#VisitingPresident: If I Were Buhari, by Okey Ndibe

I would not have traveled to China. Not at this time, no. In fact, I would tell my Chinese hosts today that I must abbreviate my weeklong visit and return immediately to my office in Abuja.

I know that some defense could be made for the current trip to China. Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina seemed to anticipate the objections to the president’s current excursion, and preemptively cast the trip in entirely positive light. “President Muhammadu Buhari,” he wrote in a press statement, “will leave Abuja…for a working visit to China aimed at securing greater support from Beijing for the development of Nigeria’s infrastructure, especially in the power, roads, railways, aviation, water supply and housing sectors.”

He continued: “President Buhari’s talks with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National Peoples’ Congress, Zhang Dejiang will also focus on strengthening bilateral cooperation in line with the Federal Government’s agenda for the rapid diversification of the Nigerian economy, with emphasis on agriculture and solid minerals development.”

All that sentiment sounds high-minded and noble. Nigeria desperately needs to diversify its economy. Heck, a major tragic strain in the country’s mostly woeful narrative is the decades-long neglect of this imperative. Nigerians are paying the price for lazily laying all their eggs in the crude oil basket. We wagered on the globe staying eternally addicted to fossil fuel. We never reckoned that a time would come when there would be a glut of crude, or when the US, the world’s greatest consumer, would make a strategic turn toward domestic production.

Nigeria’s singular reliance on crude oil earnings meant a high degree of susceptibility to the capriciousness of the market. As oil prices plummeted into the valley, Nigerians suddenly realized that they were in a deep mess. Diversification of the economy, hitherto a fanciful phrase that cropped up in politicians’ speeches, became a rallying cry, one that President Buhari is rather fond of.

Yet, if I were Buhari, I would not only rush back to Abuja, I would also put a moratorium on all presidential foreign trips—until a semblance of normalcy returns to Nigeria.

As a military dictator, Mr. Buhari hardly traveled out of the country. In his civilian incarnation, he seems infected by Sokugo, the wandering spirit. In fact, his wanderlust rivals that of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s first term in office. Like his predecessor, the incumbent president invokes the attraction of foreign investment to justify his junkets.

But neither the goal of diversifying the Nigerian economy nor the scoring of foreign investment can excuse Mr. Buhari’s absence from Nigeria at this critical, bleak time. A man whose home is on fire does not turn his back on it to travel to a distant land to buy and sell. He first puts out the fire threatening to consume his home.

If I were President Buhari, I would realize that Nigeria is on fire. The country is witnessing arguably the worst fuel crisis in decades. Nigerians languish for hours in queues to buy fuel often at more than triple the official rate. In a country with low life expectancy, too many people are wasting too many hours of their time roasting in the sun’s implacable furnace just to put fuel in their cars or to purchase a few liters for their generators. Nigerians, rich and poor alike, men and women, old and young, PDP and APC and every political party in between, are shattered by pain. They are suffering but not smiling. They are wailing and groaning.

If I were President Buhari, I would stay put in Nigeria for now to assure my people, for one, that I hear their anguished cries. I would roll up my sleeves or the folds of my agbada and go out to the sunburned streets to meet and comfort my people. I would call my cabinet to daily meetings to put in the time to figure out what caused the nationwide fuel shortage and the best, fastest way to end the nightmare.

If I were Buhari, I would have a sense of (at least recent) history. I would remember that one of the defining low moments for ex-President Goodluck was when he declared during a televised media chat, “The issue of public asset declaration is a matter of personal principle. That is the way I see it, and I don’t give a damn about it, even if you criticize me from heaven.” If I were Buhari, I would remember that the day my predecessor looked Nigerians in the face and told them he didn’t give a damn, many Nigerians resolved too not to give a damn about him. That’s one reason the man is today a private citizen, his reelection dream dashed to pieces.

Last week, Mr. Buhari was feted as the 2015 Vanguard Personality of the Year. In a speech read on the president’s behalf by Information Minister Lai Mohammed, Mr. Buhari told Nigerians that he feels their pain. He also asked them not to regard his APC government as a “one chance” abracadabra. He pledged that the pledge of positive and lasting change was still on course.

They were words, even fine words, but Nigerians want and deserve action. For that matter, they’d settle for some well-timed gesture. And one such gesture is that their president should freeze his gallivanting plans until, as we say, further notice.

If I were the president, I would know that, each time I board a presidential jet to go rub shoulders with some foreign leader, I am telling Nigerians—in body language if not in words—that I don’t give a damn about their plight. I would know that the claim of traveling to advance the diversification of Nigeria’s economy sounds in Nigerians’ ears like empty rhetoric.

Nigeria needs a deeper and varied economic base, not a monocultural one centered on a fast depleting asset like crude oil. But Nigerians are not fools. They are informed enough to know that few foreign investors will hurry to an oil-producing country that can’t figure out how to deliver fuel to its own domestic users. They know, too, that a country where electric power generation can dip to zero, for whatever reason, is a disaster-in-progress. Nigerians should be wary if President Buhari’s Chinese hosts are in a haste to do business with Nigeria in its current state. It can only mean that the Chinese have seen an opportunity to colonize Nigeria, to pick up Africa’s largest economy on the cheap.

If I were Buhari, I would reckon that, as much as my country needs a diversified economy and massive investment, the first order of business—the first condition—is to achieve a stable, tranquil, human state. It is illogical to fly off to China in search of the genie of economic diversification when Nigerian universities are being shut on account of intractable fuel shortages, when Nigerians squander scandalous amounts of man-hours getting their automobiles, a few jerky movements at a time, toward fuel pumps, when electric power is now virtually non-existent for most Nigerians, when herdsmen have turned themselves into machine-gun wielding outlaws terrorizing whom they please.

With the level of agony in Nigeria, it baffles that President Buhari thinks that foreign junkets are justified. With nobody in the government having a clear answer for when the crushing fuel shortage will end, it seldom makes sense that Mr. Buhari continues to court the image of a peripatetic president.

If I were Buhari, Nigeria would be my permanent location, my fixed address, until I fix the mess there. And if I can’t get around to it, I would not pour salt into the wound of Nigerians by touring the world on their dime and misery.

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