
Equally, and emotionally more important to the families, to the country and to all who cared and worried about the 276 Chibok girls for two years, the return of two of them in May, gave hope that many more might be found or released. Certainly these changes and events are positive, but the threat by Boko Haram is far from being over. Boko Haram, as noted by the Department of State and the Global Terrorism Index, is one of the world's deadliest terrorist groups in the world. Furthermore the other issue that I stress from a national security perspective is that Boko Haram has "weaponized" more young girlsand women than any other global terrorist group. On internally displaced person's (IDP's), the number and needs are staggering, even though the Buhari Administration has provided funding to assist them, it falls well short (because the resources are not there) of the total monetary needs required to assist the 2.8 million IDP's.

Going forward over the next 12 months, the Nigerian people, the families of the Chibok girls, and the IDP's in the north are going to want to hear in Buhari's speech what else is planned for the immediate future not only to improve the response to the IDP crisis; but what it plans to do to step-up its efforts to find the remaining Chibok girls, along with its continued military efforts to contain and combat Boko Haram.

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