13 March 2019

Nigeria: Letter to President Buhari


Abuja — My dear President,

I should first congratulate you for winning a second term. I am aware that former VP Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and his party are disputing your announced victory and will challenge it in court. Naturally, you will be the last person to discourage them, having made the challenge of mandates through the legal process a highly respectable political act. Your friends, associates and party will put up a good fight to defend your victory, so your most valuable contribution may be to remind them, from deeply personal experience, that history is on your side, because no one has lost a presidential mandate through the legal process in Nigeria. It may also be wise to caution against complacency, because your victory in 2015 defied history when you defeated an incumbent president and his party.

You worked very hard during your campaigns, and you must know now that it is harder to defend a record than an image. You would also know, first hand or from whispers, that elections are thoroughly messy affairs that demand that you do things you would rather not do. By the time you read my letter, Mr President, you will be aware of the tensions around multiple inconclusive elections in a number of states, and growing concerns over the management of these elections. There will be tons of lessons from your first term advising against civil wars in your party and encouraging good relations with the legislature. You will need to keep a very close eye on turbulence that will be generated by ambitious people around you who will be jockeying for space and advantages as your successors with 2023 in mind.

First, Sir, I hope you will take a long, genuine rest before you commence your second term. It will not look very good having you fly away for weeks to your favoured location in London for rest and medical attention so soon after receiving a renewed mandate to fix the nation, leaving behind a nation at breaking point from election disputes. I would ordinarily advise that you stay in Nigeria, send for your doctors to do whatever they do to fix you while you completely isolate yourself for a few weeks, but we all know that is not possible. Walk away from mess you cannot, or will not do anything about. Leave INEC to sort it all out, and pray that there will still be a nation before you return.

So leave for London next week, but please take along H.E, Hajiya Aisha Buhari. This is one of the very few persons in or around your life that genuinely cares about your health, happiness and fortunes. She also seems to have the strength and the determination to create a buffer between you and that intimate circle that you will need a break from, perhaps for good. She has taken (and given) much of the heat around your stewardship, and as a wife and mother, I know how important it is to keep that vital space that exposes wives to intense hostility from close relations and associates, but is nonetheless the best place for the first and last lines of defence that we often are.

Before you leave, consider giving your Vice President real power over specific responsibilities. Assign him responsibilities to set up advisory committees around a number of areas that should be of major concern to your administration in its second term. The first committee should advise you on key appointments you will need to make immediately, perhaps even before you are sworn in. It should be made up of people who should be courageous and dispassionate in evaluating the continued value of all key officials who were trusted by you in your first term. Let him find people with the knowledge, the wisdom and the integrity to advise you on the much-maligned 'cabal' in the manner you govern in your second term. You may leave detailed and specific guidelines such as the places of merit, loyalty and inclusiveness for the work of this Committee before you leave, as you will be exercising final decisions over their advise when you return. Whatever happens, you should make most of your major appointments not later than two weeks into your second term.

Sir, I will ask you to put a lot of trust and weight on your VP for the rest to your tenure. He is a tremendous asset who puts a respectable face on your administration. So ask him to also set up other advisory committees around national and citizen security, economic policy and building political bridges across the nation. It is vital that you start your second term with an informed and critical review of the nation's security infrastructure and what needs to be done to secure the citizenry. You do not have the luxury of criticising past administrations on security and the economy anymore, because you are now its prime reference point. Life has become a lot more insecure for simple folk, Mr President, and many balls have been dropped by people you trusted, while made all types of excuses for them. It would appear that most northern voters who rained their trust on you still think you can and will protect them. They can live with poverty, but insecurity will swallow them and your entire watch.

You will also need quality and honest advise on the state of the economy and key economic policies you need to adopt, if your two terms will count among the period of rescue and not of irretrievable decline. Key sectors in the private sector, with the possible exception of Bureau de Change operators, are disappointed in, and alienated from your economic policies. You may need to evaluate your anti-corruption policies to see how they can both genuinely fight corruption and encourage growth of enterprise and wealth creation. You cannot continue to rely on the luck of good rainy seasons to boost agriculture. Tested, people-oriented policies with strong capacities for impact and transparency are needed to address youth unemployment, regenerate local production and processing and rebuilding basic infrastructure.

You will also benefit from informed and honest, broad-based input into addressing the widening chasms between regions, communities and faiths which, though predating your recent elections, were made worse by it. You will know by now that the solid northern support behind your first win has been badly raptured. The South East and South South communities still have their backs turned to you, and the South West is at best thoroughly ambivalent. Northern votes secured your second term, and northerners will raise voices in their demands that your administration, this time, rewards their loyalty in real terms. You will need sound advise on keeping the nation united enough to address difficult issues such as political restructuring, improving national security and fairer principles of resource distribution.

Mr President, you said your second term will be tough. I understand that you softened your language later. To be honest, I wish you had stuck with tough, because tough is what you have to be. Tough on yourself and those around you. Find people who are good and honest and knowledgeable enough to represent your vision, and who can be trusted with huge responsibilities. You need to trust more, Sir, and you have to keep trusted people under closer watch. You have to be tougher on security threats and those who fail to exercise responsibility to protect citizens. You have to be tougher on corruption, which may require that you isolate this debilitating scourge from politics. Believe me, Sir, what you do henceforth as leader will determine whether this nation will be strong enough to deal with challenges of the future, or it will go under because its cumulative problems have been left unattended by its leaders.

Jamila Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja.


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