As he prepares to take up the reins of power, Muhammadu Buhari is already confronted with major challenges that will put his reputation and promise of change to the test. He does not have the luxury of time that all his predecessors since 1999 were generously given, but unthinkingly wasted. The ongoing crippling fuel shortages, power outages and the financial mess confronting Nigeria are the cumulative result of poor governance and corrupt, incompetent ministers as well as other public officials. Buhari will, therefore, signpost his success or failure by the calibre of persons he appoints to run the government with him.
In a presidential system of government such as ours, where the president holds all executive powers, an astute leader should build a team that will translate his vision and implement his promises to the electorate. The starting point is to appoint people with proven integrity and performance credentials into key ministries, departments and agencies. And unlike in a parliamentary system where cabinet slots are determined by party posts and there are shadow ministers in opposition parties who already have knowledge of specific ministries, a president has to look everywhere for those with remarkable capabilities to man ministries and key agencies within and outside his party. The buck stops at his table. But this need not be a handicap for a resolute leader, especially one who has been a federal commissioner (minister), state (military) governor and military head of state.
We strongly advise that in breaking with the mistakes of his predecessors, he should not surrender his constitutional responsibility to appoint ministers to state governors, as he has promised. Appointment to key ministries – such as finance, transport, aviation, petroleum, trade and industries, works, foreign affairs, federal capital territory, power, steel and solid minerals – as well as the anti-graft, regulatory, security and trade facilitation agencies, should not be to reward party men or election sponsors. Rather, the president should seek out seasoned technocrats and Nigerians, irrespective of their party affiliation. Barack Obama placed America’s interest first when he named two Republicans in succession as his Defence Secretary. Before him, Bill Clinton, another Democratic President, tapped Ron Brown (now late), a Republican, as his first Commerce Secretary to drive his economic recovery plan.
Effective activist government is not built on good intentions alone. To drive the crucial anti-corruption war, Buhari should pick a principled senior lawyer who shares his hatred for impunity and graft as Attorney-General, as well as the heads of the anti-graft agencies. He should avoid appointing anyone that has corruption cases pending against him or her though they may be key players in his party and his election.
Buhari will need to be particularly perceptive in choosing his economic team. The best plan is to have a practical economic plan, appoint the right persons for the ministries and agencies and set definite targets on key indicators such as inflation, interest rates, exchange rates, export diversification, job-creation, food production and industrialisation. The President should commit himself to a programme of private sector-led economic growth, accelerating the privatisation/liberalisation processes and a rapid reversal of the infrastructure deficit. There is a need for upright, principled personalities to head the Bureau of Public Enterprises to avoid a repeat of the sacrilege we are seeing in the power sector. Appointments to headship of agencies like the Nigerian Investment Promotion Council, the export promotion agencies, solid minerals and all those bodies concerned with economic stimulation should not be guided by patronage; the President should especially look for competent hands to drive growth, like the late Dora Akunyuli or Ernest Ndukwe, who respectively drove reforms in the food and drugs, and in the telecoms sectors in the most efficient ways.
Without violating the constitution, Buhari should prune his cabinet to the minimum level. If the USA, with a population of 318.9 million and a GDP of $17.71 trillion, has 23 cabinet-level members, the United Kingdom, with a population of 64.1 million and a GDP of $3.15 trillion, has 23; Nigeria with a population of 170 million and a GDP of $510 billion has no business with the 42 ministers and over 100 presidential advisers and assistants that Goodluck Jonathan retained.
Buhari should craft a careful blend of technocrats and, we emphasise, only competent party men, who will shun the opulent lifestyle of our past and current officials, uproot corruption, drive change and development and reverse the rent-seeking structure of the Nigerian economy.
Change also means that every ministerial nominee must have a portfolio attached to his name for screening by the Senate unlike the idiocy of the last 16 years, where the upper legislative chamber has ridiculed the country by screening ministers with no specific job requirement. Our security forces are not in good heart. Care should be taken to bring in the right persons to instill discipline, reignite the fighting spirit in the military and reform the intelligence services that have become so ineffective and corrupted by partisan politics and sycophancy.
Buhari himself must demonstrate a noble and incorruptible character and show himself to be an exceptional leader. Ultimately, however, the capacity of the President and his appointees to walk the talk of change will depend on Buhari being able to muster a strong political will to fundamentally overhaul the decadent system.