Notes on Tinubu’s First Week as President
On Monday, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu stepped into the biggest dream of his life. He assumed office as the President of Nigeria, a dream he had desired for at least the past 16 years. As expected, it has been a whirl of a week for him: inauguration ceremonies, speeches, meetings, first appointments etc. It is still early days for a categorical projection into what his presidency may look like. But there are enough hints from both the surefootedness and the tentativeness of the first week for a qualified sketch and some initial comments.
One thing that came out clearly in Week One is that President Tinubu is ready to make some bold and necessary decisions on the economy. From Eagle Square, he took on the petrol subsidy thing around Nigeria’s neck. He went outside his prepared speech to declare that ‘petrol subsidy is gone.’ There were some unfortunate walk-back and confusion around this critical takeaway of his inaugural speech, but it didn’t look like a slip. My sense is that it was a message that he wanted to pass across clearly from Day One, hence his decision to adlib.
Maybe many did not pay adequate attention but he had, during the campaigns, given enough notice about his determination to end the ruinous and deficient yet politically sensitive petrol subsidy scheme. But doing it during the inauguration ceremony takes some pluck. That, however, may be the easiest part. The real challenge is how Tinubu confronts the difficult fallouts.
One, there will be pushbacks from the labour unions and others, including his political opponents. Will he hold steady or will he wilt under pressure, concede grounds as others before him had done, and also just kick the can down the road? Two, what is his strategy to take this beyond just price adjustment to full, proper and competitive deregulation of the downstream sector? And three, what and where is his plan for relieving the expected pains from petrol subsidy removal and for repurposing some or all of the savings/gains?
As others have argued, there is no best way to remove the ineffective and ruinous petrol subsidy. It needs to go to give the different tiers of government more fiscal headspace and to prevent a bigger fiscal mess for the country. And the earlier a new administration confronts it, the better for that administration and for the country. However, no one should be under any illusions that petrol subsidy removal will not be resisted for all sorts of reasons including legitimate and dodgy ones. Now that Mr. Tinubu has staked his slim political capital on removing the politically combustible petrol subsidy, he needs to ensure that it is a battle he can win. Going to battle early is good. But the outcome of the first battle has larger implications.
In his inaugural address, Tinubu also came out strongly that there must be a unified exchange rate, that investors will be able to repatriate their funds more easily, and that anti-investment laws and policies, including multiple taxations, will be reviewed. He also touched on the need to reduce interest rates, sustain investment in infrastructure and improve electricity supply. These are good statements of intentions, which the stock market took positive note of. There was a N1.5 trillion bounce on the bourse the following market day.
While the president went off track on interest rates (it is not what you do by presidential fiat), he is right on the money on multiple exchange rates and restrictions on repatriation of profits. Having multiple exchange rates creates a fertile ground for arbitrage, and this has, unsurprisingly, been exploited by the few who have access to subsidised foreign exchange. It needs to go. However, it is important to bear in mind that having a unified and adjusted exchange rate and promising investors a more liberal and friendlier investment climate will not be the magic bullet for addressing the more structural issue of low and decreasing foreign exchange inflows.
Yes, adjusted exchange rate and improved investor confidence are needed to boost forex inflows. But we need more than that. We need to earn more foreign exchange by addressing oil theft, increasing our oil production and the share of federation oil dedicated to export, and significantly increasing non-oil exports. Beyond forex, the new government needs to roll out a comprehensive and coordinated plan to put millions of our people to work, especially in labour intensive and export geared sectors.
From his statements in the first week, Tinubu comes across as a president who is likely to take the economy more seriously. Well, he doesn’t have a choice, given where Nigeria’s economy is at the moment, and how central the state of the economy is to everything else from national security to individual welfare. The economy is an area Tinubu should be comfortable in because of his background. But he needs to continue to bat on the side of pragmatism and ensure that his pro-business bias does not further enable state capture and limited competition.
Most importantly, he needs to assemble a well-credentialed and highly credible economic team. This cannot be emphasised enough: we need competent managers of the economy. Managing the economy is a technical area, not all-comers’ affair or a place for people to learn the ropes or a place to reward loyalists. We need people who know what to do from Day One, and have the stature and the network to attract the necessary support and investment to start the process of turning our economy around.
On the security front, two developments within the week gave the new president the opportunity to make strong and necessary statements. The first was the disgraceful face-off between the DSS and EFCC the day after Tinubu’s inauguration. Apparently, there had been some cold war between the two agencies over a compound they share (and maybe over other things). But the show of shame on Tuesday is beyond the pale. Though in different contexts, that was not the first time that these same agencies and others would engage in open face-offs. Unfortunately, these public altercations happened with their authoriser looking the other way. A prompt statement issued in the name of the new president restored needed sanity.
Two days later, Tinubu had his first meeting with the National Security Adviser, the service chiefs and heads of intelligence agencies. From the video shared, there was an awkward moment at the beginning when Tinubu walked into the room and asked: “gentlemen, are we supposed to shake hands?” He ended receiving their salutes and shaking their hands. However, a major takeaway from that meeting is that the new president would not tolerate the agencies working at cross-purposes. Ordinarily, this should be taken for granted. But it was also an open secret in Abuja that at a time the heads of these vital agencies not only engaged in cold wars but even actively undermined one another. Some of them were not even on speaking terms. So, how do we stand a fighting chance in winning the war against terror if those who should be working together were busy fighting one another? How can a divided house stand?
In his inaugural speech, Tinubu also touched on the need not just to adequately resource our armed and security forces but also to undertake necessary reforms in our security doctrine and architecture. These are all fine words. The real test is in backing them up with proper plans and diligent execution, and in the Commander-in-Chief taking the security of the country as his topmost job. Here too, having the right team in place and quickly too, and always acting on time will be critical.
While the early signals on the economy and security give reasons for cautious optimism (assuming the talks will be backed up with concrete actions), the signs in other areas give cause for concern. The first is the vibes from some members of the president’s family. His first daughter, Mrs. Folashade Tinubu-Ojo, rolled out a programme by her ‘Friends of Iyaloja’ to assist the government. In her Twitter bio, she also named herself the ‘Iyaloja of Nigeria’ and the ‘First Daughter of Nigeria’. The president’s son, Mr. Seyi Tinubu, has also been reported to be planning to play some active, even if informal, roles.
While it is okay for children and family members of politicians to participate in political campaigns, it is not proper for them to attempt to be part of governance in any shade or form. Their meddling in governance or peddling of influence creates a moral muddle and paves the way for avoidable scandals. The president needs to tell his children and other family members to face their private businesses. They were not on the ticket. They should be as far away from the Villa and all government agencies as possible.
The other area of worry is the uncoordinated nature of communication from the highest seat of government. Different people are issuing statements. Someone without official designation was made to brief the press after an important meeting while senior government officials stood in the background like school boys. There have been mixed messages on when removal of petrol subsidy will take effect. The statement announcing the first two high-profile appointments by the president left out a very important information: when the appointments will take effect.
The last bit may appear a minor issue but it is not. That omission gave rise to the needless controversy about whether Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila could simultaneously serve as the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Chief of Staff to the President. We run a presidential system of government and one person cannot serve in the two arms of government at the same time. Presidential system of government is undergirded by the concept of separation of powers and checks and balances. It took the tweet by Hon. Gbajabiamila to clarify that he would assume office as the Chief of Staff on 14th June when he would have stopped being the Speaker of the House and hopefully resigned from his parliamentary seat.
Some of these slips could be attributed to the fact that it is still early in the day. But the president has little scope for errors because of the times we live in and the tasks at hand. A careful and honest review of the blips of the early days should be undertaken. Among others, clear, coherent and coordinated communication will be critical.
On the whole, the first week is not a bad start for Tinubu. But he needs to sustain the positives and minimise/eliminate the areas of concern. Those areas of concern are likely to hamper his effectiveness if not firmly addressed. He needs to settle quickly into a role that he coveted for so long. Yes, he has executive experience at the state level, but the last time he held office was 16 years ago. That was a different era, and the presidency is a different arena of power.
No matter his individual talent and capacity, a president is only as good as the people around him. Tinubu needs to constitute his team with despatch and invest his team members/cabinet with the moral and political authority to act on his behalf, to flesh out his campaign promises, and to take critical loads off him. He should quickly emplace his full team to telegraph a sense of urgency and seriousness and to free up the space for him to focus on the big picture. Focussing on the big picture and the connecting threads is the critical job a president cannot delegate. Getting sucked into the minutiae of administration crowds out the bandwidth needed for this critical task.