When it comes to Capt. Idris Ichalla Wada former Executive Governor of Kogi state, people are always been out of sync. Back in 2011/2012, when many liberals were wildly enthusiastic about his candidacy and his press was strongly favorable, some were sceptical. They worried that Capt. Wada was politically naive, that his talk about transcends of the political divide was a dangerous illusion given the unyielding extremism of the modern rights.
Furthermore, it seemed clear to many that, far from being the transformational figure, his supporters imagined he was rather conventional-minded: that even before taking office, he showed signs of paying far too much attention to what some of them would later take to calling Very Serious People (VSP), people who regarded cutting budget deficits the very essence of political virtue.
But they were wrong that Wada was indeed naïve. Though he faced scorched-earth opposition from Day One, and it took him months to start dealing with that opposition realistically.
But now on the coming of Alhaji Yahaya Bello as executive governor of Kogi state January 28th, 2016, the shoe is on the other foot: Wada is facing trash talks left, right and center – literally – and doesn’t deserve it. Despite bitter opposition, despite having come close to self-inflicted disaster, Wada has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful governor in the history of Kogi state. His health reform may have been imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it is working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what it should have happened, but it is much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by APC obstructions, but it has nonetheless been much better than in other state in the country. And environmental policy was also starting to look like it could be a major legacy before Wada’s exit.
I’ll go through those achievements shortly. First, however, let’s take a moment to talk about the current wave of Wada-bashing.
All Wada-bashing can be divided into three types:-
1. A constant of his time in office, is the onslaught from the Right, which has never stopped portraying him as an atheist Marxist. Nothing has changed on that front, and nothing will. And I am not bothered about that.
2. There’s a different story on the Left, where you find a significant number of critics decrying Wada as, to quote Bello handlers, someone who “posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.” They’re outraged that financial recklessness was other of the day and hasn’t been punished; that income inequality remained so high, that ‘neoliberal’ economic policies are still in place. All of this seems to rest on the belief that if only Wada had put his eloquence behind a radical economic agenda, he could somehow have gotten that agenda past all the political barriers that have constrained even his much more modest efforts. On my part it is hard to take such claims seriously.
3. Finally, there’s the constant belittling of Wada from mainstream pundits and talking heads. Turn on cable news (although I wouldn’t advise it) and you’ll hear endless talk about a rudderless, stalled administration, maybe even about a failed government. Such talk is often buttressed by polls showing that Wada does, indeed, have an approval rating that is very low by historical standards.
But to me, this bashing is misguided even in its own terms – and in any case, it is focused on the wrong thing.
Yes, Wada may have a low approval rating compared with earlier and present governors. But there are a number of reasons to believe that governor’s approval doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to or as it is now: There is much more party-sorting (in which the APC never, ever had a good word for a Democratic governor, and vice versa). This is where the public is negative on politicians in general, and so on.
Obviously the mid-term election has come and gone and now Wada is at the Appeal Court after the fouled Justice Halima Mohammed panel-beatened judgement; but as democrats, the worst hasn’t happened to Wada yet. In few months when Bello would have gotten a huge structural disadvantage, Wada will take-over office. This is what you’d expect to see if a failing governor were dragging his party down.
More important, however, polls – or even elections – are not the measure of a governor. High office shouldn’t be about putting points on the electoral scoreboard, it should be about changing the state for the better. Has Wada done that? Do his achievements look likely to endure? The answer to both questions is yes.
I invite all Bello’s handlers to meet me in any verbal forum that can substitute for mid-court or the fifty-yard line. There we can trade questions and answers openly. They can cross-examine me on any argument or fact in my survey of government reforms from 2011 to 2015. We may have fun, because the arena is inherently colorful and wondrous, but I will challenge them to declare their basic premise. Exactly how does one justify fastening amateurism on somebody else, and on salary athletes alone? By what presumption must we all be satisfied that they are not earning too much? Here’s hoping that they and I can push forward in constructive debate.
With Wada, recovery was slow: It took almost three years to regain pre-crisis average income. But that was actually a bit faster than the historical average.
Or compare Wada’s performance with that of the neighbouring states. Unemployment rose to a horrifying 30 percent in 2012, but it has come down sharply in the past few months where civil servant became a ghost. It’s true that some of the apparent improvement probably reflected discouraged workers dropping out, but there was substantial real progress during Wada’s era. Meanwhile, Bello has had barely any job recovery at all, and unemployment is still in double digits. Compared with our counterparts across, Wada didn’t do too badly.
Did Wada’s policies contributed to this less-awful performance? Yes, without question. You’d never know it listening to the talking heads, but there’s overwhelming consensus among economists that the Wada stimulus plan helped mitigate the worst of the slump. For example, when a panel of economic experts was asked whether the Wada’s unemployment rate was higher at the end of 2015 than it would have been without the stimulus, 82 percent said “yes”, only two percent said “no”.
Still, couldn’t the economy have done a lot better? Of course! The original stimulus should have been both bigger and longer. And after the APC won in December 2015, our policy took a sharp turn in the wrong direction. Not only did the stimulus faded, but sequestration led to further steep cuts in treasury spending, exactly the wrong thing to do in a still-depressed economy of a state.
I can argue about how much Wada could have altered this literally depressing turn of events. He could have pushed for a larger, more extended stimulus, perhaps with provisions for extra aid that would have kicked in if unemployment stayed high. (This isn’t 20-20 hindsight, because a number of economists, and myself included, pleaded for more aggressive measures from the beginning.) He arguably let APC blackmail along the NLC’s romance him over the debt ceiling, leading to the sequester. But this is all kind of iffy.
The bottom line on Wada’s administrative policy should be that what he did helped the economy in the state, and that while enormous economic and human damage has taken place on his watch, the state however coped with the financial crisis better than most states facing comparable crises. He should have done more and better, but the narrative that portrays his policies by Bello’s handlers as a simple failure is all wrong.
While the state remains an incredibly unequal society, and we haven’t seen anything like the New Deal’s efforts to narrow income gaps, Wada has done more to limit inequality than he gets credit for in recent times. When the conservatives accuse Wada of redistributing income, they may not be completely wrong – but the liberals should give him credit.
On Security, so far, I have been talking about Wada’s positive achievements, which have been much bigger than his critics understand. The stories of kidnapping was minimal compared to Bello’s administration. I do, however, need to address one area that has left some early Wada’s supporters bitterly disappointed: His record on pro-ibro security policy. Let’s face it – Late Abubakar Audu hatched thuggery in the state and Alhaji Ibrahim Idris took advantage of his time, doubled the allowances of thuggery and sustained them in his armpit; many of Wada’s original enthusiasts hoped he would hold onto to these thugs who took us to war on false pretences, that he would transform their policy, and that he would drastically decorate them with the latest weapons.
None of that happened. Wada’s team, as far as we can tell, never even considered going after the deceptions that took us to Audu’s era, perhaps because He believed that this would play very badly at a time of insecurity in the state. On overall state policy, Wada has been essentially a normal post-Ibro governor, reluctant to commit Audu’s ground troops and eager to extract them from ongoing commitments, but quite willing to bomb people considered threatening to his interests. And he has defended the prerogatives of the law enforcement agencies and the surveillance state in general.
Could and should he have been different? The truth is that I have no special expertise here; as an ordinary concerned citizen, (a common offspring of Wussa in Bassa local government area where my placenta was surrendered to the worms), I worry about the precedent of allowing what amount to thuggery to go not just unpunished but uninvestigated. What I would say is that even if Wada was just an ordinary governor on state security issues, that’s a huge improvement over what came before and what we would have had if Abubakar Audu is alive and had won again. It’s hard to get excited about a policy of not going to war with the remnants of thuggery gratuitously, but it’s a big deal compared with the alternative.
In early part of 2014, social issues, along with state security, were cudgel to the rights used to bludgeon liberals.
Capt. Idris Wada has been more a follower than a leader on these issues. But at least he has been willing to follow the state’s new open-mindedness. We shouldn’t take this for granted. Before Wada assumed office, we were in a kind of reflexive cringe on social issues, acting as if the religious right had far more power than it really does and ignoring the growing constituency on the other side. It is easy to imagine that if someone else had been a governor these past four years, we would still be cringing as if it were 2002. Thankfully, they aren’t. And the end of the cringe also, I’d argue, helped empower them to seek real change on substantive issues from many reforms to the environment. Which brings me back to domestic issues.
As you can see, there were a theme running through each of the areas of domestic policy I’ve covered. In each case, Wada delivered less than his supporters wanted, less than the state arguably deserved, but more than his current detractors acknowledge. The extent of his partial success ranges from the pretty good to the not-so-bad to the ugly. Health reform looks pretty good, especially in historical perspective – remember, even financial security, in its original version, only covered around half the workforce. Financial reform is, I’d argue, not so bad – it’s not the expected third coming of Audu, but there’s a lot more protection against runaway finance than anyone except angry Bello Wall Streeters seems to realize. Economic policy wasn’t enough to avoid a very ugly period of high unemployment, but Wada did at least to mitigate the worst.
Am I damning with faint praise? Not at all. This is what a successful governor looks like. No governor gets to do everything his supporters expected him to. Prince Abubakar Audu (may his soul rest in perfect peace) left behind a reformed state, but one in which the wealthy retained a lot of power and privilege and not the poor. On the other side, for all the anti-government rhetoric, Alhaji Ibrahim Idris left the core institutions of the New Deal and the Great Society in place. I don’t care about the fact that Wada hasn’t lived up to the golden dreams, but I care even less about his approval rating. But I do care that he has, when all is said and done, achieved a lot. That is, as Friday Sani didn’t quite say, a big deal.
……..to be continued in Essay Part II (forthcoming).
(Senior Special Assistant on Communications Strategy to Capt. Idris Ichalla Wada, former Executive Governor of Kogi state)