The late Abba Kyari — President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief of Staff and very close friend and advisor — was the point man who had the power to ensure that his legacy projects came to fruition. It was he who, after four years of being Buhari’s eyes and ears, saw what was wrong with the system and was ready to help his boss shake up the status quo. What he and Buhari did not reckon with was that the COVID-19 coronavirus global pandemic was going to wreak havoc and kill Kyari after he travelled to Europe to try and accelerate the electricity sector’s reforms. Kyari’s death has left the Presidency both weakened and somewhat confused and the hole is yet to be filled by anyone. What appears to be emerging is the sharing of responsibilities between the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. However, neither man has Buhari’s absolute trust in the same way that Kyari did and consequently, while there is a lot of movement in the Presidency, there is little progress so far on any of critical Buhari legacy issues.
The IMF approval of a US$3.4 billion financial support package — the largest to any African country — is a small victory for the Finance Ministry, which jointly worked on Nigeria’s application with the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) Governor Godwin Emefiele and Osinbajo. The IMF was, however, always bound to grant Nigeria’s request because it had already been asking for its contributions to IMF over the years to be granted as a loan. The chances of a rejection were nil and especially after the Fund had granted such requests to other countries in a similar situation as Nigeria.
Osinbajo’s new job is to work out a strategy that will help Nigeria overcome its economic challenges while Mustapha has the job of coordinating the country’s fight in curtailing the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus. So far neither appears to be succeeding much in their assigned tasks.
In the last few weeks Osinbajo has been chairing meetings of the Economic Sustainability Committee (ESC) to discuss the challenges facing Nigeria from both COVID-19 and the collapse in oil prices. The ESC has met several times with ministers and the presidential Economic Advisory Council (EAC) but has been unable to finalise a report. Sources have told Menas Associates that cooperation has not been great from ministers and other ministerial staff who are supposed to share data with the ESC to enable them produce a comprehensive response.
Mustapha has also been struggling to get the state governors to cooperate in coordinating the response to COVID-19. Kogi State’s Governor Yahaya Bello — who is also a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) — has refused to allow COVID-19 tests to be taken in the state, and claims that Mustapha’s presidential task force is planning to import infection into the state. Some others states have suppressed the number of tests and some have claimed that Mustapha is using the coronavirus campaign to boost his profile and raise money for a shot at the vice presidency in 2023.
Neither Osinbajo nor Mustapha have the kind of unfettered access to President Buhari that Kyari enjoyed and those who are frustrating their efforts know this, which has made their job even more difficult in a very challenging period. The economy is facing total collapse as both oil and non-oil revenues have almost dried up. The revenue to be shared between states and the Federal Government for May is mainly likely to come from the US$3.4 billion loan from the IMF while June and July’s revenues are likely to be funded from borrowed funds in the domestic bond markets, and new printed money from central bank.
Simultaneously, COVID-19 continues to spread at a faster pace with the number of confirmed cases exceeding 4,000 on 10 May. With only about 3,500 isolation bed spaces, the country’s number of active cases is quickly catching up with the number of available beds. Lagos State continues to be the epicentre of the pandemic with 1,667 or 43% of the country’s confirmed cases. While Lagos continues to be a concern, the pace of the growth of infections in the North raises the concern that things could get out of control in the region. The number of confirmed cases in Kano has increased by 76% since 1 May with the number of cases expected to continue to rise as the state’s testing capacity increases.
Equally noticeable in the current crisis management is the fact that President Buhari appears to have gone missing except for the occasional pre-recorded broadcasts. A protective wall has been built around him to prevent him becoming ill with the coronavirus. Having narrowly avoided becoming infection by the late Kyari, his close family members — and especially his wife Aisha Buhari — are not taking chances with the president’s health. This has significantly slowed down governance, with no cabinet meeting having been held this month and none likely to be done in the near future.
Buhari has participated in some online meetings with other African presidents but it is unclear why he has declined to have an online cabinet meeting. Most ministers have been left to their own devices which has been compounded by the fact that collapsing oil revenues mean that most ministries have not received any funds to run their activities this year other than the payment of salaries. Most ministers are therefore feeling practically jobless.
Osinbajo is not in a good position. The delay in coming out with a clear response to the country’s economic challenges once again makes him look ineffective. Meanwhile, sources close to his office claim that most of the reports on how to respond to specific economic issues are already awaiting presidential approval, without which nothing can move forward. There is no certainty when these approvals will be forthcoming or even if they are on the president’s desk. Suspicion about Osinbajo’s own presidential ambitions also means that some people in the Presidency are reluctant to allow him take any credit for any measures introduced to tackle the very severe economic challenges. Meanwhile, Osinbajo’s allies think this is his time to show that he has what it takes to lead Nigeria out of the current crisis. The moves and counter-moves have led to a situation in which — despite several efforts to make things happen in the face of a raging pandemic and a collapsing economy — nothing is actually happening.