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There is reason to believe that Nigeria’s new president may actually bring some modesty to the role. And if that happens, the public will take notice
In a country where 62% of the population lives in extreme poverty, a Nigerian senator takes home roughly £1.1m every year in salary plus benefits. MPs must make do with £900,000. In comparison, David Cameron earns £142,500 as UK prime minister.
Nigeria’s lawmakers fly first class, lodge in the priciest rooms at the fanciest hotels and live in Beverly Hills-style mansions, all at the public’s expense. And they get away with this in a country where millions go to bed hungry. But Muhammadu Buhari, who has been officially sworn in as Nigeria’s head of state today after winning presidential elections in March, has vowed to lead a different, more modest kind of lifestyle and to cut down on what he terms “wastages”.
Buhari’s past behaviour lends credibility to his promises. Even though he was the military head of state from 1983-85 and has held several other top political positions, he is known for his ascetic lifestyle and incorruptibility. His personal home is a modest bungalow. After meeting Cameron at 10 Downing Street last week, Buhari reportedly flew home economy class, an event which made headlines in Nigeria due to its sheer novelty. He has also announced that his presidential convoy will obey traffic rules like everyone else, another first. If he continues in this fashion, Nigeria’s new president could play a huge role in changing public perceptions of how a political leader is expected to behave and how “power” should be wielded.
The prestige of the presidential office is unparalleled in Nigeria, as are the perks. If Buhari pointedly refuses to take advantage of many of these benefits, he would be sending a strong message to citizens that politicians are by no means entitled to a life of luxury simply by virtue of their position. It would also help to delegitimise the outrageous earnings of parasitical politicians who act as if it is perfectly normal that they live lavishly at the expense of their mostly poor countrymen.
In Nigeria’s fiercely hierarchical and materialistic society, it is easy for top politicians to discredit criticism of their lifestyle from those below them on the social ladder: by simply implying that it stems from envy. It hardly helps that there have been numerous cases of members of civil society who used to lambast politicians’ earnings – only to be co-opted by the establishment and promptly reverse their views.
Buhari’s stance would resonate with people precisely because, as president, the Nigerian system offers him every opportunity to live like a king, something no head of state has yet been willing or able to resist. Nigerian society is unrelentingly hierarchical, so if people see that a president is capable of living modestly and not flaunting his power at ordinary citizens, they would start asking why a “mere” senator or MP cannot do likewise. More pressure could then be applied for their outlandish privileges to be slashed, especially now that the national budget is constrained by low oil prices.
But Buhari will not have an easy task convincing those around him about the necessity for modesty. Rotimi Amaechi, a former state governor and director-general of Buhari’s presidential campaign, said in a TV interview last year that four years’ work as a governor is equal to the work an “ordinary man” puts in over 25 years. When asked how he came about his calculations, Amaechi retorted: “How many times does the ordinary man have to work till 2 in the morning only to be up by 6am to resume his duties?” Such statements reveal what an uphill task Buhari will have trying to bring Nigeria’s political elite down from their high horses.
Political power has always been associated with unfettered access to public funds and lavish lifestyles in Nigeria. Many Nigerians still wrongly assume that if you get to the top of the political heap, this somehow entitles you to a generous portion of the country’s wealth. Buhari needs to work hard to disabuse Nigerian politicians as well as citizens of this absurd notion.