By Femi Akintunde-Johnson
Few things are as underwhelming as a leader seemingly unsure of what next steps to take in the process of dispensing leadership. Be it in fighting banditry, insurgency, economic saboteurs, insider corruption, or finding the right set of people with the necessary tools and knowledge to give 21st century service to a nation so blessed yet so blighted.
When the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari told the visiting leadership of the ninth National Assembly on July 11, 2019 that majority of the federal cabinet members in his first coming were total strangers to him, foisted on him by scheming local political lords and contending power blocs; and that he was no longer accepting that – the initial reaction was stunned bemusement. Henceforth, he assured his guests, he was going to pick only those men and women that were “personally” known to him. Apparently, most applauded him, as anyone would do to a man of power who has vowed to use his power for the good of others.
However, any right-thinking person would, after the chuckling camaraderie of the Aso Rock visit, spend the rest of the night, wide awake on his bed, in solemn review of the president’s words…and quiver at the dire ramifications of the president’s mindset. This is assuming the legislators sleep on their own beds, give room for reflective thinking, and explore the discomforting possibilities of dispassionate independent meditation.
Well, if they do behave as we expect of senior members of the second arm of government, several weeks after the inauguration of the Executive arm, the legislators should prepare for a rigorous evaluation of the president’s picks for ministerial and advisory positions; and anyone remotely undeserving or inadequate in requisite cognate competencies and qualifications should be weeded out.
Why are we not applauding a president’s resolve to be his own man, and pick people he can vouch for? You see, embedded in those ostensibly valiant words are potholes that can negatively derail governance, national stability and cohesion. As it is, the country is reeling under pervasive and frightening insecurity all over the place; and the economy seems to be in stagnation as investors have stood aloof, awaiting the president’s major appointment moves (forget the body language) which have dragged familiarly.
Over four months after his re-election was confirmed, and almost two months after his re-inauguration, the president eventually sent a 43-man list to the Senate President during the week (July 23). A glance at the “well-travelled” list will make you wonder why it took so long to make – several names therein have been mentioned in public discussions, a chunk are returnees, almost a fifth are ex-governors, just a mere seven were women (contrary to the vaunted 35%), and new, exciting faces are scarce, if not non-existent. Nothing to reflate sagging expectations. But, I digress – let’s get back to what I consider a presidential gaffe, packaged as bravura.
First, it is worrying and ominous when you admit, and subtly re-echo your wife’s 2016 confession that her husband’s flailing administration was hamstrung by the fact that only five of about 50 ministers were really familiar to him before they were chosen; and that a cabal, buried deep in the presidency, was the one running Buhari’s government aground.
The sore point then is this: after two years of sharing a bed with blundering strangers, why did you not summon your famous courage to chase out incompetent and purposeless ministers whose preoccupation with local politicking was more pronounced than policy-driven administrative supervision? After all, the impression is they all served at your pleasure… of course, with the consent of the National Assembly.
Second, the other meaning for “appointing familiar people” – based on your actions and appointments outside the cabinet, in the past four years – lead us to expect a systemic institutionalisation of cronyism, clannishness, nepotism and deodorised prebendalism. All that big-big words is to say, the president, being human, can only pick from a familiar circle of less than 10,000 pals, supporters, political associates, classmates, military colleagues, etc…in a country of at least 100 million adults. Were there no constitutional provision for statal representation, I suspect, we might have had a cabinet that looked more like an Emirate council melting pot, rather than a national consensus.
The third leg of the argument streams from the second, naturally. Since, we do not expect one man to know all men, and thus be sure of his selections, we will advise the president to not fret about “familiarity” being the panacea for effective and result-oriented governance, or appointments – just cast your net wide with specific proficiency keywords to head-hunters as guiding principle in nominating names. Then get “familiar” with these “strange” people shortlisted, after security and other clearances. Part of the familiarity process is soaking yourself in the received intelligence reports and resumes of the nominees…seeking input from professional and occupational leaders and trojans of each nominee’s field, both old and young. You can also have face-to-face interlocution with selected nominees who strike you as having the sort of pedigrees, world-views and temperaments you prefer (or not averse to).
This rigorous exercise makes you become familiar or “known” to these nominees, and this can be done in a matter of weeks while awaiting your inauguration (between March 6 and May 28) such that you could have announced your cabinet (and appropriate portfolios) a week after your inauguration, and therefore expose them to further scrutiny amongst the progress-starved citizens who crave for you to hit the ground… who believed your promise to “surprise” all with the speed and quality of your performance in this second coming. Then, you dropped the familiarity puff… some days ago. Yet, the familiar is obviously just as tasking and troublesome to assemble as the “strangers”. Now that we have seen the “familiar” names – and in anticipation of other appointments – we can safely say this government is in business-as-usual mode, contrary to earlier rhetoric.
As it is, the fear is that this sort of presidential mindset is more corrosive and devastating than the so-called “Fulanization Agenda” usually tied on the apron strings of the presidency, in the past one year. This Buhari era may produce a “family-circle” reconstruction of a new type of democracy (or kingdom, more fittingly): the government of filial personage for familiar people by familiarity.
God help us all.