Buhari’s bland ministerial list by Punch Editorial Board

Five months after he was elected for a second term, President Muhammadu Buhari submitted the much-awaited ministerial nominees list to the Senate for consideration and confirmation. The team is made up of 43 names, 14 of them former ministers in his first term.

To get him to release the names was like pulling the chestnuts out of the fire. The Senate had met him earlier in the month on the matter; and later reminded him of the need to submit the list before July 26 2019 or wait until its members returned from their annual vacation in September. During their engagement, the President revealed being under pressure. He justified his delay on the grounds that he did not want to repeat the mistake of his first term, when he picked mostly people the party and individuals recommended to him.

With his “Next Level” agenda, therefore, he pleaded for more time to enable him to recruit only those with the capacity to deliver. But this time he said, “I am going to be quite me; me in the sense that I will pick people I know personally.”  However, most of the faces he unfurled are familiar; none of them came from the moon as to justify his purported thoroughness.

The task of choosing ministers is not rocket science. Buhari’s lumbering approach to governance rankles, viewed against the background of the speed of light with which global leaders respond to similar responsibilities. For instance, the new United Kingdom Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who took over from Theresa May on Wednesday, promptly picked his cabinet the same day. Ending his speech on Tuesday after he defeated Jeremy Hunt to emerge as leader of the Conservative Party, Johnson declared, “Today, the campaign is over and the work begins.” According to The Sun of London, he spent the next 24 hours locked away with aides gathering a “Cabinet for Modern Britain,” which will deliver Brexit and his domestic policies.

Not with Buhari. Here, a ministerial list that took five months to compile is thin on acclaimed technocrats or policy wonks. It comprises some recycled corrupt politicians, many of whom failed woefully in their previous public offices; further putting his commitment to uprooting corruption and uplifting the economy into question. The team, which the Senate began screening on Wednesday, does not command public confidence.

The President, as usual, did not attach portfolios to the nominees. It is a discredited practice that makes a mockery of ministerial screening in the country, as it gives no room for ascertaining their competence or suitability. It is hypocritical that Buhari, with his preachment of “no business as usual,” still embraces this old order, which has short-changed the country in terms of service delivery. That the constitution does not prescribe attachment of portfolios does not mean it cannot be done. It does not breach any law. The Senate, which vowed to improve on the performance of the Eighth Senate, has failed its first litmus test, by accepting this and the banality of “bow and go” by seven nominees so far.

However, many were not shocked by Buhari’s delay as it took him much longer in his first term to form his cabinet. But given his assurances, the quality of the team assembled should have compensated for time wasted. Unfortunately, it did not happen, again. The team’s ordinariness is encapsulated in the position of the Chairperson, Transition Monitoring Group, Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi: “The capacity for them to push the agenda for development for Nigeria is very much in doubt.” We agree. Nigeria is seeing a President who is so widely unable to fulfil his responsibilities.

Fulani herders’ terrorism has been the one real test of Buhari’s leadership. But he is failing. At a time when the economy is in dire-straits, insecurity is spiralling out of control and corruption still on a supersonic cruise, Nigeria needs a cabinet dominated by technocrats – men and women of knowledge, head-hunted within the country, across party lines and in the diaspora. It is highly unlikely that insecurity will be the last grave emergency to happen on his watch.

The economy needs jobs and wealth creation; which can only be achieved by a crack cabinet led by a President with a clear focus and alien to parochialism. Last month, the President tried to titillate our palate with a plan to pull 100 million people out of poverty in 10 years. He said, “China has done it. India has done it. Indonesia has done it. Nigeria can do it. These are all countries characterised by huge burdens of population. We can do it.” It cannot be driven by mere aspiration, but by a policy agenda that will open up the economy, which contracted by 43 per cent in 2018, to foreign direct investment; government divestment from businesses; and reform of the corruption-infested oil sector.

The economy is still crawling, being funded with borrowings. The International Monetary Fund and other development institutions had before now, warned of the risk of relapsing into recession. The IMF’s latest growth rate forecast of 2.3 per cent for the year, is too low; inflation is at 11.4 per cent, unemployment at 23.9 per cent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics; the real sector is still finding access to credit cumbrous, with interest rates very high and electricity supply ever epileptic.

Frightened by the ominous economic horizon, Buhari summoned the 36 state governors to Abuja in December. Giving an insight into their meeting, the then Chairman of Nigeria Governors’ Forum, Abdullaziz Yari, said the President told them that the economy was in a bad shape and they should tighten their belts.

It is incredible, therefore, that Buhari, who regularly laments that the resources available to his administration are just 60 per cent of what his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, enjoyed, will put forward a 43-member cabinet as against the 42 of the era when crude oil price at the global market averaged $100 per barrel. He was responsive to this concern in 2015, evident in the 36 ministers he had. It also explained why the then ministries of Power, Works and Housing were collapsed into one, just to save costs. A leaner or nimbler cabinet is even more relevant now. Providing infrastructure – in roads, improved healthcare delivery and adequate funding of education – cannot be achieved with increase in the cost of governance: more ministers will beget more aides and spike recurrent expenditure.

Consequently, the fear that the economy might not be free from its fetters in Buhari’s second term with his present recruits is not unfounded.

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