Buhari’s Wasteful Inaugurations And Empty Democracy Day Speech

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Buhari’s Wasteful Inaugurations And Empty Democracy Day Speech

By Olu Fasan

The formal inauguration of President Buhari for his second term took place on May 29, but the inauguration celebration followed two weeks later on June 12, the new “Democracy Day”. Both May 29 and June 12 were public holidays. Bizarrely, President Buhari didn’t give a speech at his formal inauguration; he only spoke at the inauguration celebration on Democracy Day! But let’s leave that aside, two issues are of more interest to me here.

The first is the idea of two inauguration events. Does Nigeria need a public holiday on May 29 for the swearing-in of the president when the inauguration would be celebrated two weeks later on Democracy Day? The second issue is the president’s Democracy Day speech? Did he use it to set out a credible programme of government, of reforms, and to inspire national renewal?

Let’s start with the first issue: the wastefulness of two inauguration events. We were told that the inauguration of the president on May 29 would be minimalist and low-key, while the real celebration would come two weeks later on the Democracy Day. Yet, although the only thing that took place at the inauguration was the swearing-in of the president and vice president, it was still a very elaborate event, with huge state resources committed to it. Surely, the president’s swearing-in could have taken place in Aso Rock, without having two public holidays and ostentatious ceremonies. That idea is not without precedents.

For instance, on January 20, 2009, President Obama was inaugurated at an elaborate public ceremony attended by world leaders, but he made several mistakes in reciting the oath of office. The following day, on January 21, the US Chief Justice, John Roberts, swore Obama in again but this time in the White House, where Obama retook the oath of office. Four years later, during President Obama’s second inauguration on January 20, 2013, the swearing-in ceremony was done privately in the White House, while the public inauguration ceremony took place the following day, January 21, at the Capitol ground. These examples show that the swearing-in of a president could take place privately in the State House, while a public ceremony can follow later, with all the razzmatazz that goes with it.

Since 1999, successive Nigerian presidents had been inaugurated on May 29, which was also the Democracy Day. Now, Democracy Day is June 12, but the president must, constitutionally, still be sworn in on May 29 while inauguration celebration takes place on Democracy Day. In this context, there is certainly no need to have two public holidays and two elaborate ceremonies. The president’s swearing-in ceremony, on May 29, should be like getting married at a registry and done privately in Aso Rock without a public holiday, while the celebration of his inauguration, on June 12, should be like the wedding ceremony and done publicly during the Democracy Day national holiday.

The economics of public holidays has highlighted their negative impacts on productivity. Of course, public holidays are important, but they should not be frivolous. Nigeria’s economy suffers from low productivity, it shouldn’t be lumbered with more unproductive activities, such as wasteful and unnecessary public holidays.

Now, let’s come to the president’s Democracy Day speech. Was it a speech that articulated a credible commitment to national renewal and reform? Well, the answer is no! The president missed the opportunity to recast himself as a reformist and transformation leader in his second term. The speech was full of platitudes, repeatedly saying things that people could not substantially disagree with, but which, underneath the façade, lack substance or credibility. Call it empty rhetoric!

President Buhari needed to show two things in his speech. First, that he’s got an economic plan for his second term that would open Nigeria to business and foreign investors, and that would unleash the animal spirits of enterprise in this country. Second, that he could unite Nigerians through leading Nigeria towards an enduring political settlement and true federalism, based on political restructuring. Unfortunately, his speech did not credibly address these issues. Although the president promised to “correct the lapses” in his first term, “tackle the new challenges the country is faced with” and “chart a bold plan for transforming Nigeria”, the agenda he set out in his speech is actually to “consolidate” the policies of his first term, it’s about more state intervention in the economy.

The president referred to how China, India and Indonesia achieved economic growth and drastically reduced poverty. Based on these countries’ achievements, he concluded that “With leadership and a sense of purpose, we can lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years”. But did his speech writers really study the trajectory of China’s and India’s economic growth and poverty reductions? If they did, they would have known that the periods of economic transformation and prosperity in these countries coincided with the periods of their far-reaching economic reforms, private sector development and openness to the world economy.

Evidence from the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO shows that Nigeria cannot achieve what China, India and Indonesia did unless it becomes an open, competitive market economy. Unfortunately, much of what the president said in his speech was about continuing with the current statist, interventionist and protectionist approach, with heavy reliance on government spending to address socio-economic problems. The few references in the speech to working with the private sector seemed perfunctory and hollow.

If you were looking for commitments to market-based economic reforms, to privatisation, to tackling the supply-side constraints that businesses face, to the reform of critical state and market-supporting institutions, you would be disappointed. For instance, the president said: “It still takes too long for goods to clear at our ports”. But how seriously has Nigeria taken its WTO trade facilitation commitments? The president talked about “improving productivity and accelerating economic growth”, but how would that happen without embracing the economic openness and competitiveness that drive innovation, productivity and growth? Can Nigeria really be taken seriously as an open market economy if it doesn’t sign and ratify the African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA) agreement? Strangely, Buhari said nothing about AfCFTA in his speech.

Truth be told, it would take a seismic shift in mindset and worldview for President Buhari to truly understand market dynamics and economic fundamentals. As the president himself said, “Throughout my adult life, I have been a public servant. I have no other career but public service. I know no service but public service”. Surely, it would be hard for a leader with such a state-centred ethos to genuinely understand why the private sector, not the state, is the driver of economic growth and why private sector development is critical. Buhari’s speech proves this; his preference is for state planning!

Now, what about uniting Nigeria? Again, it’s all empty rhetoric. President Buhari said: “We have been successful in forging a nation from different ethnicities and language groups”. Really, is Nigeria a “nation”, properly defined?

Recently, President Buhari was hailed for saying that “True federalism is necessary at this juncture of our political and democratic evolution”. But what does he mean by “true federalism”? Is asking the Inspector General of Police to establish state and local government police forces, as Buhari reportedly ordered, the way to create a true federalism? Is naming the Abuja national stadium after MKO Abiola a substitute for restructuring Nigeria and creating an enduring political settlement? Surely, the answer is no. Yet, Buhari’s Democracy Day speech said nothing about political restructuring.

Sadly, the new Senate rejected a motion to debate Buhari’s Democracy Day speech. That’s a bad start. The inauguration events and the President’s Democracy Day speech should ideally be debated by the legislature. Why wouldn’t they?

Culled from Business Day

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