Screening Ministerial Nominees within the Context of National Interest  

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By Mon-Charles Egbo

Democratic governance is akin to corporate governance where there are body of rules governing the overall activities of the enterprise. And in Nigeria’s presidential democracy, there are clear-cut roles for the three arms of government. Again, it is the ability of these branches to be guided by a common policy direction or shared vision in pursuing their different but complementary objectives that there could be guaranteed welfare and security of the citizens.

Hence, the need arises to ponder on the outcry that trailed the screening and confirmation of the ministerial nominees by the senate. The issues which revolve around the mode of screening include what some tagged “bow and go” syndrome, deliberate shielding of some nominees from scrutiny, absence of declaration of assets and liabilities proof by the nominees, moral eligibilities and technical competencies of some nominees., gender parity and non-involvement of the youth as well as lack of technocrats on list of the nominees.

And in doing this, we shall begin by interrogating the constitutional processes and requirements for ministerial appointments in other to locate the narratives within national interest.

By Section 147 of the 1999 Constitution on the appointment of ministers, it is the prerogative of the President to nominate while the senate confirms upon screening. It further says that primarily the nominee must be “qualified for election into the House of Representatives.”  And such qualification according to Section 65 sub-section 2 of the constitution; the nominee must be educated up to at least School Certificate level or its equivalent and, is a member of a political party and is sponsored by that party.

But because there is no specific rule, the senate can adopt any mode in performing this function provided that it borders on what the laws say about basic qualifications. For instance, they have the moral powers to determine whether the presented details match the personalities involved. It can as well screen and confirm based on antecedence and in some cases, self-recognition.

Frankly, a citizen has a right to full information and as the case may be, raise objection to nomination and subsequent appointment of public officials. But such right can be exercised civilly either through the legislature or the judiciary. Every Nigerian is represented at the senate and there are competent courts of law for one to explore. The nominees were publicized before appearances at the floor of the senate which was enough challenge for one to come up with credible bases for whatever positions and no one has come out to say that they submitted petitions against any of the nominees or prevented from challenging such nomination in the court.

On the “bow-and-go” procedure of asking some nominees to just take a bow and then step out without presentations, some lamented that the Nigerian public by this practice is denied the opportunity of seeing and knowing how capable the nominees are with respect to the prospective assignments. They further argued that whereas certain nominees have had an unimpressive outings in the past others bear moral burdens of corruption which cast eligibility questions on their nomination. Again, it was their worry that beyond reducing the screening to mere formalities devoid of technical questionings, the nominees were yet to declare their assets and liabilities as required by law relative to public service. And then to another segment, the ministerial list merely reflected partisan patronage for either future or past political deeds particularly with no provision for the youth and technocrats as well as minimal consideration for women.

As valid as those arguments might be they can still be reviewed objectively.

To begin with, there are parliamentary ethics and tradition that confer some kind of privileges to certain categories of persons. And if by the same token, the senate in its wisdom elected to extend same special recognition to some others, it should not be misconstrued and blown out of proportion. Besides, the pre-submitted curriculum vitae of the nominees should have answered all the questions about qualifications and to a reasonable extent, the capabilities.

And because the buck stops on the desk of the president, he is ultimately empowered to decide on those to help him actualize his dreams, hopes and vision for the nation. He takes all the glory and blames. Besides, there are statutory mechanisms to address incompetence and ineligibilities in governance. As an instance, key performance indices, KPI, and public opinion are pivotal in regulating productivity in a participatory democracy. This position has since been demonstrated given that while some former ministers were dropped others were represented. And again, history is replete with public functionaries that either resigned or were sacked when found wanting variously. Also it will be recalled that prior to nomination, Mr. President had declared that “this time around, I am going to be quite me, in the sense that I will pick people I personally know” apparently in a veiled reference to the experiences of the last dispensation. Meanwhile, by popular votes, the country has renewed his mandate based on what he did in the last four years and ones he promised to do again which logically validates his sense of judgement is choosing the nominees.

Then on the issue of code of conduct, section 149 of the constitution says, that declaration of assets and liabilities is note done prior to appointment but after the nominee has been confirmed and has “subscribed the Oath of Allegiance and the Oath of Office as minister.” As such, anything to the contrary is unconstitutional and diversionary.

Concerning the complained lack of technocracy on the list, it is expected that technocrats who wish to serve or contribute to national development should identify with the processes of accessing governance. Festus Keyamo, SAN, in his appearance at the senate screening as a nominee hinted that despite his famous attainments and global recognition he realized that the only way to influence governance was to get involved for-which he joined partisan politics. According to him, “I discovered that there is only so much you can do as a private individual. It was then I took a conscious decision some years ago to be part of a political process that could get us into power. I took a conscious decision because I discovered that what you can scream, what you can be screaming on the outside for 10 years to achieve, because you’re brimming with ideas, you’re brimming with all kinds of solutions to our problems, on the outside, and you can scream for 10 years, you can only achieve that thing in 10 minutes when you’ are a part of government and a part of a political process.”

Furthermore, and given that governance is a process,  the lamentable youth non-involvement and gender parity can still be addressed with time as there are many more opportunities which are very critical and strategic to national development that are yet to be filled.

On the claims of nonperformance and criminality which are logically subjective, we cannot conclude that someone is questionable without opportunity for defence. Certainly, whoever is convicted is made to face the law. That is the rule of engagement. Just in the last dispensation when at various moments it became necessary, a serving law maker was committed to jail, a leading federal cabinet member was relieved of his position, judicial officers were removed and yet another critical minister was made to quit principally by public opinion.  So it is uncharitable and immoral to just condemn an individual merely on primordial sentiments.

And instructively, it will be extremely difficult to establish the ingenuity or expertise of a prospective minister in the obvious absence of intended portfolios? The laws should address this in due course.

Therefore, in the interest of national interest, we should rather interrogate the list with sufficient introspection. Critical questions should be asked: Do they individually have the will, courage, capacity to provide solutions? Are they Nigerians and passionate about our national development? Do they have the sense of patriotism, requisite qualities and experiences to complementarily drive the vision of the administration? Are the states of the federation represented as provided for in the constitution? Does the senate have the constitutional powers to stop the president from appointing anyone a minister or head of MDA? Do the nominees have the right skills and integrity to occupy the offices?

We should be concerned about having ministers with competencies and abilities to coordinate the affairs of government towards good governance and national development for the overall benefits of the populace. We should be guided by national interest above other considerations. Mr. President has confessed that he needed people he knew could deliver.

And above all, the Senate President, Senator Ahmad Lawan, no doubt is a consummate legislator with proven high level of foresight and proactivity needed to guide the federal government to the path of good governance and national development. In this regard, he came with a template and has activated all the needed momentum to kick start a new parliamentary excellence.

Hence, every stakeholder including the media and civil societies should pay sufficient attention to what the senate is doing  in order to understand that the law makers are carefully avoiding unnecessary face-off with the executive for the over benefits of the Nigerian populace. Senate understandably, cannot just for political expediency abandon the constitution to engage in mere questioning the sense of judgement of the president in assembling those he believes catalyze his obligations.

Past experiences have shown that whether or not the senate withholds confirmation, the president who is the appointing authority must work with whoever he chooses as long there are no significant breaches. The case of the EFCC and Customs leaderships is a pointer. So in order not to slow down governance or pick an avoidable fight with attendant distractions, the senate has chosen to walk on the side of the people.

Senate confirmation does not in any way mean the end of the processes. We should recognize that upon assignment of portfolios, the ministers are still open to yet another round of ‘screening’. Pursuant to the president’s fire-and-hire powers, constitutional provisions and potency of public opinion those who fall short of the right trait would certainly be found wanting in the long run. And quite interestingly, none of them was screened in absentia or by proxy which places everything about them in the public domain.