This time last month, the Bola Tinubu administration was riding a wave of popular approval. Following his inauguration on May 29, the new president hit the ground running with a string of measures and pronouncements that seemed to indicate that he had a clear vision for his presidency. For many people, it wasn’t so much the substance of the moves (more on which in a moment) as an apparent decisiveness that stood in sharp contrast to the ponderousness and foot-dragging of the Buhari years. Yet, over the past couple of weeks, a cross-section of the public appears to have soured on Tinubu, the popular mood noticeably shifting from applause to condemnation. Whereas in the first two weeks after May 29 some of his most vociferous opponents openly wondered whether they had misread the new president all along, one of the trending memes on Nigerian social media last week was “Asiwaju + Shettima=ASISHE 2023!” (Asishe is Yoruba for error.)
An official statement by the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC), the umbrella body for trade unions in the country, encapsulates the sudden shift in public mood. In it, the NLC pointedly accused the Tinubu administration of “inflicting mindless and heartless pains (sic) on the populace one after the other without the decency of embracing the tenets of democracy which requires wide and deep stakeholder consultations on weighty matters of state” and implementing measures that “reward the rich in public office to the detriment of the poor.” If labor is displeased with Tinubu, the generality of Nigerians, at least judging by comments across various social media platforms, are positively irate. While some have portrayed the new administration as nothing but a philosophical extension of the Buhari government, others have accused Tinubu of conniving with unnamed external actors to deepen the impoverishment of the Nigerian masses.
The criticism is not unwarranted. The intention behind them notwithstanding, there is no doubt that some of the measures put in place by the Tinubu government have had a deleterious impact on a section of the populace and that, overall, there has been increased hardship for a large number of people within a short timeframe. The removal of state subsidies on petroleum is a good example. Announced by the president in his inauguration speech and projected to save the government around ten billion annually, it was applauded by policy experts and analysts who have long regarded it as a prime example of official waste and corruption. Although many still back the removal and agree in principle with the administration that the money saved is better rechanneled into “investment in public infrastructure, education, healthcare and jobs that will materially improve the lives of millions,” there is lingering concern that enough has not been done to mitigate its harsh impact on the poorest sections of the Nigerian population. Therefore, as the pump price of petroleum has ticked up in recent weeks, producing a ripple effect across various sectors of the economy, so has anger at a situation that many perceive to be teetering out of control. Data by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showing that the country’s monthly inflation rate hit a seven-year high of 22.8 percent in June confirm what many Nigerians already felt in their bones about the increasing cost of transportation, food, and everyday consumer goods and services.
In its defense, some of the new administration’s other moves would seem to suggest that it was not oblivious to the probable short-term discomfort to the average Nigerian, especially by the removal of the fuel subsidy. For instance, the plan (now temporarily paused) to transfer N8,000 per month over six months to 12 million households across the country seems to have been designed to relieve the burden of the new economic regime on the most disadvantaged. Others like the executive orders expressly aimed at curbing multiple taxation (for example, the suspension of the excise tax on telecommunication services and the newly introduced Green Tax on single-use plastics), the approval of an infrastructure support fund, the declaration of a national emergency on food security, and, much earlier, the signing into law of a student loan bill, would seem to have been similarly intended.
Yet, and as the administration is quickly learning, neither good intentions nor the fact of common subscription to the sentiment undergirding a particular policy would seem to count for much in the face of the kind of hardship that most Nigerians, including, crucially, members of the middle class not spared by the sudden spike in the cost of living, seem to be experiencing. People can agree on the need for a particular economic policy and at the same time find the pain invariably triggered in its wake painful to swallow.
At any rate, not all the new administration’s problems are entirely economic, and there is an argument to be made that the worsening security situation across the country—among other inherited challenges—has exacerbated popular disenchantment. For instance, in the past two months alone, more than three hundred people have been reportedly killed by gunmen in different parts of the North Central state of Plateau. The situation is hardly different in other parts of the country. While the Igbo apex sociocultural organization Ohanaeze-Ndigbo has moved to refute claims that it invited President Tinubu to deploy soldiers to restore peace in the South East, there is no gainsaying the fact that much of the region is in the grip of a violent convulsion due to recurrent clashes between ethnic separatists and security forces. Boko Haram militants remain active in the northeastern part of the country, where they reportedly killed at least seven farmers in mid-June.
While the new administration may feel that it deserves more time, if not more sympathy, because it inherited a lousy economy and an even more abysmal security situation, the reality of daily life—never mind practical politics—is such that it can’t hope to count on either. Rather than bemoan its fate, the administration can turn crisis into opportunity by using the occasion to explain to Nigerians why it is doing what it is doing, and what it anticipates as the long-term benefits for the country. It should stop acting as if it expects Nigerians to automatically intuit the reasoning behind its actions, an unreasonable expectation in a system whereby suspicion of elite intention is justly endemic. The worst hardships can be endured if people agree to the destination and have a sense of how long it will take to get there.
In articulating its raison d’être, the Tinubu government should seek counsel and take advantage of resources and expertise from a cross-section of stakeholders. If the administration’s suspension of plans for cash transfer to the poorest indicates that it is not unwilling to change its mind, that the original plan appears to have been put together without the critical input it now desperately seeks is not a good look.
One reading of the Tinubu administration is that, due to its slim mandate (and with a small but vocal segment of the populace continuing to challenge its legitimacy), it is simultaneously trying to please every segment of Nigerian society and put foreign investors at ease. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach as long as the administration remains true to its first principles, which, as Tinubu said in his inauguration speech, is a remodeling of the economy to “bring about growth and development through job creation, food security, and an end of extreme poverty (sic).” On the whole, most of the administration’s moves so far have been both necessary and right, and it should resist the temptation to walk them back for the sake of short-term political gratification. If anything, the pushback against the reforms is a reminder of why previous administrations were hesitant to go through with them in the first place. Tinubu has nothing to lose and everything to gain by holding his nerve.
That said, embattled Nigerians are not wrong to seek relief and explanation, and to ask why they must tighten their belts yet again when the political elite, symbolized by the national assembly, has shown little appetite for slimming down.
How Tinubu balances these two imperatives, the economic and the political, will define the rest of his presidency.
Kosi Ogbuli contributed to the research for this article.