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Nigerians query Buhari’s foreign travels

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Presidents Mahamadu Buhari and John Mahama
Presidents Mahamadu Buhari and John Mahama

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s trip to the UK in June for medical treatment has led to questions being raised by Nigerians about the amount of time he is spending outside the country since he took up office in May last year.

The more meticulous Nigerians say that he has been abroad for 104 days between May 2015 and last month when he spent 10 days in London receiving treatment for an ear infection.

This prompted one Nigerian woman to tell Naij.com that the country has facilities for ear, nose and throat (ENT) treatment.

She asked in the video, which has been shared widely among Nigerians at home and abroad: “How can a president travel to Europe [for treatment because] his ear is paining him?”

Crucially, President Buhari’s critics point out that while on his foreign journeys major policy decisions have been announced in the country, giving the impression that he is unwilling to take public responsibility for such decisions.

For instance, during the president’s trip to London last month, three major announcements were made in his absence regarding decisions that the he had already approved.

On June 7, the government announced the withdrawal of troops from the restive Niger Delta region.

The decision was reportedly taken at a meeting between Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, governors from states in the region and other ministers.

A 30-day ceasefire was announced by the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr Ibe Kachikwu, although it is unclear how this will be implemented and whether it will last for the duration of the temporary cessation of hostilities.

The unrest in the Niger Delta has had a direct impact on the price of crude oil.

Attacks by militants in the region on oil facilities have cut Nigeria’s daily production by up to 600,000 barrels – from two million in 2014 to 1.4 million in May 2016.

Oil analysts say that the failure of President Buhari to address the problem before it escalated has resulted in a major loss of income for the country.

A week later, while President Buhari was still abroad, South African telecoms firm MTN announced an agreement with the government over the terms of a deal to end its long-running dispute over unregistered SIM cards in Nigeria.

MTN will pay a fine of N300 billion ($1.7 billion) over three years as part of the settlement and will issue an apology, as well as listing its local unit on the Nigerian stock exchange.

This represents a cut to the original fine of $5.2 billion of 70 per cent and, given the sharp drop of the naira since its free float, will likely be worth much less.

The Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu, explained that the Federal Executive Council, chaired by President Buhari, had made the decision.

The Senate Committee on Communications has criticised the deal, arguing that the government has lost out financially.

It was the Buhari administration that had slapped this fine on MTN in late 2015, but the government soon found out it was not in a strong negotiating position to enforce the original fine.

The government admitted that other foreign investors would be scared off if it maintained an aggressive and uncompromising stance, and therefore had to back down.

Analysts argue that by giving in to pressure from foreign companies the government has failed to get the best deal for Nigeria.

The third instance when a crucial decision was taken while President Buhari was out of the country was when Central Bank of Nigeria Governor Godwin Emefiele announced the end of the currency peg, allowing it to float freely on June 20.

President Buhari had been under pressure to allow the naira to float freely against the dollar since his election.

However, he was said to have not been comfortable with a devaluation of the naira that could hurt Nigeria’s pride.

His failure to acknowledge the weak position of the naira has put off foreign investors and increased the price of imports, while creating a black market and encouraging illicit capital flight.

Ecobank Research in London said of the CBN’s decision:  “Although the NGN [Nigerian naira] is broadly stable, it has become increasingly overvalued, with the parallel rate trading around 60 per cent above the official rate owing to speculative demand, strong import demand and inadequate production inputs against a background of weak exports and investment inflows.

“The artificial stability of the NGN on the interbank exchange rate market since March has come at the expense of a depletion in FX [foreign exchange] reserves (down 10.7 per cent to $26.5 billion from a year ago).”

Ecobank continued: “The CBN’s move to adopt exchange rate flexibility is welcome news; although it did not overtly say that it will devalue the NGN, the currency will officially be devalued and it is likely to trade in the range of NGN280-350.

“This will help to alleviate pressure on the NGN, albeit limited, given still weak oil receipts, which account for the country’s main source of FX.

“While the new exchange rate policy will put Nigeria on the right path to recovery, uncertainty will prevail given other pressures in the economy including rising inflation.

“The new exchange rate system will also stoke inflationary pressures in the short term, in addition to a potential rise in fiscal spending, reducing the scope for any policy easing in the foreseeable future,” Ecobank added.

The issue of skyrocketing prices for basic goods was one that the woman in the Naij.com video raised.

“The economy is collapsing [and] people are hungry,” she said.

Turning to President Buhari’s aggressive stance on anti-corruption measures, she said: “You can’t just focus one hundred per cent on fighting corruption.

“But what kind of corruption are you fighting when all the people surrounding you, who sponsored you, are all corrupt?

“I am not against him fighting corruption because it is affecting everybody as well,” she added.

An added sore point for Nigerians was the rise in fuel prices in May, again while Buhari was abroad attending an anti-corruption conference in London, and yet another example of his unwillingness to announce tough decisions himself.

“The fuel price hike was one of his most unpopular moves, contradicting an election promise from a year before and taking money directly out of the pockets of ordinary Nigerians,” one analyst told the GNA in London.

In all this, what Nigerians are saying is that in his eagerness to travel abroad, President Buhari is ignoring important areas of the country in which he is unpopular

For instance, they mention Lagos State, where Bola Tinubu, an influential member of President Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC), has been side-lined.

The woman in the Naij.com video appears to have summed up the feelings of ordinary Nigerians about their leader: “If there are people flattering him [President Buhari] and telling him that he is doing a good job, I will not do that.”

Source: GNA

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