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National Bureau of Statistics’ Exemplary Institutional Independence

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi In his July 2009 speech to the Ghanaian Parliament, former US president Barack Ob...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In his July 2009 speech to the Ghanaian Parliament, former US president Barack Obama famously said, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Inspired by my, in retrospect, misplaced optimism in the emergent Buhari administration, I challenged this notion in a May 16, 2015 column.

I pointed out that “strong institutions” are not self-generating entities; they require the foresight, intelligence, commitment, and willpower of “strongmen” to bring them forth. “[S]trong institutions don’t come out of thin air; they are built by strong men through the strength of their personal example. I hope Buhari is the strong man who will build strong institutions in Nigeria with the strength of his character,” I wrote.

When Buhari visited South Africa on June 16, 2015, exactly a month after my column appeared, he expressed sentiments about the nexus between strong leadership and strong institutions that mirrored what I wrote. “When US President, Barack Obama came to Africa… he said Africa, or developing countries, should have strong institutions instead of strong leaders,” he said. “If he had come to Nigeria, he would have known that it was strong Nigerians that destroyed the strong institutions. And paradoxically, maybe another strong Nigerian will come and revive the institutions and make them strong again.”

Someone from the Presidential Villa called my attention to what Buhari said in South Africa and added that it was inspired by my column. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” I said in response. But more than the satisfaction of knowing that the president read my column and was enthused by it enough to let it influence his speech in a foreign country, I was pumped up by the thought that Buhari was truly committed to building institutions and setting the stage for the depersonalization governance through the strength of personal examples.

Given his age (which should incline him to be consumed by anxieties about his legacies), the respect he inspired even from people who didn’t like him, the mystique his personality radiated, and perhaps a heightened self-awareness on his part of the disaster of his first incarnation as a military head of state, I thought he really meant what he said when he echoed my column in South Africa.

But in the nearly four years that he has been president, he hasn’t only failed to build institutions or institute the basis for rational-legal norms in governance, he is destroying existing ones with a viciousness that is unexampled in our political history. Nothing instantiates this better than the presidency’s recent vulgar attempt to force the National Bureau of Statistics to fudge figures to sanitize the Buhari regime’s fetid, troubling unemployment record.

First, the government starved the NBS of funds so that it won't be able to release what the government knew would be damning statistics of the grim job market in the country. When this fact got out in the international media (honchos of the regime only care if unfavorable stories make it to international news), they were shamed into releasing funds for the agency. (New York-based Bloomberg’s November 13 report titled “No Money, No Jobless Data, Nigeria's Chief Statistician Says” was perhaps the most widely shared international story on this issue on Nigerian online discursive arenas.)

Then the president’s spokesperson lied on national television that the NBS boss had agreed to tweak the agency’s formula for calculating unemployment stats, and that the new formula would include some fictional 12 million rice farmers, which would paint an upbeat picture of the job market. “The NBS chief had addressed the federal cabinet and he made the admission that they had concentrated analysis over time on white collar jobs that they had not taken cognisance of job creation in areas of agriculture,” presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said. “The rice farmers association of Nigeria made the open claim and nobody has challenged them up to the time that we speak that they had created 12 million new jobs.”

The NBS boss immediately countered the falsehood. “I make it very clear that neither the statistician-general nor NBS ever made any such admission at any time to anybody," NBS boss, Yemi Kale, said on Twitter. The lying honchos of the presidency had egg on their begrimed faces.

Now the stats are out, and they are as disconsolate as we've always expected: 20.9 million people are now jobless, up from 17.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2017, representing a 23.1 percent increase. Youth unemployment has also increased exponentially. Since Buhari took over power in 2015, according to the NBS, unemployment has never declined even for a bit.

At this rate, a Buhari second term would ensure that nearly 90 percent of Nigerians would be unemployed by the end of his term. In other words, right from 2015, the Buhari regime has represented nothing but a relentless descent into the abyss of hopelessness and despair for everyday Nigerians. It would only get worse if his incompetence is rewarded with a second term.

Hats off to the National Bureau of Statistics for guarding its independence and freezing off attempts by the Buhari regime to bludgeon it into making up false statistics to make the president look good. The NBS is an example of what institutional independence looks like, the kind that Buhari said he would institute when he spoke in South Africa.

 Institutions that are independent of, resistant to and immune from the wiles and manipulations of the temporary occupants of power not only command respect and credibility but also deepen and sustain faith in governance. When next the bureau releases stats that are favorable to the government (that’s assuming the NBS boss isn’t fired or threatened to give up his independence or his life) they will be believed by a majority of Nigerians, and that’s healthy for the country.

Now imagine that the EFCC weren’t the pitiful poodle of the presidency that it is and that the police weren’t the unashamed tormentors of the president’s opponents and protectors of his supporters that they are. Or that the Nigerian military weren’t the unofficial armed wing of any political party in power.

Well, that is what obtains in well-governed societies. America is able to weather the storms and strains of its rambunctious stormy petrel of a president precisely because of the strength of its institutions. Donald Trump is a Mobutu-like “strongman” who is only held in check by America’s strong institutions. He is being investigated by a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, which might bring him down. Can you imagine AGF Abubakar Malami investigating any loyal associate of Buhari let alone Buhari himself?

To be fair, this problem preceded Buhari, although his initial enthusiasm about using his “strongmanness” to build strong institutions instigated false hopes in some of us. Nonetheless, Nigerians need to study what it is about the NBS that has made it so admirably independent, that has made it to jealously guard its integrity since at least 2010 when I began to pay attention to it. This oasis of institutional independence in our desolate desert of impunity and personalized power, for me, is cause for hope.

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