Questions Presidential Candidates Must Answer
Next month, campaigns for the 2023 elections will kick off officially. I used the word “officially” advisedly: campaign has practically taken off on TV and Twitter. Many presidential candidates are already marketing themselves. Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, his All Progressives Congress (APC) opponent, even took time off the other day to exchange missiles over Muslim-Muslim ticket. Mr Peter Obi (Labour Party) has been reeling out captivating statistics and keeping fact checkers busy. Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso (New Nigeria Peoples Party) has been talking a good game everywhere as well.
The most interesting battles so far are on Twitter. Supporters of the presidential candidates are steadily trading cyber threats and insults. It is a race to the bottom: who can take the standard of public conversation to the lowest, meanest level? Who can say the vilest things? I must confess I am amused by every bit of it. Electioneering periods are usually the most exciting for us and the 2022/2023 season has lived up to the billing so far, with more to follow. We were born for elections. Nothing excites us on a prolonged run like electioneering. It is a festival. Nigeria is not a boring place, but the spice that comes with the elections is like a tonic that keeps us hyperactive night and day.
It should be pure fun if not that Nigeria is in a bad place and the next president has his job well cut out. It is not going to be a tea party. Retweets, likes and vile comments cannot tackle these challenges. World-class branding cannot change our situation. In my previous article, I wondered why anybody would want to be president at this point in our history. I listed a number of complex challenges ahead — such as fighting insecurity, taking tough decisions on the management of the exchange rate, on subsidies, on funding of public universities, on the civil service, on sectional agitations, on debts, and the rest. Fellow Nigerians, do not be deceived: there is no easy way out.
On Twitter, over-excited Nigerians have already solved all these problems on behalf of their favourite presidential candidates. Easy peasy. After all, the goal of electioneering is to get power first. What happens thereafter is for thereafter. When we get to that bridge we will cross it, isn’t it? We learn nothing from history. In fact, we disdain history. And I am not talking about the history that people always lament is no longer being taught in schools. I am talking about the history we are living through, the history we are experiencing. Otherwise, we should have a sober electioneering this time, full of controlled promises and calm expectations. My apologies: I am preaching to a wall.
Regardless, we should be asking the candidates hard and specific questions as full-blown campaigns start. For whatever it is worth, we should grill them on their agenda. Electioneering must go beyond the usual “I will” and be elevated to “How I will”. This is not the super solution to our problems, but at least we can get to know if the candidates truly understand the issues. We can gauge the depth of their comprehension. We can assess the intellect in their thought process. Is this too much to ask? For a country full of educated and enlightened people, we do ourselves a world of disservice when we give an easy pass to those seeking to lead us. We need to make them sweat their way to power.
For one, it is not enough to commission experts to produce glossy manifestos. Anyone can do that. It is not enough to say “check out the details in our manifesto”. No way. Speak to us about your new and specific ideas. Also, it is not enough to speak persuasively about the plans. Instead, the plans should be vigorously interrogated to determine if they are reasonable and realistic. Doing both does not necessarily guarantee implementation, much less effective implementation, which is the most important thing. At the end of the day, voters are still taking a gamble. But it will be a calculated gamble. Plans provide a basis for informed assessment and a tool of holding candidates to account.
Therefore, it is not just enough to say “I will fight insecurity”. You are not talking to kids, for crying out loud. What will you do differently, dear presidential candidate? We were told in 2015 that President Muhammadu Buhari would deploy his military experience to secure the nation better than President Goodluck Jonathan, who was considered too weak. Despite all the shots we have fired since then, we are still like this. So, dear candidate, what do you think the problem is? Do you think it has to do with the capability of the military? Is it the intelligence gathering? Is it a fear of international sanctions for human rights abuses? Is it corruption? Or is it an impossible mission?
Actually, we cannot say with all honesty that the Buhari administration has not made efforts to tackle the security challenges. It has shut down telecom services in parts of the country, enforced national identity registration, enforced mobile phone registration, and enforced linking NIN to SIM cards (even hurting the growth of the telecom sector in the process), but are we safer? It bought jets and made a big show at the Eagle Square in 2019, changed service chiefs, controlled media narration and cracked down on international NGOs, but are we safer? What then are we not getting right? Do we need more boots? Do we need an overhaul of the security setup? Do we need foreign help?
“Oh no, you don’t understand! Do you know how many attacks the security agencies have prevented?” I agree: it is not all bad news. I do not downplay the success stories and the sacrifice. Rather, I am wondering that despite all, we still feel so vulnerable. How can we save the security forces from further “decimation” — as Gen Babagana Monguno, the national security adviser, recently described the killing of soldiers in Bwari? That is the key question. “I will fight insecurity” does not cut it for me. While I admit that security strategies are not for public consumption, a candidate can still speak intelligently to these issues to assure us that he has thought things through.
Public finance is the second issue I would like the candidates to dissect appropriately. We are spending more on debt service than we earn. How, in naira and kobo, would you address this, dear presidential candidate? Also, you want to cut expenditure. Thank you very much. But how much would you cut from expenditure per year? N1 trillion? N2 trillion? From what budgetary lines? Salaries? Allowances? Training? Trips? Consumables? We need the specifics, backed with real data for every budgetary item to be cut down on. Any Taiwo, Tanimu and Tochi can promise to “cut expenditure” and “grow revenue” while campaigning. The real question is how would you do it?
We have to seriously discuss the subsidy issue, the elephant in the room. Going by the 2023-2025 Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategic Paper (MTEF and FSP), we have projected to spend N6.72 trillion on petrol subsidy alone in 2023 — far more than we will spend on health care and education. Given that no presidential candidate wants to say things that will affect his electoral fortune, our culture is to politick. Yet, the candidates need to tell us what they will do about the subsidy bill. Will they retain subsidy? How will they fund it? Will they remove it partially or completely? How will they manage the gains for the benefit of over 200 million Nigerians?
I have by no means touched on all the major issues. There are many others that the presidential candidates must equally speak to: how will they finally solve the ASUU problem so that strikes will no longer be part of our academic calendar? How will they deal decisively with a civil service that keeps ballooning but is mostly inefficient, corrupt and regressive? How can our civil service become world-class? How do we maintain and deepen the fight against corruption as well as check potential abuse? How can we get millions of youths off the job market? Above all, how can we get Nigerians to fall in love with Nigeria again? How can we renew and rebuild this beautiful, beautiful nation?
As we seek to reboot Nigeria, we need a proper conversation with the presidential candidates on these critical issues. We have been skirting around certain issues and going back and forth because of the exigencies of politics. This is not to be unexpected. No president wants to risk social upheavals. No president wants to be unpopular. But, realistically, we are going nowhere if we continue along this trajectory. We will keep lamenting daily and things will never ease up or get resolved. By continuing to avoid the hard path, the next president will destroy whatever hope of putting the country on the right track. Nothing is called gold until it passes through fire.
Come to think of it, why should you seek to become president, going all over the country canvassing votes, without demonstrating convincingly that you know what the job entails and you are ready to do the needful? I am not saying tell us all the details. Some things have to remain confidential. But don’t talk to us as if you are addressing a bunch of Sunday School kids. Let us have your concrete plan. You can only implement a plan when you have one. Giving us your plan is not the magic solution but it is a necessary condition that can be made sufficient with implementation, monitoring & evaluation and accountability. Let us elevate our politics. We should not even be debating this!
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
The almighty National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) on Wednesday fined Trust TV, MultiChoice, TelCom Satellite and StarTimes for airing a documentary on banditry, making good the threat by Alhaji Lai Mohammed, minister of information, days earlier. The contention of the government is that the documentary glorifies banditry. Globally, governments regulate the broadcast media more strictly — after all, it is the state that issues the frequencies and the licensing gives it some leverage. But at what stage does regulation conflict with press freedom? Rather than resort to muscle-flexing, I think government should engage more constructively with the media on these issues. Dialogue.
JUSTICE FOR UMOREN
On Thursday, Uduak Akpan was sentenced to death for the murder of Ms Iniobong Umoren, a graduate of University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom state. Umoren had been lured to her death last year by Akpan, who promised her employment. Credit to social media for the attention given to the crime. Otherwise, she could have been considered missing today. Her killing highlighted once again the unmitigated wickedness in our country. Why lure an innocent lady to her death? Hanging Akpan can only offer some closure to her family: nothing can bring back their beloved daughter to their arms. Let’s pray this swift justice will send a message to other would-be murderers out there. Sad.
Do you still remember Baptist High School, Maraban Damishi, Chikun LGA, Kaduna state? In the early hours of July 5, 2021, bandits invaded the school and kidnapped 121 students. They even killed some of them. What many Nigerians don’t know is that some of the students are still in captivity. We have virtually forgotten about them. The attack on Abuja-Kaduna train and the kidnap of scores of passengers in March 2022 pushed Bethel off the radar. If the bandits had succeeded in their attempt to kidnap students of the Nigerian Law School, Bwari, recently, attention of the train victims would also have gone down. We just have to find a solution to this menace by any means. Distressing.
Nigeria missed out on a sure gold medal at the Commonwealth Games on Thursday when the para-powerlifting entrants turned up late for the women’s lightweight event. Although they arrived minutes to the 3pm start, the devil was in the details: they were to be there an hour ahead for the inspection of kits. All the rules were handed down before the games started. Nigeria had always won the gold in that event, so it was going to be a piece of cake. Who should be held responsible for the tardiness? With all the civil servants and officials at the games, was no one designated to take care of scheduling? If there was someone and the person failed, is there a punishment? Scandalous.