A President’s Peculiar Ministerial Dilemma …. THISDAY

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President Mohammadu Buhari on Monday in Aburi, Ghana reiterated a promise he had made on July 20 in an opinion article in the Washington Post: the much-awaited ministers will be unveiled this month. It is unusual for a new government to spend four months (almost a tenth of its tenure) to put its cabinet together, but it seems Nigerians have learned to wait on their new president. The reassurance that came from Ghana on Monday, preceded by whispered and feverish countdowns at home, has reignited the hitherto depressed political space and confirmed that, for sure, there will be at least ministerial nominees in September. But the obstinate question in the minds and on the lips of many is: will the wait be worth it?

In the immediate, the answer to that legitimate question will be determined by whom the president picks after his long search, and what their resumes and antecedents signal about their competence and character. The conclusive answer will not be known until sometime in the future, when the ministers and the president can be realistically measured against their records in office. But having taken his time on an exercise many had expected him to dispense with much more quickly, given the fact that he had been seeking the same office since 2003 and taking into account the urgency and the enormity of the tasks at hand, President Buhari has, wittingly or unwittingly, put himself in a position where he has no option but to get it right with his long-awaited list of nominees for ministers. And he has to get it right not just to himself or on paper but also in the eyes of Nigerians and watchers of Nigeria.

The task before President Buhari has been further complicated not only by the long search and the anxiety induced by the long wait, but also by a carefully crafted narrative that he has taken so long because he has been busy working the microscope to locate honest Nigerians that he can work with. The narrative of honesty aligns with the president’s persona and public image, but its utility may be limited, especially if it is taking him so long to locate his dove-white candidates. At the end of the day, the president will still have to work with earthly Nigerians, not some heavenly saints. Besides, such a narrative may have also boxed the president into a corner as his list of nominees will now be examined for who in whose opinion passes or doesn’t pass the integrity test ahead of other critical success factors.
To be sure, character should be king, especially in a place where many do not have any scruples about using public office for personal gains. But integrity by itself will not get the job done, and there is indeed quite a lot of work to be done. Competence, especially proven competence, will thus be critical.

While character and competence are not mutually exclusive and should not be framed as antonyms, the seeming privileging of the former has energised those intent on scandalising and stopping their opponents from emerging as ministerial nominees. The allegation industry has been in overdrive lately in anticipation of the ministerial list, propelled by the belief that all the president needs to strike anyone off his list is just an allegation, whether proven or not. If the president succumbs to the flurry of mucks making the rounds without convictions by the courts, he may not only be endorsing the inversion of the principle that every accused is innocent until proven guilty but he may also be giving in to political blackmails and may be narrowing the field of options available for him to actualise his mandate. And that will be counterproductive indeed.

At the moment, the president seems to be in a peculiar dilemma: picking between tested achievers and untested saints. Given how long it has taken him and how so much has been kept on hold for these appointments, there is a compelling argument for tested and tried hands to jumpstart the government. For example, the president needs a minister of finance with known expertise and experience, name-recognition, a bulging rolodex and a global network. At a time of serious economic crisis, the president and country need a finance minister with heft, not someone who will be learning on the job or who will be easily intimidated by local and international actors or overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges. Of course, such a minister as well as others must have solid integrity, but that can’t be their sole credential.

In a related vein, other critical ministries such as Works, Foreign Affairs, Trade, Investment and Industries, Power, Defence, FCT, Education, Health, Agriculture etc. that are vital to the achievement of the president’s mandate and the reinvention of the country cannot be left in the hands of learners. There are many within and outside the president’s party who have given good accounts of themselves in public service and in the private sector and who will inspire confidence and who can be trusted to introduce necessary reforms that will help the president to meet his huge public expectation and achieve the change agenda. Not overlooking them this time will additionally help the president in giving stakes to those whose toil, presence and credibility also contributed to his success at the polls at the fourth attempt and will ensure that his political flank is not left unnecessarily open.

There is a lot to be said for fresh faces, especially competent and saintly ones. Every administration is entitled to its own discoveries. The country heaves with talents, many waiting to be discovered or given the opportunity to serve. Recycling only the tested hands necessarily crowds out the new hands and denies them the opportunity to acquire needed experience or the chance to prove themselves. Many that became superstars in the last three administrations were not necessarily those with the most impressive public service experience prior to their appointments. But while President Buhari should discover new talents, as he has done with some of his well-received appointments so far, he should also aim for a careful blend of the old and the new, an appropriate mix of at least 36 that will inspire confidence, indicate that he means business and signal that real change is finally on its way.
This is not to say that integrity should be thrown overboard. But then, integrity is like the pudding: its taste is in the eating. The fact that someone is untainted does not mean they will remain strong in the face of temptations, especially if the operating environment allows them to get away with it. Also, there is nothing that says that tested achievers all lack integrity or that they cannot be made to operate under stricter terms. So a lot rises and falls on the kind of governance environment created by the president himself, not on a false dichotomy between experience and integrity, or the elusive search for saints to operate a secular enterprise.

The president seems to realise the importance of the ethos of the operating environment. While explaining the reason for the delay in appointing ministers, President Buhari wrote in the Washington Post on July 20: “I cannot stress how important it is to ensure that this process is carried out correctly. There are too few examples in the history of Nigeria since independence where it can be said that good management and governance were instituted at a national level. This lack of a governance framework has allowed many of those in charge, devoid of any real checks and balances, to plunder.” Now that he seems to have spent quite some time to put the governance framework in place, the president should realise that just as he has the power to choose, he also has the power to fire—a power that he doesn’t owe anyone any explanation for, and a power which he shouldn’t hesitate to exercise if any of his appointees falls short on performance or uprightness or both.