It’s the Same Old Song and Dance

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Ojo Maduekwe write that

The Federal Executive Council under President Muhammadu Buhari has assumed the same posture as the Senate, a retirement home for former governors and party members who fail to get elected

President Muhammadu Buhari had made so much fuss about the composition of his ministerial nomination list, to the point that Nigerians assumed that since this was his second and last tenure in office by law, and because he won’t be needing any more political favours, that he would handle the issue without fear.

After the uninspiring performance of majority of the ministers in his first tenure, and the promise in his June 12 Democracy Day speech to assemble a “strong team” of tested Nigerians whom he knew personally to implement his party’s plans, many were deceived into thinking he was going to appoint technocrats with proven track record to turn failed or failing organisations onto the path of growth.

However, when the list was sent to the Senate last week for screening and confirmation, Nigerians were shocked to see names of former governors, and members of the president’s party who failed to get elected during the 2019 general election. One other observation was that the list had people that make a liar of the president when he claims to know his new ministers personally.

Take, for instance, the case of the former Akwa Ibom State Governor, Senator Godswill Akpabio, who during the flag-off of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s election campaign in 2015, at the Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos, branded politicians belonging to the All Progressives Congress (APC), “a gathering of aggrieved politicians,” and the APC “Aggrieved Peoples Congress”. Akpabio was then a governor and chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Governors Forum.

In a veiled reference to then candidate of the APC (now president), Muhammadu Buhari, Akpabio said, “We cannot afford to hand over leadership to people who are bitter. We cannot afford to hand over this country to people who have disappointed in the past and are bitter against their brothers. Are you ready to go back to prison?

“Some of you, your fathers were sentenced to 310 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. I know someone like Jim Nwobodo, who was then the Governor of Anambra State was given 310 years in prison sentence. The same people who were terrorising democrats and locking them up are now presenting themselves as democrats. Can a leopard change its spots?” he asked the crowd.

For a president that parades integrity as an attribute, and for whom the fight against corruption is one of the touted achievements of his administration, Buhari has been accused of being a liar for claiming to know his ministers personally, and insincere in his corruption war, since some of his ministerial nominees have pending corruption cases with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

The chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Professor Itse Sagay, has raised objection to the nomination of Akpabio. “I don’t know how he (Akpabio) got into the list… When we have a programme in which anti-corruption is number one, if anybody is under investigation or not, I don’t think it is wise to include him in that list,” Sagay said in a chat with a national daily.

Firmly refuting the insinuation, Nkereuwem Enyongekere, Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Akwa Ibom State chapter, insisted that Akpabio has no case with the EFCC or any other anti-graft agency. While acknowledging that a petition was filed against Akpabio at the EFCC by an Abuja-based lawyer, after he left office as governor of Akwa Ibom State in 2015, he stated that the petitioner has withdrawn it since he could not prove the allegations and the EFCC could not establish its veracity.

But Sagay is not the only one with a strong personal opinion against the list. The Managing Director of the Asset Management Corporation (AMCON), Ahmed Kuru said his organisation plans to produce a television documentary on notorious debtors implicated in the N5 trillion debt burden that AMCON is battling to recover. Kuru fingered ministers and members of the National Assembly as the chronic debtors.

A former spokesperson of the APC, Timi Frank, said the ministerial list was further confirmation of Buhari’s insincerity and incompetence, and called on the Senate to reject 80 percent of them based on their past corruption records. “It is clear that some prominent names on the list have at one time or the other been guest of the EFCC to answer corruption charges while some still have pending corruption cases in court,” he said.

The likes of Frank, Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe and her colleague, Senator Stella Oduah who have been clamouring for another look at the ‘bow and go’ courtesy extended to former members of the National Assembly on the ministerial list are not likely to get anything other than a wry response from the leadership of the Senate, headed by its president, Senator Ahmad Lawan. Those who are bashing Lawan for allegedly acquiescing to the Presidency, particularly on the matter of the ministerial list, conveniently forget that he neither introduced the ‘bow and go’ tradition nor can he be said to have deployed it more than previous leadership of the senate. Though many faultfinders have pointed at this as an early sign of Lawan’s willingness to be used to give automatic approval to decisions of the Presidency without proper consideration, the argument falls in the face of precedence. What may be successfully argued is that this civility is being tacitly shown to former governors, as well.

Critics of the presidents’ list are agreed on several things: the nominees are recycled politicians and not professionals with proven track record; some were rewarded for simply being loyal party men after failing to win their elections; others have pending multi-billion corruption cases with the EFCC. Also, because none in the list is under 35 years old and only seven are women, critics argue that those in it lack the power to inject the kind of fresh blood that’s needed to move Nigeria forward.

The main opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), said the president was “recycling failed yesterday’s men for today’s assignment”, and the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), described the nominees not as technocrats, but as recycled politicians “picked based on political patronage and mostly for their roles as party men.”

The Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) described the list as a total disappointment, “full of former governors and mostly old people.” According to the chairperson of the TMG, “One would have expected that the President would shop for more people with more expertise that can assuage the fears of the people of a bleak future.”

Interestingly, there are even criticism from the president’s support base. Tanko Yakasai, a founding member of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), says the ministerial list submitted to the Senate is made up of some “fantastically corrupt” persons and “made a mockery of the president’s war against corruption.”

Like the Senate, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) is fast becoming a retirement institution to house former governors. Of the 43 ministers designate, nine are ex governors. That is more than 20 per cent of this exclusive group of Nigerians and since formers governors also have a convention similar to the senate, in showing a feeling of mutual loyalty shared by its members, there is an anxiety over the quality of policies that will be introduced and the debates that will accompany their presentation.

Given the track record of their dismal performance as governors, some of the ministerial nominees should never have surfaced again as pubic office holders. However, there are a few whose sterling work as chief executive of their states recommend them for service on a national level. Four out of the nine are returning ministers that served in the first tenure; the rest five are comprised of two (Godswill Akpabio and George Akume) who were senators but lost their reelection during the 2019 elections, another two (Adeniyi Adebayo and Timipre Sylva) considered loyal party men, and one (Rauf Aregbesola) was the immediate past governor of Osun State, who has been knocked by critics for owing pensions and failure to pay civil servants their salaries.

Akpabio and Akume’s appointment is seen largely as a reward for their unflinching support for the APC during the 2019 elections. According to observers, for going against their constituents to support Buhari’s reelection, the two former lawmakers paid the price and lost their return bids to the Senate. Akpabio was appointed while trying to upturn his election loss. There are insinuations that the APC and Buhari do not see that happening, which is the reason for his nomination. In the event of his triumph at the election petition tribunal, Akpabio would be faced with the predicament of deciding which way to go.

Having failed to return to the Senate immediately, the former Akwa Ibom, who has always wanted to play a prominent role at the centre cannot afford to await the uncertain fate that is tied to his petition at the tribunal. He is clearly applying the wisdom of a bird in hand being worth more than one thousand in the bush. This decision, however, has ignited the ire of many leaders of the APC in Akwa Ibom who perceive Akpabio as too selfish. They recall that similar display of greed by Obong Nsima Ekere robbed Akwa Ibom of its slot as Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), after he quit the position before the expiration of his tenure to enter the governorship race. His loss in the 2019 Akwa Ibom governorship contest escalated the aggression of the people against him.

For a party that prides itself as being progressive, it is surprising that while not one person among the nominees fall under the youth bracket, a meagre 16.3 percent of the people in the list are female, and the remaining 83.7 percent are male. Interestingly, this is a party that employs the services of young Nigerians to promote its propaganda messages and defend its unpopular policies on social media.

That the president was enthusiastic in signing into law the #NotTooYoungToRun bill but failed to open the doors of the FEC to accommodate the youths, has got people thinking that perhaps he did that as a form of political patronage and expediency – for the sole purpose of rallying young Nigerians to his side – and not because he was genuinely interested in seeing more youths assume the reins of power.

Also, Nigerians had hoped that following the delay it took Buhari to announce his ministers, this second time, that when he did, the selection would be based on merit, and that some technocrats would make it to the cabinet. However, with the names on the list, the FEC (known for awarding inflated contracts) is fast becoming like the Senate, a retirement home for former governors and failed politicians, and an opportunity for them to recoup expenses incurred during an election year.

The ministerial list has dashed many hopes. In states like Zamfara and Rivers where many had assumed that given their peculiar circumstance after the APC lost out in those states, they would, at least, have more than the statutory number of ministers to strengthen the arm of the party in those states. In these case, the prevailing supposition is that there could not be a second minister because the present minister does not want anyone to contest leadership of the party. In Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi is said not to want another strong personality to emerge in the state APC. The same can be said of Governor Inuwa Yahaya of Gombe State who is uncomfortable with the robust profile of Dr. Jamil Isyaku Gwamna, a strong financier of the party and current Managing Director of the Kano Electricity Distribution Company (KEDCO).

In Cross River State, the emergence of Jerry Agba is seen as a douser to calm the rising tension in the opposing camps of the former minister Usani Uguru Usani and Senator John Owan-Enoh.

Previously, it was almost certain that a failed governorship candidate of the party in power at the centre, would almost surely become a member of FEC, not anymore with characters like Senator George Akume and Akpabio becoming unyielding in their dominating attitudes.

Many instances of emotional utterances from supporters of persons who were hopeful of making the ministerial list have been widely circulated. Some of the big misses include Senator Julius Ucha who had been waging a media war to tar Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu with the clear intent of replacing him as the ministerial nominee from Ebonyi State. In Gombe State, Gwamna is taking his non-inclusion in the FEC calmly, just like loyalists of the immediate past governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode who are in shock. But a female advocate of Owan-Enoh has been shown weeping profusely for the setback suffered by his principal.