New ‘currency’, new census: Buhari’s desperate quest for a legacy

FOR most of his seven-and-a-half years in office to date, President Muhammadu Buhari ran Nigeria with such insouciance that suggested he didn’t care about a legacy. However, as the inevitability of leaving office on May 29 next year hits home, Buhari has shown a minute-to-midnight desperation for “legacy projects”.

Two such “projects” are “redesigning” the naira notes and conducting a population census. But by politicising such issues, he undermines them. To start with, my view is that President Buhari has, so far, no legacy that can endure through time. Economists use the term “value for money” to refer to something that is well worth the money spent on it.

If the hopes of a safer, stronger and more united Nigeria, of secured, prosperous and happier lives, that Nigerians invested in General Buhari in 2015 and 2019 are ‘money spent’, does his administration’s performance across the economy, national security, nation-building, anti-corruption, poverty-reduction represent good value for money? Emphatically no!

But Lai Mohammed, the hyperbolic Minister of Information, said: “Buhari’s legacy is unmatched in Nigeria’s history.” Recently, he convened public events tagged “Buhari’s Legacy” where he presented the president’s scorecard. Unsurprisingly, infrastructure topped the list, then legislations.

Yet, the so-called infrastructure – narrowly-defined and hundred per cent debt-financed – won’t be positive legacy, because, contrary to what infrastructure does, Buhari’s infrastructure projects have not boosted economic growth, increased job-creation and reduced poverty. Instead, it has trapped Nigeria in unsustainable debts, still payable decades after the projects have become decrepit.

In the US, President Biden’s massive infrastructure plans, underpinned by the “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act”, focus not just on roads, bridges and rails, but also on expanding access to drinking water, high-speed internet, health care and education, as well as tackling climate change and investing in poor communities.

Such a comprehensive approach to infrastructure is what drives economic growth, job-creation and poverty-reduction. But Buhari’s infrastructure “revolution” fixates on roads, passenger railways and bridges; it’s detached from the wider economy, doing little to create jobs and raise living standards. It’s not an enduring legacy!

Then, take legislations. President Buhari rightly receives credit for signing into law bills that languished in the National Assembly for several years, such as the Petroleum Industry Bill that was unsigned for over 10 years, the Companies and Allied Matters Bill that gestated for over 30 years and the first-ever Competition and Consumer Protection Bill. And the Electoral Act Amendment Bill.

But, leaving aside their inherent flaws, the legislations suffer from poor implementation, are not fully implementable and lack complementary policies; hence their desired outcomes are elusive. Think about it: the PIB hasn’t attracted foreign investors to the oil sector; CAMA hasn’t transformed the corporate sector; the CCPA hasn’t made the economy competitive or protected consumers, and the new electoral act hasn’t stopped vote-buying; indeed, the jury is out on whether it could guarantee credible elections next year.

In years to come, as it becomes clear that the much-trumpeted legislations are not really transformative, even Buhari wouldn’t claim them as his legacy!

Which brings us back to the currency redesign and population census. Buhari and his advisers would appropriate them as his “legacy”. He’s the first president, in 20 years, who authorised the redesign of naira notes and the first president, in 16 years, who would conduct a census.

Except that these are routine, technical issues, and treating them as “Buhari legacy projects” politicises and undermines them. Take the currency redesign. Godwin Emefiele, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, said: “In the past, attempts to redesign and reissue currencies have been resisted.”

He then added: “Only a President of Muhammadu Buhari’s character could have made it happen.” See? A Buhari “legacy” claim! As military head of state in 1984, Buhari changed the currencies; his recent unveiling of the redesigned notes must have evoked a strong feeling of déjà vu!

But why now? Why six months to the end of his tenure? The mischiefs that the “currency redesign” aims to tackle, such as inflation, counterfeiting, money circulating outside the banking system have existed over the past seven-and-a-half years of the Buhari administration, and if it’s hoped the measure would revive the economy, well, it’s certainly too little, too late! Some say the currency redesign would “catch” politicians who hoard naira notes for next year’s elections. But they’re probably using them to buy dollars and, so, would buy votes with dollars. Remember “dollar rain”?

But why the haste? When the US redesigns its currency, it allows six to eight months for public and cash-handler engagement. So does the UK. But the CBN allows less than three months, rendering the old naira notes illegal by the end of January. The losers would be ordinary Nigerians and micro, small and medium enterprises, MSMEs. What about the large informal sector?

The IMF is right: the currency redesign could be counterproductive. But who cares when it’s a Buhari legacy project? Finally, the population census. President Buhari ordered the National Population Commission, NPC, to conduct a census next April. True, Nigeria needs a population census; the last was 16 years ago, in 2006. But why a month before Buhari leaves office? Indeed, why after next year’s elections?

In 2015, Professor Attahiru Jega, former INEC chairman, said in a lecture at the London School of Economics that he regretted that INEC couldn’t conduct a review of electoral constituencies and polling units in Nigeria. Fair electoral constituency structures are critical to fair elections.

But they require accurate population census. If Buhari cares about fair elections, he should have conducted a census long before next year’s elections to address Nigeria’s current skewed constituency structure, which, as Jega put it, “favoured some constituencies over others”.

But Buhari is averse to structural reforms; he only wants census as a legacy project, nothing more! Yet, truth is, President Buhari’s enduring legacy will be his broken manifesto promises to fix the economy, tackle insecurity, fight corruption and restructure Nigeria, not his ill-conceived “legacy projects”, currency redesign and population census!


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