Will Yar’Adua ever become popular?

It is no longer news that our president’s popularity rating is very low. You don’t need a pollster to tell you that Malam Umaru is gaining a rating lower than Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s was between 1999 and 2003. Which means that Nigerians preferred Obasanjo during his first term than they do Yar’Adua during his own first term. And that’s bad enough for a leader whose coming onto the scene happened through a controversy. Amazingly, the environment was virtually similar. In 1999 when Obasanjo was drafted into the presidential race, the country was smarting from its biggest political catastrophe since the civil war–the threat of break-up following the June 12 debacle. Those that put their trust in Obasanjo did so largely because they saw in him a chance to appease the Yorubas and bring the country back from the precipice. I do not have to argue that Obasanjo later betrayed that trust, barely two years into his first term.

Yar’Adua didn’t have any shred of luck to begin with. Like Obasanjo, he was drafted into the presidential race most likely against his rumoured wish of retiring into farming, where he would nurse his ill-health. He became president through a heavily rigged election. Because of that, he was unpopular from day one. The fact that the man he was said to have defeated, Muhammadu Buhari, is a disciplinarian and incorrigible did not help his image. Those that cautiously trusted him hoped that he would prove his adversaries wrong by turning the nation’s ill-fortune around. They are now pained to realise that, legitimacy problem apart, the president is simply a hard sell. Many have accused him of “sleeping on duty,” a euphemism for inaction. Not without some justification. The country appears to be static, with the marriage of the president’s two daughters to state governors being counted as some of the administration’s major achievements.

Meanwhile, the sticking problems that the past government failed to solve have worsened. All the points in Yar’Adua’s de facto holy mantra–the Seven-Point Agenda–have become pointless because nothing substantial has been achieved in executing them. They are: education, power and energy, land reforms, food security, wealth creation, transportation, and security of life and property. One of them, electricity generation, is at its all-time low, leading to the collapse of businesses and unspeakable discomfort to citizens. Yar’Adua’s vow to declare an emergency in the power sector has not been fulfilled.

An issue that is not in the Agenda but is nonetheless a major thumb for the administration–the war against corruption–appears to be stuck in legalese and propaganda. Graft is endemic in spite of the EFCC’s struggle to fight it. Nigeria remains one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. While many do not regard Yar’Adua as personally corrupt, but the fact that he is surrounded by characters that are regarded as corrupt has put a question-mark on his government’s sincerity to fight corruption.

Let’s look at the basics. Nigerian roads are still death-traps. Hospitals are mere consulting clinics. Our refineries are not functioning. Armed robbery is on the increase. Prices of foodstuff have shot through the roof. As the ruling Peoples Democratic Party forces its winning streak forward, insisting on winning all the states and ruling for 60 years, the next general election has been programmed to be more heavily rigged than the last one.

The poverty index has jumped, threatening to wipe out the middle class. Majority of Nigerians hold Yar’Adua responsible for their economic woes even though this country is blighted by the global financial crisis. The world recession is, indeed, responsible for the fall in the price of oil to an abject $50 a barrel today, but what concrete achievements were made with the windfall of the past year when, by July 2008, oil sold for as high as $147 a barrel? Many believe that the windfall was frittered away on white elephant projects that have not lessened our woes.

In contrast, most Americans do not blame President Barack Obama for the poor state of the U.S. economy. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published last Tuesday, 80 percent of Americans in the poll blamed banks, financial institutions and corporations for the economic meltdown. Some 70 percent also blamed consumers for taking on too much debt and the former Bush administration for lax regulation. Only 26 percent said the Obama administration was not doing enough to turn the situation around, and this is in spite of the clear action Obama is putting in a-righting the wrongs in the U.S. economy. Still, because of his action, 64 percent said they were confident Obama’s policies will improve the economy, down from 72 percent just before he took office in January. Forty-two percent said the country was now heading in the right direction, a five-year high. Late last year, when the government of then-President George W. Bush was in its final months, as many as nine in 10 Americans said the country was heading in the wrong direction.

What would a Nigerian poll say about Yar’Adua’s role in our economy? Your guess is as good as mine. Today most Nigerians are groping in the dark, unsure of what tomorrow may bring. Almost all hope in this administration has been lost. Apart from those that benefit from the spoils of power, every other Nigerian does not see Yar’Adua as a saviour or capable of taking the country out of the present miasma. That is the verdict even in his home state of Katsina.

Does our president care about his plummeting popularity? Hardly. If he did, he would have done some things to correct his image. He would have been taking some actions, even if they are unpopular, as long as they are in the interest of the nation. But the sad fact is that the president does not seem to care about his unpopularity. Almost every step he takes is unpopular and appears self-serving. One such step was the recent rejection of the key recommendations of the Political Reform Committee. Another is the manner his rule of law jargon has given further metallic protection to high-wire criminals, many of whom are thumbing their noses at the EFCC.

To answer the question whether the president would ever become popular, we must look back on his antecedents. When he was governor, Malam Umaru did not do much in terms of performance during his first three years. That disappointed many indigenes of the state. It was only in the final year of his first term that he began to mobilise the billions of naira he had saved to develop the state. Securing a second term, he used the four years to continue with his development projects. Katsina, as a result, became a showpiece in many facets of life.

But the tiny Katsina State, almost mono-cultural, is not Nigeria. The vastness of the nation’s problems and their complexity appear to be too overwhelming for Yar’Adua. The health situation of the president does not help matters, too. If at all he harbours a secret plan to repeat the Katsina magic, it is high time he got cracking. There is no time to waste. Nigerians cannot afford to wait till his second term (which he is determined to get at all costs) before he could begin to address their problems. In the absence of that determination–and there is no evidence that anything of such nature is in the works–most Nigerians would be more comfortable with the president starting to implement just one agenda for the nation–his leaving office at the end of his first term in 2011.

Published in LEADERSHIP on Friday.

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