By OBINNA EZUGWU
Having held sway in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, for over two decades, within which period he accumulated wealth and influence, Bola Tinubu, on May 29, achieved his life time ambition of becoming the country’s president, officially taking over from his ally, President Muhammadu Buhari.
Tinubu assumed office at a time when the country is battling multiple security, economic and social challenges, with fault lines heightened under Buhari, who many say, took nepotism to unprecedented levels. The election that brought him to power has helped to widen the divisions, even as his same faith ticket had unnerved many in the Christian community. His job, many agree, is cut out for him: improve the economy, tackle insecurity and work to unite the country, or finally plunge it into the abyss.
The former Lagos governor has hit the ground running, and has used his first few days in office to give an indication of where his administration is headed: consolidate power, take tough decisions and dare the consequences.
Tinubu’s declaration that the problematic petrol subsidy regime ‘is gone’ while delivering his inaugural speech, predictably sparked off social upheaval. Pump price of the commodity has since spiked to an average of N500, according to the new price template of the state oil firm, the NNPC Limited, while independent marketers in some states sell for as much as N700.
Annual fuel subsidy spending had shot up by 571 per cent to N4.39 trillion in 2022 from N654 billion in 2015, taking a huge toll on an economy reeling from N77trn debt burden, with 92 percent of revenue spent on debt servicing, at $112m monthly. Economists had been in agreement that the subsidy regime was unsustainable, and needed to go. But many expected that it would be done in such a way that the impact will be somewhat mitigated.
However, it is Tinubu’s appointments thus far, and his moves on the political front, that have given the clearest indication yet about where his administration is headed. Like the Buhari administration, it is already looking like, as many have suggested, that politics will take precedence over economy. So far, the former governor has made two key appointments – Sen. George Akume, former governor of Benue State was named Secretary to the Government of the Federation, and Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of the House of Representatives, named Chief of Staff.
Akume, a career politician, was instrumental to Tinubu’s surprising, but contested victory in Benue, and the appointment seems fitting, in terms of reward for loyalists, who played key role in his emergence as president. But for observers, it is also an indication that there won’t be much departure from what obtained in the Buhari era, given the strategic role of the SGF in the day-to-day running of government.
I am “disappointed with Akume’s appointment as SGF. Lacks integrity, in my opinion. A key position in terms of day-to-day operation of the government. Suggests a business-as-usual approach,” noted Matthew Page, a leading policy intellectual with focus on Nigeria, and member of Chatham House, Africa Programme Department.
But Akume’s appointment, put in the context of the president’s recent moves, suggests something deeper. Widely described as a political strategist by his admirers, Tinubu managed to hold sway in Lagos by accommodating potential threats to his throne, and giving them spaces to operate under his wings, as opposed to confrontation. This approach ensured that he easily crushed any opposition in the state’s politics.
With initial overtures towards Rabiu Kwankwaso, former governor of Kano State, who ran for president under the platform of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP), and more recent meeting with James Ibori, former Delta State governor, who along with Nyesom Wike, former Rivers State governor, and Seyi Makinde, Oyo State governor, visited him in Aso Rock on Friday, Akume’s appointment appears to be an affirmation that the new president is looking to employ his Lagos tactic in Abuja, by building an alliance of ‘strong men’ across the country, to potentially bury opposition.
“George Akume has produced every governor of Benue State since 1999. After his tenure, he brought Suswam in 2007. He brought Ortom in 2015. He brought Rev Fr. Alia in 2023,” noted Collins Uma, executive director, Yuana Africa. “The Only kingmaker bigger than him is Tinubu.”
Akume has over time proved his mettle as the strong man of Benue politics, and did so again in the recently concluded presidential and governorship elections. His appointment as SGF, ahead of the likes of Nasir El-Rufai, former Kaduna State governor, and Abdullahi Ganduje, former Kano State governor, both of whom lost their states in the presidential election to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and NNPP, respectively, suggests both a reward for effort and a recognition of his status as a strong player in Benue, and by extension, the North Central.
Tinubu had also prior to his swearing in as president, met with Kwankwaso in France, a development that angered Ganduje, his successor and political adversary. Kwankwaso came fourth in the presidential election, demonstrating, with his performance in the presidential and governorship elections, that he is the real deal in Kano, with its massive voting population. For Tinubu, and his brand of politics, therefore, he is an asset.
Yet, on Friday, the president met with Ibori, the big man of Delta politics, with tremendous influence in the South South region of the country; a meeting many on social media has disparaged as ‘the gathering of technocrats,’ and ‘forming of government of national unity;’ but, which speaks to his intention to consolidate his power base.
Tough Road Ahead
Beyond politics, and whether or not Tinubu succeeds in consolidating his hold on power, he presides over a country reeling from battered economy, mounting security challenges, and deep divisions. He is expected to find solutions, and fast, too.
“A lot is expected of him and here are a couple of things I would say. National unity. The country is so divided that nothing can happen without President Tinubu making a big attempt to unite Nigerians,” noted Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, public affairs commentator.
“I would suggest that he can call a meeting of the sub nationalities of Nigeria, the Afeniferes, the Ohanezes; because these guys have a very strong hold on their ethnic nationalities. If that happens and it is successful, that then pushes the way forward for him to unleash a couple of big programs.
“One would be insecurity. I would say all service chiefs should honourably resign. All of them including the IG of police, because they’ve not done well. President Tinubu cannot go on with these service chiefs. We need to create a new security infrastructure.”
Agbakoba, who spoke on Arise TV on Thursday, noted that there is a need to rapidly improve the nation’s economy, as he described the debt to revenue ratio as “horrible.”
He said further, “We need to talk about limited government. The government is simply too big. We need to talk about anti corruption.
“The anti corruption process is not working. I have challenged the constitutionality of the EFCC. EFCC is a behemoth. EFCC needs to be dismantled, Mr. Bawa needs to go, because what he’s doing isn’t attracting people’s confidence. He’s always in battle with everybody. Now he’s battling Matawalle. That’s no way to fight corruption.
On the economic front, many have described the removal of fuel subsidy as a move in the right direction, even if concerns continue to mount over its impact on the economy. Annual fuel subsidy spending shot up by 571 per cent to N4.39 trillion in 2022 from N654 billion in 2015, meaning that for a country that spends 92 percent of revenue on debt servicing – according to the World Bank – subsidy removal seemed inevitable. The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the removal will save the economy N3trn annually, which could come in handy for a government that would need all the help it can get.
But the new president will inevitably have to contend with the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), which has vowed to embark on strike from Wednesday if the policy is not reversed.
The decision is also coming at a time, when inflation is in excess of 22.2 percent, with food inflation at over 24.6 percent. The consequence of the hike in fuel prices that has followed the withdrawal is that this will further worsen, but overall many agree it’s a positive decision, even if there are contentions about need to put palliatives in place before making the announcement.
“NLC only speaks on issues that give them publicity,” argued Kalu Aja, an analyst. They didn’t speak on the huge borrowing and printing of money that will be repaid by workers. Nor have they spoken on casual workers pay, inflation or high cost of food. Subsidy has to go, NLC should focus on seeking benefits for workers.”
Speaking to APC governors on Thursday, the president promised to look into the minimum wage issue, while admitting that the challenges are enormous.
“We need to do arithmetics and soul searching on the minimum wage. We will have to look at that. We are digging deep into the revenue of the federal republic of Nigeria. We must strengthen the sources and application of those sources. Where is it coming from?” he wondered.
“Mainly, security, then, revenue. We had a discussion on that and I want you to continue in that plan. If we think together and work together, the Nigeria of our dreams is not far away.”
The president also assured the country is “not going to have multiple exchange rates,” amid reports that the CBN has already devalued the naira to N631 to the dollar.
Tinubu inherited a debt of N77trn, and with the 2023 budget having a 4.3 per cent deficit of GDP, the country is condemned to go into more borrowing.
On the security front, the numbers show that the country is practically at war. Despite spending N14 trillion on insecurity in eight years, the country, by many accounts, is more insecure now than it was prior.
While the Buhari administration made noticeable progress in the battle against Boko Haram, insecurity has spread to other parts of the country, most prominently in the North West and North Central where bandits and Fulani herders are wreaking havoc; as well as the South East, where separatist agitation has turned violent. Indeed, the activities of herders have created a sense of insecurity across the country, with attacks recorded in every region.
Earlier this month, a report from the Nigeria Security Tracker, a project of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa programme, disclosed that over 63,111 people were killed in eight years under Buhari, with the deaths rising from terrorism, banditry, herders/farmers clashes, communal crises, cult clashes, and extra-judicial killings, among others.
Tinubu would have to find solutions. On Friday, he met security chiefs in Aso Rock, during which he mandated them to come up with a blueprint, that he doesn’t have the luxury of time and whatever changes will be made, have to be done as soon as possible. He particularly mentioned oil theft, which has undercut Nigeria’s oil production output, from OPEC quota of 1.8mbpd to just above one million, with consequent effect on revenue, as intolerable and must end.
How far they will go with this fresh mandate is an open question, as Nigerians had got used to it under President Buhari, under whom this problem became an industry.