As cabinet o’clock draws close By Tolu Ogunlesi

buhari

Sometime this month, Nigeria’s government should finally get a cabinet, as promised by President Muhammadu Buhari. Some commentators have erroneously described the more than one hundred cabinet-free days as as the longest such period in our history. We, in fact, went without ministers for a fifteen-month stretch from January 1966 to April 1967 (the six months of General Ironsi and the first nine months of General Gowon); Permanent Secretaries ran the bureaucracy during that turbulent period following the January and July 1966 coups. (It’s a point I make merely for the sake of historical accuracy, and not in defence of the decision to delay naming a cabinet. The circumstances of that time were clearly different – those were military governments, and the situation at that time approached martial rule, which could justify the absence of ministers in a way today’s circumstances couldn’t).

The constitution says every one of Nigeria’s 36 states should be represented, so it’s clear we won’t have fewer than 36 ministers. What is likely to change radically is the number of ministries. Based on the recommendations of the Transition Committee – widely reported in the media – our existing 31-ministry structure will give way to an 18-ministry one. For now we have no idea who our new ministers will be (I’m hoping there will be a sizable number of women!); it seems that the long wait has ended the feverish speculating that was once habit. In the early weeks of this administration the rumour mills ran overtime, and one interesting narrative quickly gained ground that 33 of 36 originally proposed names had failed an ‘integrity’ test.

It’s hard to sift truth from fiction in this hyperactive age of social media, but what lends some credence to the rumours is an interview the President did with NTA at the end of July. In it he said, regarding the delay in assembling his cabinet: “It is taking so much time because a number of knowledgeable people have been compromised. They have been compromised by people who would like to depend on them to damage our economy and security.” He added: “We cannot rush to give this responsibility to people that have unfortunately been compromised.” He had a name for those “compromised” souls: “hostages.”

With this in mind, there will be those who will consider the incoming ministers unlucky. Especially when you recall the sort of leeway the previous set of ministers had. Knowing what we do of President Buhari, it is highly unlikely that there will be untouchable ministers; the sort that a President will come on national television to shamelessly defend against allegations of corruption.

Now, when that ministerial list eventually comes out, expect, as surely as the sun rises upon the earth, the cries of marginalisation. Because this is Nigeria, where ‘marginalisation’ is the oxygen of public engagement. Encoded into our DNA as Nigerians is the perception of a ‘juiciness’ spectrum upon which public office can be classified, which means that it is guaranteed that people will feel short-changed when the ministers are given portfolios.

This juiciness spectrum appears to be based on a number of things. One is the ministry’s annual budgetary allocation – the bigger the juicier. This can however be misleading, because the ministries with the largest budgets tend to allocate more than 90 per cent of their funds to recurrent spending (salaries, debt payments and running costs), leaving only a small portion for capital projects, aka ‘contracts’. According to Budgit, a civil society organisation focused on government transparency, the only ministries that will be spending more on capital projects than on recurrent needs in the 2015 budget are Works (71 per cent capital expenditure), Niger Delta (89 per cent) and Water Resources (56 per cent).

Another factor that determines perceived ministerial juiciness is the number and types (is it revenue-generating or not?) of agencies and parastatals overseen. By that criterion, Petroleum, Finance, Education and Health are top-of-the-range. Defence has a huge budget, but not only is most of it for paying salaries, it’s also lacking in parastatals that have the mandate to generate revenues. Aviation could also be considered important, because of FAAN and NCAA; and Communications Technology because of the NCC and NIGCOMSAT). The Ministry of Water Resources has 16 parastatals under it, 12 of which are River Basin Development Authorities which oversee several billions of naira annually in capital spending. You get the drift. Ministries that will rank low on that score include Youth (take NYSC out and there’s really nothing left), Women Affairs, Labour and Sports (full of sporting bodies that appear to be perpetually cash-strapped).

It must however be pointed out that with the proposed restructuring, there will no longer be any ministries that anyone will be able to dismiss as insignificant. For example it has reportedly been proposed that the Ministries of Women Affairs and Social Development, Sports, and Youth Development, be merged into a single ministry to be known as Ministry of Gender, Family Affairs, Youth and Sports, to be run by one minister and two ministers of state. What this means is that in the absence of insubstantial ministries, and in light of the fact as much as half of the cabinet will have to make do with junior-minister status, the marginalisation debate will shift to this turf. Someone will come up with a count of how many ‘northerners’ are senior ministers, as compared to the number of southerners, and the newspapers and blogs and social media will be busy with predictable ranting for until the end of the year.

Another interesting area to watch will be the screenings in the Senate? Will the Bukola Saraki-led Senate insist on carrying out a thorough public screening of the nominees? How much bow-and-go are we going to have to endure? Will the inevitable flood of anti-nominee petitions throw up anything interesting? What will happen if Senator Saraki has to preside over the screening of a Kwara State candidate whose nomination he doesn’t support? Will the Senate refuse to confirm any of the candidates? (While not common, it’s certainly happened before).

When the ministers are finally sworn in, they will be people under pressure. Not only because it is unlikely the President will tolerate the kinds of failings that his predecessor failed to give a damn about, but also because they will come face to face with the weights of citizens’ expectations, against the backdrop of a distressed economy. When Jonathan’s cabinet took office four years ago, oil was around $100 per barrel. Buhari’s will be a $50-oil cabinet.

From all indications none of the new ministers will find it easy. But they will also be coming into office on what is possibly the strongest policy footing in recent history. The 800-page Buhari Transition Committee report, as well as the final report of the APC Policy Summit in May, are robust documents; any incoming minister, who disregards them, will be doing so at her own peril. They not only eloquently set out the problems, they also shine a light on the solutions. The new ministers shouldn’t even need a presidential directive to elevate those reports to Magna Carta status.

One final piece of advice for those incoming ministers who want to shine: Pay some attention to the Akin Adesina Ministerial Effectiveness Handbook. The immediate past Agriculture Minister’s adoption of ambitious goals, mastery of communications (focusing on numbers and metrics, and setting out his goals and vision in impressive presentations and documents that he always found an opportunity to enthusiastically share), enlistment of presidential attention, and masterful use of international connections to procure goodwill and development financing – all of these combined to produce for him a fairly remarkable tenure.

Adesina was by no means perfect – every now and then the sanguinity that accompanied his trumpeting of his successes strayed into hype territory – but his standing-out amidst the Jonathan cabinet was no fluke. He worked to make it happen, and in approaching his ministerial work the way he did, leaves behind a worthy model for the incoming set of ministers.

PUNCH