Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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Buhari disappoints again with his ministerial nominees 20 Aug 2019

The announcement of President Muhammadu Buhari's 43 ministerial nominees last month gave a new lease of life to the notion that cabinet appointments in Nigeria's current democratic dispensation are more or less political bazaars. The appointments and the farce that was the rushed ministerial screening, where all 43 appointees were confirmed by the ruling All Progressives Congress-majority Senate within five days, solidified the patronage system in the APC.
But unlike the list of his first-term cabinet that was sent to the Senate 130 days after his inauguration, the president’s new cabinet appointees were unveiled 55 days after his second-term inauguration. This delay took place despite the pressure on the president to announce his new cabinet early. When it was announced eventually, people were disappointed at the unremarkable quality of the cabinet.

Having listened to the president’s rhetoric, most people knew the announcements of Buhari’s cabinets would always be duds. Three months after his first inauguration in 2015, he spoke askance about Nigerian ministers in an interview with France 24 television network, where he said they “make a lot of noise.” For his second term cabinet, he said he would pick only people he “personally” knows.

Buhari might understand the constitutional duty of choosing a cabinet as Nigeria's president. But it is unfortunate that he sees the importance and exigency of that duty as a matter that is not so pressing. Section 148 of the 1999 Constitution provides for the executive responsibilities of ministers, and it says, inter alia, that their functions entail "determining the general direction of domestic and foreign policies of the Government of the Federation;" and "advising the President generally in discharge of his executive functions."

These are important functions that ministers have the statutory obligation to undertaken with the support of career civil servants. The president also seems unaware that because the ministers report to him, he is directly responsible for the mediocre performance of the last cabinet and the poor performance of the economy as a whole. One wonders if the 14 former ministers he has reappointed such as Babatunde Fashola, Rotimi Amaechi, Adamu Adamu and Chris Ngige were considered stellar performers in their respective ministries, namely Power, Works and Housing; Transportation; Education; and Labour and Productivity.

In Buhari’s first term, Nigeria became the poverty capital of the world. Unemployment reached crisis level. Lack of coherent policy direction cost the country substantial foreign direct investment (FDI). According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 2019 World Investment Report (WIR), FDI flows to the country plunged from $4.5 billion in 2016 to $2 billion in 2018. This decline is so much that Ghana’s FDI flows of $3 billion last year outstripped Nigeria’s. And the response to all this has been mostly tepid.   

Buhari also has a tendency to contradict himself. He said he was under pressure in 2015 to accept ministerial nominees from his party. Hence, he was taking his time to appoint competent people with moral rectitude to his new cabinet. But most of his new ministers are APC members and cronies, some of whom are facing corruption allegations. What is also disconcerting about the cabinet is the absence of anyone with international gravitas. Technocratic competence is certainly not a construct Buhari associates with cabinet positions. It is also unfortunate that for a country like Nigeria that suffers from a deficit of cognitive and technical skills, public commentary is divided on the imperative of a technocratic cabinet that will advise not only well-informed policies but also superintend their implementation.    

The president also disregarded the resolution of the 8th Senate by sending the list of ministerial nominees for screening without assigning their portfolios. As it happened, the 9th Senate turned a blind eye, arguing that what is important is "to identify the leadership qualities in the nominees being presented to us for screening.’’ And some Nigerians have acquiesced to this retrograde practice that is akin to having a renowned professor of medicine leave his or her tenured post at a top university to become Minister of Transportation in the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Of course, this is possible in the ensuing game of cronyism and nepotism, where friends, relatives and associates would accept government jobs even if they don't know the first thing about the jobs.   

At a time when the world is striving to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls, the gender discrimination in Buhari’s ministerial appointees is apparent. Only seven (or 16.3%) of the 43 appointees are women. The gender insensitivity is slightly worse than it was in the last cabinet that had 16.6% of the 36 ministers as women. Women's rights activists are rightly outraged because during his last campaign, he specifically promised 35% participation of women in his government if re-elected. Perhaps the president doesn’t “personally” know that many women.      

The president also reversed himself on a key promise he made in 2015 to run a lean government. It was this promise that informed his merger of some ministries. In pandering to political expediency in 2019, Buhari has expanded his cabinet. This is curious, given the huge budget deficits the government ran in the last four years, incurring a N12.75 trillion in debt pile.

It is possible to address Nigeria's myriad economic, social and environmental challenges. The country's entire landscape bustles with potentials. But it would require changing the idea of government as a system of patronage. We must end the ritualisation of ministerial nomination and screening, whereby politicians angle for positions for personal gain, citizens anxiously wait for a "list" and the Senate makes a travesty of the screening.   

What we need are competent leaders who can unite the country and transform the economy. APC's winner-take-it-all approach to governance cannot move the country forward. Given the many challenges the country is facing, the ruling party has the opportunity to put governance ahead of its politics and get the job done while it can. Buhari should know he is the president of Nigeria, not only of the APC or the people he knows. His performance in the next four years, good or bad, will determine his party's future and his legacy.