Editorial: A Disappointing Cabinet after an Agonizing Wait

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Outright shock, disbelief and disappointment united most Nigerians in their reaction to the much awaited cabinet list unveiled Tuesday by Senate President Ahmed Lawan. After dithering and spasms of indecision, the 43 ministerial nominees fell short of expectation in view of its composition; but more because the President gave himself almost two months to search for the dream team that would drive his promised change to the next level, only to end up with the same people with fossilized ideas that have marooned the nation to its present lackluster position. If as said, the morning tells the day, then the APC promised “change to the next level” might just be another political slogan. Nigerians expected Buhari to appoint men and women of proven integrity and outstanding track record; leaders endowed with the gift of steady application; who in range of vision and depth of conception tower above their contemporaries. We all got it wrong. Nothing good came out, after all from that procrastination.

The list of ministerial nominees is pathetic. Given the bad governance that has given vent to mass unemployment, abject poverty, corruption, impunity, gross official cluelessness and helplessness in the face of monumental security challenges facing the nation, the country certainly deserves better. Four years ago, Buhari missed the golden opportunity of choosing his ministers on time and some of the very best the country could produce. He waited approximately six months to name his cabinet. This time, Nigerians imagined there was wisdom in the president’s bidding his time to get it right for a country contending with insecurity, criminality and kidnapping for ransom; in addition to Boko Haram insurgency in the north-eastern quadrant. This was the appropriate time to hit the ground running.

It is indeed unfortunate that the main criterion for Buhari’s choice of ministers was loyalty. The nominees comprising an aggregation of political partisans, are people who have been loyal either to the President or his party - the ruling All Progress Congress (APC). The question then becomes: why the wait, only to end up with the status quo? The expectation was that as a change agent, promising to take his promised change to the next level, Buhari would break with precedent and assign specific portfolios to his controversial nominees. But he did not; hence the Senate will screen them without knowing what Ministries they will be assigned, meaning it will be the traditional “take a bow and go” exercise as most questions will be about personal integrity and political loyalty rather than technical expertise and competence in any specific cabinet portfolio. Already, three of the four nominees screened so far, took a bow without being asked any question. They include former Akwa Ibom governor and former Senate Minority Leader, Godswill Akpabio; former Benue governor and ex Senate Minority Leader, George Akume, and House Rep, Emeka Nwajuaba. This is a tragedy for Nigeria!

There is no question on the President’s constitutional right to appoint his cabinet. But could it be that there are no other qualified and competent Nigerians to be appointed ministers? Certainly not! The President should have cast around and pick from Nigeria’s best and brightest not the same expired and spent forces, who bear direct responsibility for the woeful state of the country today. Recycling these yesterday’s men only offers them another opportunity to continue repeating their old mistakes. Yet, Nigeria is blessed with a vast array of highly competent persons who are globally acknowledged as distinguished professionals, persons of honor and integrity. There is, therefore, no reason the country cannot be governed with the best hands except for the wrong disposition of the appointer. The failure by the president to ensure the country is governed by the best hands is a betrayal of the cause of change that confounded even Buhari’s most ardent supporters.

Granted, that, the president had to grapple with the federal character provisions, which require one minister from each of the 36 states, including the PDP-dominated Southeast. And reducing the size of government, without alienating critical constituencies within the myriad of interest groups that make up the APC, required striking a delicate balance between technocrats and politicians. Still, settling for men of yesteryears that have been in political limbo, and are seeking rehabilitation, betrays a profoundly disturbing and confounding disposition by the president to compromise with vested interests that have taken the country hostage. This creates a human and institutional integrity problem for the country.

Given the president’s assurances, Nigerians expected to see in the list, names of renowned technocrats in the roll-call of academics and professionals of repute and there is no disputing the fact that there are such men and women in abundance, both within and outside the country. Nigerians are confused and are asking whether Buhari is really serious when he reappoints a man like former Anambra governor,  Dr. Chris Ngige, who provoked a controversy with his obnoxious theory of surplus medical doctors, after he suggested that the brain drain in the health sector was good for Nigeria because of the remittances they send back home. Ordinarily, a man like Ngige, with his mixed record in office, should never have been appointed in the first place. His reappointment is merely a renewed invitation to “just come and continue chopping.”

The triumvirate of ex-governors: Rauf Aregbesola, Godswill Akpabio, Timipre Sylva, speaks directly to the politicization of the process. Despite their frenziedly propagandized achievements, to what extent did these former governors positively impact their states? Obviously, it is compensation for their contributions to the APC victory in the last general elections. With Lai Mohammed (Kwara), a Tinubu loyalist and APC spokesman, already at daggers drawn with Gbemisola Saraki for political supremacy in Kwara, this team of rivals is a disaster waiting to happen; given Lai’s petulance, foul temperament and high penchant for controversy. Rotimi Amaechi's reappointment, will undoubtedly fuel fresh tensions in Rivers, where his arch-rival, Nyesom Wike (PDP) is governor. If for no other reason, Buhari hopes that bringing back Ogbonnaya Onu (Ebonyi), who represents the former All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) faction, which he chaired in the APC; will help placate the PDP-dominated southeast, where the APC lacks traction. Dr. Ibe Kachikwu (Delta) was the surprise exclusion, having acquitted himself honorably first as NNPC Managing Director conterminously with his portfolio as junior petroleum minister.

While Buhari is free to choose those who are loyal to him and his party, the issue here is whether such loyalty would also mean loyalty to the task of changing Nigeria. As it turned out, the last cabinet was by and large, square pegs in round holes. None of the ministers in the former cabinet stood out by sheer expertise and sterling performance in office. Four years after, aside Rotimi Amaechi and Babatunde Fashola, it is hard to find a distinguished achiever in the government. Many exhibited outright ignorance of the bureaucracy of the Ministries they were hired to run. It is therefore disappointing that most of the present cabinet nominees have little or no personal pedigree of leadership and passion for public service. They are the by-product of the godfather syndrome. Nigeria needs men and women who can bring fresh ideas into governance to deliver on the positive change promised by the president.

As President, Buhari bears direct responsibility for the perfidy and ineptitude of his government. With serious economic, infrastructural and security challenges to contend with, the worries of an average Nigerian are about the basic necessities of life -food, shelter, healthcare, education and jobs all of which remain elusive. One thing the president must do is to ensure that ministers he has appointed must take ultimate responsibility for what happens under their watch. The buck must stop at someone’s desk! Public office is a call to national duty and only the ready, willing, and able deserves it. To dispense ministerial positions as a favor to party loyalists and the well-connected is doing a great disservice to the country. The decision of course is that of the President. Needless to say how well his Ministers perform will determine Buhari’s own report card as well as his place in history. The nation is watching for the president’s men to take Nigeria to the much trumpeted “next level.”