- Deadline on formation of cabinets is good for governance
In running the affairs of the country as well as the respective states, the 1999 Constitution mandates the president and governors to do so in collaboration with a Federal Executive Council (FEC) at the centre and state executive councils in the states. The federal ministers and state commissioners, who constitute the cabinet at each level, respectively, are appointees of the elected chief executives, subject to confirmation by the national and state legislatures. It is obvious that the constitution envisages that the president and governors will govern in consultation and collaboration with members of the cabinet, made up of ministers and commissioners, appointed to head different departments of government, and who report to the elected chief executive.
The convention is for the federal and state executive councils to meet at least once a week to deliberate and take decisions on various matters affecting governance and development in the polity. Apart from being responsible for administering the various specialised portfolios to which they are assigned, members of the cabinet are also expected to offer qualitative advice to the president and governors so as to help ensure efficient, effective, accountable and productive governance at each level for the common good.
The norm in most established democratic polities is for the chief executive to name members of his or her cabinet as well as other key appointees almost immediately after formally assuming office, in order to ensure prompt take-off of governance by the new administration and timely commencement of work on the delivery of their electoral promises.
This, of course, implies that the aspiring candidates would have done their homework and identified qualified and suitable appointees to constitute their cabinet and hold other key offices well before assuming office.
In Nigeria, however, we have had situations in which either the president or governors do not constitute their cabinets for prolonged periods to the detriment of good, qualitative and accountable governance, just because the constitution does not specify a timeframe within which this must be done. It is to remedy this anomaly that the Senate Constitution Review Committee has ratified a proposal that will compel the president and governors to form their cabinets within 30 days of being sworn into office.
As a measure to reduce the prospects of autocratic governance and executive recklessness that may result from the president or governors ruling as one man sole administrators in the absence of a duly constituted cabinet as demanded by the law, this proposal is commendable and deserves to be upheld by the Senate sitting in plenary. During his first term, for instance, it took almost six months after President Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in on May 29, 2015, for the Federal Executive Council to be constituted. This was despite the fact that his election was not controversial, as his predecessor conceded defeat even before the final election results were announced in March, 2015. This means the country lost eight months in all before the cabinet was eventually constituted. Although the situation improved after his election for a second term, it still took the president almost two months to send his list of 43 ministerial nominees for the Senate’s approval on July 23, 2019.
Similarly, in his first term, former Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State did not constitute the state executive council until over eight months after he was sworn into office. Again, after he was sworn in for a second term on November 27, 2014, Aregbesola delayed the constitution of the state cabinet for over two years. Before the appointment of commissioners, he ran the state with his deputy, the chief of staff, the secretary to the state government and the permanent secretaries. The case is no different with Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State who is yet to name members of his executive council seven months after being sworn in for a second term. In Ondo State, Governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, who was sworn in for a second term on February 4, 2021, has appointed only four commissioners thus far, whose names he forwarded to the state house of assembly for approval on March 4.
The argument has been made that, even with delays in the constitution of the federal or state executive councils, there will be no vacuum in governance since there are permanent secretaries in the various ministries who can take charge of affairs before the appointment of ministers and commissioners. However, permanent secretaries are career civil servants and not politicians. The more professional bureaucrats are insulated from partisan politics, the better for the civil service, which is supposed to be an apolitical institution since partisan governments will come and go but bureaucrats remain to serve the state, irrespective of which party is in power.
It is thus more appropriate for politicians or technocrats with undisguised partisan affiliation to be appointed as ministers or commissioners to take the lead in implementing party manifestos, with the civil servants only giving technical support. Furthermore, the federal and state executive councils are constitutionally required to be constituted in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of the country and the states, respectively. They thus also serve the political purpose of ensuring a sense of inclusiveness and balance among the diverse ethno-cultural components of a complex, plural society like Nigeria.
Again, the need to cut costs, particularly during periods of revenue shortfalls, has sometimes been adduced as a justification for delays in constituting federal or state cabinets. But this cannot be a tenable or convincing reason for violating a clear constitutional provision. In any case, what is believed to be cost-saving by non-constitution of federal and state executive councils may turn out to have even more costly implications if ill-considered and misguided policy decisions are made in the absence of rigorous and qualitative debates by duly constituted executive councils.
It is, however, not enough for the president and governors to be compelled to abide by the proposed constitutional timeframe within which to constitute their cabinets. No less critical is the need to ensure that only men and women of proven ability and impeccable character who can add value to governance are appointed to these high offices. This is why the legislature at the national and state levels must take more seriously their constitutional responsibility of screening appointees to federal and state cabinets. Indeed, in addition to specifying a timeframe of 30 days after the inauguration of the president and governors within which the executive councils must be constituted, it must also be required that names of nominees sent to the legislature for screening and approval must also have their proposed portfolios indicated. This will enable the legislators to more rigorously question the nominees during the screening to determine their suitability for the proposed offices to which they will be assigned.