By Ayo Olukotun
The Senate must be thanked for revising its schedule to screen the nominees, but the upper house may wish to consider the suggestion to do more than perfunctory vetting, symbolised by “taking a bow”.
Social and political changes, the experts tell us, derive from a salad of factors such as the right policies, enabling institutions, subsisting values, and the personality and vision of leaders who, ideally, can reshape or give expression to the other features. It is in this context, and that of a country in search of urgent answers to mounting governance questions, that the formation of a new cabinet by President Muhammadu Buhari, aroused tremendous expectations and enthusiastic discussion. After close to eight weeks of anxious guessing games and waiting, prodded, too, by the need to beat the forthcoming recess of the National Assembly, Buhari sent to the Senate, on Tuesday, the names of 43 ministerial nominees consisting of 14 holdovers from the last cabinet and 29 others who were not ministers during his first term.
In terms of speed of execution, the current year’s appointments improved on that of 2016 but fall short, still, of global best practices, illustrated by the new British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who announced a new cabinet on Thursday, 24 hours after becoming the nation’s helmsman. Dashing speed is not always synonymous with virtue or quality, but it does create a sense of momentum, indicating a passion to make changes or initiate renewal. On more substantive matters, the choices made by the President, most of them at any rate, have run into a volley of criticisms from the main opposition party the Peoples Democratic Party, the business community and civil society groups for being jaded or mediocre, driven more by party political considerations than by meritocracy. The criticisms may be overwrought, mirroring a generalised sense of frustration with the pace of governance, rather than this particular exercise. However, one can discern a sense of inner turmoil around the President, torn between party pressure and the quest for reformist governance. Let me illustrate this; in one instance, Buhari spoke about putting in place what he described as a first class cabinet consisting mainly of technocrats; but when push came to shove, and matters entered the nitty gritty stage, he complained of being put under pressure and not liking having to choose people that he does not know. Deductively, pressure from party bureaucrats, who now constitute the majority of nominees, trumped the innovation imperative of a cabinet of stars.
To be sure, party loyalty and stability within the hierarchy are as important as the capacity and competence to make changes, and the two aspects have to be balanced. This time round, it would seem that the emphasis swerved more, perhaps more than necessary, in the direction of party loyalty, and dedication to political objectives rather than meritocracy. Granted, some new faces excite; Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora, Dr. Uchechukwu Ogah, but the overall tenor did not match the expectations raised by the promise of a first-class cabinet. In a more settled political culture, the establishment, as we see in the case of Boris Johnson’s cabinet, recycles itself, which is partly why there are usually no great but incremental changes.
However, in our case, where so many burning national issues confront us, with poverty and insecurity of lives and property among the most outstanding, the search for fresh voices and those who can think outside the box could have been undertaken with more determination. To be specific, we could have brought in some people from the Diaspora, who are acknowledged as global experts in their callings, reformist minded technocrats currently serving in government, as well as civil society leaders, who have made a mark and are reputed for integrity. But this is the road not taken and we must now make the best of what we have. As some others have observed, it would have been tidier and more expressive of presidential direction if portfolios had been attached to the names so that we can correctly decode the symbolism of the appointments.
The Senate must be thanked for revising its schedule to screen the nominees, but the upper house may wish to consider the suggestion to do more than perfunctory vetting, symbolised by “taking a bow”. One of the challenges of the exercise will be to forge a cabinet out of the current motley of names united by no other factor than their All Progressives Congress identity cards, and perhaps being “known” by Buhari. I make this point from the perspective of what went on in the last cabinet where incoherence and intramural conflicts created a sense of fragility and disorder. For the ministers to sing from the same hymn sheet, there must be incentives and programmes to bring about a sense of common purpose and unity of vision. True, the list, in keeping with constitutional provisions, reflects the country’s diversity and number of states, with every state producing at least one minister. Beyond spatial and geographic conformity nonetheless, is the overriding need for clarity and sense of purpose deriving from shared vision and shared objectives.
In a related connection, it is expedient to ensure that the policy agenda, such as the one involving poverty reduction and lifting millions out of poverty, drives ministerial interventions. It may be necessary for the Presidency to create a green book containing, in outline form, the principal points of departure embodied in such documents as the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan and the Social Protection policies of the administration. It may take a while, especially for ministers coming into the cabinet for the first time, to achieve the desired knowledge base. But time spent on it should be seen as a tradeoff to avoid inertia dilatoriness and fumbling. For the purpose of efficiency, we can raise the question, how do we know whether a particular minister has performed well or not? Well, short of impressionistic data based on output, the best way is to set performance objectives with metrics to measure diligent or lax application. This has been much talked about by this and previous governments but has never been faithfully, if at all, implemented. That kind of scientific approach, common in the private sector, should also include public perception of the performance of the ministers, which situates the problem at the user end of the chain. If applied, this will reduce but cannot fully eliminate such subjective factors as closeness to the president, ability to shout party slogans and public relations.
Another imperative is for the Presidency to exercise leadership regarding desired policy changes as well as their implementation, considering that no minister can move faster than the President himself who is both the visioner and policy coordinator. At a minimum, the country cannot afford another four years in a vacuum in which not much gets done. As this columnist argued in ‘Cabinet: Game-changer or business as usual?’ (The PUNCH, Friday, July 12, 2019), the ministers already have their jobs waiting for them since Nigerians know best where the shoe pinches. In their first 100 days in office, they should begin to make impact or at least flash a sense of purpose in such areas as improved electricity generation, transmission and distribution, job creation, the current security situation, poverty reduction and infrastructural uplift. They need to make a real difference and we wish them luck as they set out to so do.
Ayo Olukotun is a Public Policy Analyst.