By Ayo Olukotun
Considerable public attention, hoopla and hype have attended the prospective choice of ministers for the second term of President Muhammadu Buhari, due to begin on May 29. Indications were given by the Presidency that, unlike in 2015 when Buhari took his time to cobble together a cabinet, this time round, one will be assembled and unveiled as soon as Buhari is inaugurated. So, speculations, shadow jostling, and frenzied lobbying have proceeded apace for the coveted ministerial slots. Some have gone so far as to say that Buhari’s controversial 10-day visit to London was in aid of respite and composure, for the pressure to do the hard thinking required for drawing up his cabinet. For, as always, a balance must be kept between expertise and loyalty, merit and the nuts and bolts of politics.
Talking about star cabinets, one of the most luminous in our history was that of the military dictatorship of Ibrahim Babaginda. Recall the combination of Professors Jubril Aminu, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Bolaji Akinyemi, Babs Fafunwa, Dr Kalu Idika Kalu, Rilwan Lukman, and Justice Bola Ajibola. One of the abiding puzzles of those years is how and why a council, made up of the best and the brightest, ended up with sensational tragic misadventures such as the bombing of Dele Giwa, and the annulment of the June 12 presidential election. Was the problem the quality of advice, which is unlikely, or the predisposition of the main actor? I make the historical allusion to underline the point that the issue at stake is not so much a cabinet of stars, but the political will, moral stamina and the resolution of the principal. No minister, however talented or outstanding, can run faster than the helmsman, who sets the pace, arranges the field of play and provides a framework for policy crafting and implementation. The point being made here is that the appointing authority, rather than the political appointee, determines to a large extent, how efficient or productive the appointee will be. For example, as The PUNCH columnist, Azuka Onwuka, argued in his, ‘When a President rewards incompetence’, on Tuesday, the fact that no minister, non-performing or morally compromised, was eased out during Buhari’s first term, may have granted the appointees a measure of job security that did not conduce to diligent discharge of their duties. Argued Onwuka: “(When) those who add no value, or who do not share the same vision with the leader are replaced, that helps to put all the subordinates on their toes…but when they know that their position is guaranteed, they simply give their minimum’ (The PUNCH, Tuesday, April 30, 2019).
A related point is that, if ministers, and other appointees, are not given performance targets, or evaluated periodically, there is then no basis, apart from their ability to hero-worship the leader, as well as public dissatisfaction, for knowing if they are fulfilling their mandates or not. Half-hearted attempts to introduce performance metrics to governance led nowhere, because they were not sustained, and because the system did not develop a performance culture. This is to say, that no matter who gets the ministerial slot, the ecology of public service, the vision and the commitment of the leader, undergirded by a practice of continuous assessment, will be needed to turn things around. Mark you, the President will have to juggle several balls which include, meritocracy, federal character, political survival, in making appointments to his cabinet. For instance, he cannot be expected to totally ignore the party, the All Progressives Congress, and those who underwrote, or laboured hard to elect him, in making his choices. What counts however, is how much consideration he gives to political factors, and how much he gives to the imperatives of a merit-driven cabinet.
Considering that he does not need to seek another term, he should be able to act in forthright ways, dispensing with political handcuffs, and IOUs related to the politics of re-election. So, if he means to build a lasting legacy, he must come up with a cabinet that will assist him in doing so. This will also translate into not encumbering himself with many of the old brigade, in this instance, members of the cabinet during his first term who performed below par. It should not be difficult, by merely gauging public opinion, to pick out ministers who can be validly accused of ‘sleeping on duty’. This columnist counselled, a couple of times, that Buhari should renew and rejig his cabinet, when it became evident that several ministers were not performing. Of course, that advice was not taken. However, it would be adding insult to injury, to recycle into the new cabinet, the same non-performing members, unless we are going by the joke that if one’s son fails a class, he must necessarily repeat that class. Beyond sanctioning poor performance, the problem areas of governance such as, worsening insecurity, escalating poverty, health, education, and electric power deficits, must be purposively addressed, not just by bringing in fresh blood, but by seeking out experts who can bring to the table, fresh ideas. That apart, there is no justification, on this occasion, for piling up ministries assigned to one person, as in the case of Mr Babatunde Fashola, SAN, who was saddled with the triple and demanding ministries of Power, Works and Housing. You don’t overburden someone with impossible assignments unless you want to demystify him. It was not surprising therefore, that Fashola’s performance as governor of Lagos State far exceeded his scorecard as minister of three important portfolios. As several people have canvassed, the ministry should be broken up, but the President, if he so wishes, can retain Fashola in the cabinet with a slimmer commission, where he can bring out his best.
It should be borne in mind that appointments evoke both the substance and style of politics; when they are poorly made, they dampen the citizenry and send out wrong signals, when adroitly designed, they can inspire hope that an overdue new deal is on the way. One hopes that, unlike 2015 when much time was spent creating what turned out to be a lacklustre cabinet, Buhari will rise to the occasion by edifying the nation through the quality of the prospective cabinet. Worth remarking also, is the need for an entrepreneurial vision, rather than a routine business-as-usual approach. The nation, afflicted by sundry woes, some of which are rapidly deteriorating, needs a major shake-up, renewal and thinking outside the box. Consequently, it cannot be a time to pack the cabinet full of mediocrities or nonentities, who are hoping to use such appointments, to build their identities, or expired politicians, looking for a rebound. It would be a pity and a waste of time, if we do not overcome the challenge of breaking out of the groove of unkept promises, dashed hopes and political slogans that don’t translate into action.
A final point concerns the need to provide an over-arching vision, which will enable prospective cabinet members to sing from the same hymn sheet. The outgoing federal executive had more than its fair share of internecine conflicts, divisions, and subversions from within. It should be possible to avoid such costly ego conflicts and political rivalries which are inimical to the kind of fast-lane development that the country requires to emerge from the doldrums.
Ayo Olukotun is a Public Affairs Analyst.