For many Nigerians, any faint hope of radical reforms or positive change under President Muhammadu Buhari grew dimmer still following the unveiling of portfolios to his 43-member cabinet. Save for a pitifully few known performers, the team is short on reformers and has few technocrats handling critical sectors like security, the economy and justice, amid echoes of the President’s sectionalism in the allotment of senior ranks. Beyond fulfilling the constitutional requirement of having at least one minister from each of the 36 states, the cabinet does not impress.
Returned were 14 ministers from Buhari’s first term, among them Babatunde Fashola, who retains Works and Housing, but drops the power portfolio. Rotimi Amaechi also relinquishes Aviation – to which Hadi Sirika, his erstwhile deputy, is now promoted – but retains Transportation. Chris Ngige returns to Labour, while Zainab Ahmed now adds the Budget and National Planning ministry to her Finance portfolio. In the security sector, as expected, Bashir Magashi, a retired major-general, will man Defence; Rauf Aregbesola, a former governor of Osun State, Interior, while the Police Affairs Ministry, newly un-coupled from Interior, will be held by Maigari Dingyadi. Nothing has significantly changed.
It is worrying that in selecting ministers and assigning portfolios, Buhari appears to gloss over the country’s precarious situation today. Insecurity is arguably at the worst level in its history; by the first six months of 2018, for instance, 1,814 persons had been killed via terrorism, banditry and Fulani herdsmen attacks and farmers’ reprisals, according to Amnesty International. The economy is wobbly and global institutions and the Central Bank of Nigeria have warned of a possible relapse into recession, in the face of mounting debts ($81 billion) that drain 60 per cent of public revenue, unstable oil prices, capital flight and youth unemployment (23.1 per cent). The war on corruption is floundering and lacks cohesion, while the judiciary is rife with corruption and many looters are walking free.
Nigeria’s challenges require a cabinet with a generous dose of credible technocrats to drive the economy, quell insecurity and instil cohesion, probity and efficiency into the anti-corruption war while initiating reforms of the justice delivery system. Finance and budget, agriculture, power, police, petroleum, as well as mines and steel development are critical areas where expertise and familiarity with development needs should trump political considerations or mere bench warming. Buhari appears to have missed this. When a country is at such a critical juncture in power, insecurity, food and production, Buhari should have gone for sectoral expertise. One minister, on a first visit to his assigned ministry, confessed that he knew little about the ministry.
President Paul Kagame has consistently deployed greater wisdom in assembling Rwanda’s cabinet. The latest, named in October 2018, was described as “a skilful blend of age, gender and technocrats.” Fifty per cent are women, compared to Buhari’s seven, average age is 47.5 years (the youngest is 31), while in Buhari’s latest, the youngest is in the late 40s. Despite his erratic persona, Donald Trump, like previous United States presidents, fills vacant cabinet positions with persons of expertise or policy familiarity with the respective departments. Boris Johnson named and assigned portfolios to proven hands within 24 hours of being named Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
But here, Buhari will have to justify his re-appointment of Abubakar Malami as Attorney-General of the Federation: the anti-corruption campaign has faltered and there have been no reforms of the justice system. Malami has feuded with anti-graft agency heads and, like his predecessors, has not come across as a dogged anti-graft fighter. The government has lost an embarrassingly high number of corruption cases at the courts. Under Buhari’s personal superintendence as both President and minister of petroleum, the oil industry has been a mess; the refineries are not producing and he has made no move to fulfil his 2015 promise to restructure the NNPC. At the Ministry of Niger Delta, Festus Keyamo, a former external prosecutor of the EFCC, is now junior minister to Godswill Akpabio, the substantive, who, until his appointment, was under the EFCC investigation. Ever parochial, Buhari assigned senior cabinet positions to seven of his nine appointees from his North-West zone.
Buhari has, nevertheless, set lofty goals for the lack-lustre team; he wants it to lay the foundation for his earlier target of dragging 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in a decade. Not many believe this cabinet can deliver or give meaning to that desire. But it is their responsibility to try. Buhari must shed his leisurely pace and become a hands-on manager. At 10 years and regenerating itself, Boko Haram has thrived for too long, and together with banditry, kidnapping, mass killings and armed robbery, has made many parts of the country a hell hole. The economy has to be rebooted, with radical initiatives in agriculture, mining, tax reforms and SMEs as the launch pads. Providing infrastructure requires more intelligent approach in terms of funding, using a mix of Foreign Direct Investment, bonds and private participation to end our forlorn and doomed reliance on dodgy loans. Fashola needs better funding to re-enact his feats as Lagos State governor, which were not seen during his first tenure.
With the approach of global recession, Germany’s government has rolled out detailed plans for survival. This cabinet should also fashion a comprehensive programme to deal with the economy. This time, priority should be given to the repair and construction of critical highways that are crucial to the economy. Completing the Apapa link roads, Lagos-Ibadan highway, East-West Road, the international airports at Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano, among others, as rail links to major commercial sites, should be guided by economic, and not by political, considerations.
Whatever the nature of the cabinet, the president calls the shots in a presidential system of government. Therefore, the country’s strategic decision-making power is in the hands of Buhari. And he alone should be held responsible for what becomes of Nigeria on his watch.