Buhari row reveals ‘kitchen cabinet’

A row between Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and his wife has brought cracks in the ruling party into the open, as frustration grows over government inertia in trying to drag the country out of its first recession in 25 years.

Aisha Buhari publicly criticised her husband’s record in office, saying she might not support him if he seeks re-election in 2019 unless he shakes up his administration, which she said had been hijacked by a “few people”.

The president tried to laugh off the rebuke from his wife of 27 years, saying “she belongs in the kitchen” — but without addressing the substance of her remarks — made last week in an interview with the BBC.

The 73-year-old won last year’s election promising a new era in the West African nation, where graft has enriched an elite while most of the 180-million Nigerians live in poverty despite the Opec member’s oil wealth.

Buhari came to power backed by his All Progressives Congress (APC) party, a broad coalition of politicians who united to remove his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, without having a joint plan on how to run the country.

Now, 17 months into office, there are few signs of Buhari’s promised reforms to diversify the economy away from exporting crude, prices of which have halved since 2014.

Already the naira is down 35% this year, making it one of the worst performing currencies in the world, and the National Bureau of Statistics forecasts the economy will shrink by 1.3% in 2016.

But criticism of the government goes beyond an apparent lack of urgency in tackling the economic crisis. A belief is growing that power is concentrated among Buhari’s chief of staff and an inner circle at the presidential villa, making it difficult for ministers to get the attention of the president.

Aisha Buhari is not alone in her views. Senate President Bukola Saraki, the third most senior politician in Nigeria, took to Twitter to express his concerns. “It has become clear that there is govt within govt of @MBuhari who’ve seized apparatus of Executive powers to pursue their nefarious agenda,” he tweeted in June.

Buhari’s spokesmen declined to comment and the president has defended his economic record in general terms. “I believe that this recession will not last,” he said this month. “We have identified the country’s salient problems and we are working hard at lasting solutions.”

Annual inflation accelerated to 17.9% in September — a more than 11-year high — and last week about 100 young people demonstrated near the central bank over the naira’s fall.

But the discontent has yet to turn into mass protest. “Let me commend Nigerians for your patience, steadfastness and perseverance. You know that I am trying to do the right things for our country,” said Buhari.

Nevertheless, Buhari has not answered questions about how Nigeria is governed under his presidency.

“People feel that the country is being run by a small clique of people who have taken over and are acting in the name of the president,” said Clement Nwankwo, director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, a think-tank in Abuja.

Buhari has put vice-president Yemi Osinbajo, a commercial lawyer, in charge of economic politics. Osinbajo favours a more flexible currency policy to attract foreign investment.

“There is great worry that the input of the vice-president does not seem to be taken into account in implementing policies, especially on the economic front,” Nwankwo said.

Buhari has said that as a former general he is no expert in economics, and yet he long rejected a devaluation of the naira — just as he did as military ruler in the 1980s when Nigeria was also in recession.

When the central bank finally dropped the naira’s peg to the dollar in June, the currency slumped 30% and many equity and bond investors had long since gone. Even now, Nigeria is operating a “managed float” which has kept the official naira rate at roughly 305 to the dollar.

As ever in Nigerian politics, the division of powers between the mainly Muslim north, where Buhari is from, and the Christian south is playing a role.

Diplomats say members of northern circles known to Buhari for decades have resisted some ministers such as Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun, a southerner in her 40s who was not his first choice.

A source close to the presidency described the accusations of inertia as grumbling by some in the APC who had hoped for jobs or contracts under a system of patronage which Buhari stopped under his anti-graft drive.

Buhari needed to pick a cabinet from the APC but this was complicated because he was constitutionally bound to pick a minister from each of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Members of his “kitchen cabinet” include his chief of staff Abba Kyari, whom Buhari has also put on the board of state oil firm NNPC, his uncle Mamman Daura and Babachir Lawal, the secretary to the government of the federation.

“Buhari is deeply suspicious of politicians because of Nigeria’s history of graft,” said one Western diplomat.

The preeminence of the inner circle has, say political insiders, created a rift between the president and Bola Tinubu, a former Lagos state governor who rallied southern Christian elites to help win power. Tinubu has issued statements attacking APC chairman John Oyegun and the oil minister, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, deepening divisions in the party.

Buhari has won plaudits from Nigerian citizens by saying he will target a hyper-rich elite accused of massive corruption. He has also managed to retake most territory lost to Boko Haram.

But much of his first year in office was beset by slow progress and efforts to make Nigeria more business-friendly have stalled. Trade Minister Okechukwu Enelamah wants to ease visa rules, acknowledging complaints about obstructive embassy officials, but has given no timeframe.

Nigeria could have earned as much as $8-billion in travel receipts this year, instead of the $500-million booked in 2014, had it adopted visitor-friendly visa rules, Renaissance Capital said in a report.

Leading economists recently met Buhari, stressing it was high time for action as there were just 18 months left before the next election would paralyse politics.

“We were very frank,” said Bismarck Rewane, chief executive of Financial Derivatives consultancy who attended the meeting. “The president is paying serious attention to the economy. I am now more optimistic.” — Reuters

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