Half-time, And A Quick-Win Mentality, By Tolu Ogunlesi
…considering that we have now come to the end of the first half of 2015 (the referee’s whistle goes off tomorrow!), the Buhari government would do well to focus on implementing a ‘quick-win’ agenda – decisions that can be made and implemented immediately, and without requiring legislative approval – during the second half.
The postponement of the general elections from February to March and April ensured that the entire country was going to spend the whole of the first quarter of the year playing high-tension politics. Add the fact of a formal handover scheduled for the end of May, and a June widely seen as a settling-in period for a new government, and we can easily conclude that we essentially donated the entire first half of the year to the process of transitioning from one government to another.
Considering the extent to which politics and the government constitute the central nervous system of the Nigerian economy, it’s easy to understand why the overwhelming sentiment in business circles around the country most of the year has been ‘wait and see’. Countless business decisions were put on hold, or scaled down, or even cancelled entirely, because at no point was anyone ever sure how things would turn out. Even now that the handover is behind us, another waiting game has started; this time for the new cabinet. People are eager to see what #TeamBuhari will look like, as the composition of that team will send a clear message regarding the seriousness or otherwise of the new government.
With this in mind, and considering that we have now come to the end of the first half of 2015 (the referee’s whistle goes off tomorrow!), the Buhari government would do well to focus on implementing a ‘quick-win’ agenda – decisions that can be made and implemented immediately, and without requiring legislative approval – during the second half.
What this article intends to do is to examine some of those potential quick-wins. Let’s start with the electoral process. Tomorrow, Prof Jega’s tenure as INEC Chairman comes to an end, after five years in office. He says he’s not interested in seeking another term, and is looking forward to resting and returning to University teaching. It will therefore be up to President Buhari to appoint, in the near future, a new INEC Chairperson. (Recall that appointing Jega as INEC Chairman was one of the first things President Jonathan did upon taking office after Yar’Adua’s death in May 2010). The new boss will need to come to the task with demonstrable reformist credentials, just like Jega did. (Jega’s preternatural calmness would also be a great asset, in a country where Orubebeic explosiveness appears to be the default emotional stance).
And just imagine how much positive capital would be generated for the new government if a woman were named to that position. It would be a first in Nigeria’s history – just as it was a first when Ghana named a woman to head its electoral Commission this month – and it would also portray the Buhari government as one committed to the principle of women empowerment. President Jonathan has set high standards in terms of appointing women to visible and powerful positions in his government, and President Buhari cannot afford to do any less. In any case, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in its manifestos and pre-election messaging promised to pay attention to the gender equality question.
The petroleum industry also offers room for a number of important quick-wins, on account of its wide-ranging impact on the larger economy: oil continues to account for more than 70 percent of government revenues, and 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings. The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is one issue in that industry that the Buhari government needs to file under its quick-win agenda. In every business conference I’ve attended in recent months, the PIB has come up. Everyone in the Nigerian oil and gas industry appears to agree that until the uncertainty surrounding the bill and its prescriptions is passed, the industry will continue in a state of decline. (Very little enthusiasm for fresh investment, large contractor debts, declining rig counts, etc).
Now I’ve got to clarify the quick-win dimension of the PIB. The quick-win would not be in the passage of the bill – indeed it would be a miracle if it were passed before the end of 2015 – but instead in the attempt to speedily yet carefully and transparently redraft the bill, in preparation for sending it to the National Assembly.
Austen Olorunsola, a former head of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), who served as Technical Editor of the bill in its last two incarnations, says it is possible to get a new draft within 60 days. If that is successfully done, then the bill can begin to receive parliamentary attention sometime within the next six months. At that stage, perhaps we can then begin to count on the promise of the new Senate President, Bukola Saraki, that he will make the passage of the bill a priority.
While the PIB is being re-drafted and debated, reforming the structure of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) should be topmost on the list. Of the many dysfunctions associated with the NNPC, perhaps none is more alarming than the fact that the organisation is simultaneously a regulator, policy-maker and an operator. This has to change immediately. The dissolution of the NNPC board on Friday should not have come as a surprise to anyone; what’s surprising is that the measures taken so far haven’t been more far-reaching. One interesting argument is that the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), statutorily the industry regulator, should immediately be freed from the oppressive grip of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources. As one industry insider remarked, considering that industry regulators in the power sector (NERC), capital and bond markets (SEC) and telecommunications (NCC) do not report to the sector ministries, there is no justification for having the DPR embedded within a ministerial structure. That reform can and should be made immediately, and everything should be done to create a strong and efficient and independent petroleum industry regulator. I’ve also heard an argument for the National Petroleum Investment Management Services (NAPIMS), the investment arm of the NNPC, to similarly be immediately freed from a regime of obstructive government control.
A decision also needs to be taken about the fuel subsidy; I have articulated my thoughts on this in a recent column. Although I’m not sure to what extent that would fit into a ‘quick-win’ template, considering the angst it is certain to generate.
Then there’s the federal budget, one of the most uninspiring this country has had to deal with in a while. It allocates only 10 percent of projected federal spending for this year to capital expenditure; the rest will go on recurrent items: salaries, overheads, debt servicing, etc. What’s going to happen to that budget? Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna has advocated scrapping it; he’d like to see a new budget drawn up. What’s more likely to happen is a supplementary budget – recall that a few months after taking over in 1999, President Obasanjo sent a supplementary budget to the national assembly. If the new budget makes use of a higher benchmark than the $53 in the original one – considering the marginal rise in oil prices since the first quarter ended – it would make some more spending money available to all levels of government, and hopefully reduce projected deficits for the year.
I’m sure there are several other quick-win ideas floating out there, waiting to be enlisted by the new government. Quick-wins allow a government to be seen to be working, which is a very important consideration in this age of 24-hour news cycles and 25-hour social media coverage. Plenty of the work that the Buhari administration needs to do will be foundational restructuring – things like plugging the holes through which billions of dollars previously used to vanish. There will be many reform tasks that will involve plenty of complicated negotiating with all forms of stakeholders, including the parliament.
While all of that is going on, the quick-win goals will come in very handy. They will be the successes that help keep citizens engaged with the government, help create and solidify the impression that the government is a working and responsive one, and extend the Buhari ‘honeymoon’ period for as long as possible. I’m almost certain that whatever reputation the new government earns for itself in this first six months will stick to it for its entire life-span. The countdown has since started.
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