Buhari’s Quest for Emergency Economic Powers

Since Reuters broke the news on August 22 2016 that the government would be seeking for emergency powers to enable it fix the economy, Nigerians have been debating the pros and cons of that yet- to- be confirmed Bill. Though officially the government continues to claim it is unaware  that such a Bill is on the pipeline, with the Nation, a paper owned by Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and regarded as pro-APC reporting the story same day as Reuters’ and quoting unnamed government sources, many Nigerians feel  it has gone beyond rumours and speculations.

According to The Nation newspaper of August 22 2016, an executive Bill entitled: ‘Emergency Economic Stabilisation Bill 2016’ would be presented to the National Assembly when the Senate and the House of Representatives resume from vacation on September 12. The paper claimed that in the Bill, the President would ask for sweeping powers to set aside some extant laws and use executive orders to roll out an economic recovery package within the next one year. According to the paper the President would specifically ask for ‘emergency powers’ to abridge the procurement process ostensibly because the extant law on procurement does not allow contract award earlier than six months after decision. The government is also said to be uncomfortable with the current provisions of the law which forbid it from mobilizing contractors with more than 15 per cent of the total contract sum. The Bill, the Nation claimed, would allow the government to mobilise contractors with 50 per cent of contract sum, making it easier for it to push for faster completion of projects.

The planned emergency powers, it was equally claimed, would also enable the government to amend certain laws such as the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) Act so that states that cannot access their cash trapped in the accounts of the Commission because they cannot meet the counterpart funding requirements would be able to do so. It is estimated that about N58 billion is trapped in UBEC’s coffers because many states cannot provide the required 50 per cent of counterpart funding. Through the planned Bill, the government would seek an amendment to the law so that states will pay only 10 per cent as counterpart funding. The proposed Bill would equally enable the President to allow virement of budgetary allocation to projects that are urgent without going back to the National Assembly as well as embark on radical reforms in visa issuance at Nigeria’s consular offices.

With the economy in dire straits, there is no doubt that the government needs to do something urgently. In fact, recent provisional figures from the National Bureau of Statistics make a very grim reading. According to the NBS, during the second quarter of this year, the country’s Gross Domestic Product declined by 2.06 per cent (year-on-year) in real terms compared to the growth rate of 0.36 per cent recorded in the preceding quarter and the 2.35 per cent recorded in the corresponding quarter of 2015. The NBS also reported that the total value of capital imported into the country in the second quarter of the year was a paltry $647.1m – which represents a decline of 8.98 per cent relative to the first quarter and a decline of 75.75 per cent relative to the second quarter of 2015. The statistics agency underlined that this provisional figure was the lowest level of capital imported into the economy on record and also represented the largest year on year decline. The NBS’s figures clearly show that the country is on a rapid downward slide on virtually all economic and social indicators.

Supporters of the proposed Bill therefore argue that given the country’s current economic condition, the President should be supported with whatever power he seeks to get things fixed.

I believe that many of the arguments on which the proposed (or rumoured) emergency economic powers are built make sense. For instance I am persuaded on the argument about changing the extant laws on UBEC to reduce the counterpart funding obligations of states from 50 per cent to 10 per cent.  There is no doubt that there is a need for flexibility in the application of some of our extant laws – given the current economic climate. What remains debatable is whether wide-ranging emergency economic powers are what the government should be hankering after. In fact the proposed or rumoured Bill on Emergency Economic Powers for the President raises a number of fundamental issues:

One, nay-saying to any government project or proposal – no matter how utilitarian or sophisticated the argument  used in selling such –  is quite normal and underlines the general distrust of governments everywhere especially by civil society activists. This is worse in Buhari’s case because of his authoritarian antecedents as a military dictator and a lingering suspicion about his conversion as a democrat. His critics would remain suspicious of why he wants wide- ranging emergency powers when he could have asked for amendments of specific Acts or sections of the Constitution to achieve the same aim. I think the Bill will be a tough sell for the government, no matter how well  its intention is. And I remain among those who believe the President means well for the country but is yet to find his mojo.

Two, while the current government might not have created what APC chieftains like to call the ‘mess we are in’; it has not really been able to halt the country’s economic, social and political decline. Rather the government appears to be on perennial trial- and- error runs, sometimes with policies that are contradictory and also with frequent policy somersaults – all of which end up worsening the country’s condition. The fear therefore is whether the proposed Bill, if passed by the National Assembly, will not be another trial and error stuff that will be haphazardly implemented or even abandoned midstream – compounding the problems they were theoretically meant to solve.

Three, apart from questions of whether the President really needs sweeping emergency powers to resolve the country’s economic problems, there is even a more fundamental question of whether the current economic challenges are not merely economic manifestations of the President’s politics –or at least amplified by the President’s politics. For instance, to what extent has the government’s unintended de-marketing of the country through its probe rhetoric contributed to the drying up of foreign capital inflows in the country? To what extent has the regime’s mode of fighting corruption – which is gra-gra driven rather than institution-driven, discouraged those with the money from coming out to invest? I do not support corruption but I have remained a consistent critic of the EFCC/ICPC gra-gra method of fighting corruption over the years.  For one, I have remained unconvinced that their system either works in deterring corruption or has benefitted the economy – otherwise each new government at both state and federal levels would not be indulging in the sport of accusing its predecessor of monumental corruption.  My belief is that while the current gra-gra method of fighting corruption may appeal to those baying for the blood of their class, regional and ethnic (real and imagined) enemies, it has discouraged those with the money to spend and reflate the economy. I have over the years called for conditional amnesty for those accused of corruption and a change in our way of fighting the malaise into something that is institution-driven and devoid of the razzmatazz of media trials. It is also difficult to separate the current system of fighting corruption with political vendetta. Essentially therefore, any attempt at seriously resuscitating our comatose economy must encompass retooling the President’s brand of politics.

Four, I do not believe that the economy is the President’s forté – and it must not necessarily be so. I also do not believe he has the best team he is capable of assembling to tackle the current economic challenges. But the President has a critical resource – an impressive force of personality and charisma to provide political cover to those working for him and willing to take risks. Therefore another key requirement in any serious attempt to turn around the economy is assembling people with impressive credentials from different ideological spectrum to be in his economic team. The President will also need to give such people real leg-room to engage in robust economic and political debates among themselves. The president should limit his role to providing political cover to members of the team once they have agreed on certain options – rather than being seen as dictating to them what to do in specific circumstances. I also believe that the government can benefit from a redefinition of loyalty, which does not have to mean fear of the leader. I think true and enduring loyalty should mean above anything else subordinates being encouraged to respectfully tell the leader the truth or to contribute their honest conviction to the vibrancy of the leader’s think-tank.

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