By Pini Jason
TWICE in recent times, the media have speculated that President Goodluck Jonathan was poised to reshuffle his cabinet. As usual, the reported consequence of such speculation was that ministers were feverish with anxiety. On the one hand, during such intervals of uncertainty, public officers lose the confidence to step out and do their work.

A minister may receive the shocking news of his or her removal from office in the middle of a meeting, a negotiation or while on one of the frequent overseas trips. On the other hand, those who want to do business with the government may hold back until the cabinet change is over so as to know who really they are negotiating with. In all these, programme implementation suffers.

Speculation about cabinet reshuffle elicits yet another reaction among the ministers and the public. Ministers who regard their portfolios as grade “B”, do everything, including intense lobbying, hiring of prayer warriors and marabouts to get grade “A” ministries during the reshuffle, while those with “juicy” ministries take similar steps to retain them.

Those who have concluded that they would be dropped decide to make hay while the sun still shines and the nation is the loser.

This is also a time when godfathers swing into action to either secure the retention of their obedient surrogates or seek the sacking of a recalcitrant “godson” who no longer dances to the tune of the puppeteer! Friends, relations, contractors and hangers-on keep vigils to see if their own man or woman lands a “juicy” ministry.

They also consult prophets and diviners to “cancel” the dropping of their favourite man or woman from the cabinet.
Abrupt and frequent cabinet change is one of the hangovers of the military era. The military logic is to shock and overawe as well as spread the base of support by assimilating new people. We all recall how some ministers or military Governors/administrators sat in Council meetings where their replacements were announced without a word about the incumbent’s fate.

There is a story of a man whose family visited in a state where he headed a Federal agency in the state. He dropped by the military Governor’s office to inform him that he was seeing off his family to the airport to catch a flight back to Lagos. The military Governor, a personal friend of the man, even came out of his office to wish the family a safe flight.

The poor chap was on his way back from the airport when he heard on the car radio the appointment of a replacement without a word about his fate. Such brusque culture habitually exhibited by President Olusegun Obasanjo during his reign is still with us!

New ministers -new policies

It is unfortunate that we are speculating about the reshuffling of a cabinet that is barely a year old. If this speculation turns out to be true, it translates to an indictment on the performance of the cabinet. Some of the Ministers are still trying to get a grip on their assignment.

This is manifesting in the slow action that Nigerians are complaining about now. A few round pegs in round holes have initiated programmes they need to see through. New ministers finding their way into such ministries may start all over with new “policies” or “blueprints”.

They may reduce the programme to their standard or understanding, install new contractors and cronies of their own, mess up the programme or worse still, abandon it completely! Again, this speculated change comes at a time the President is yet to sign the 2012 Budget, almost half way into the year! A minister may be saddled with implementing a budget he does not know the philosophy behind its proposal and he did not defend.

Make no mistake about it; cabinet reshuffle is normal practice all over the world. A President or Prime Minister has a duty to reinforce the area of his or her government that is performing below expectation. But in our case, frequent change of cabinet is often rooted in the flaw in the manner of selecting and screening of ministers. In a Parliamentary system, ministers are first and foremost members of parliament, MPs.

They emerged candidates from their parties and constituencies based on known track records and ideologies. They would have been shadow ministers while in opposition, interrogating the policies and performance of the party in government, while presenting their party’s alternative views on policies.

In the United States, secretaries, as they are called, are selected based on what they have done in the particular callings and their ideological orientation and may come from the opposition party. They are essentially disciples of the president’s vision and may have worked on his campaign.

But in our own case, ministers are selected purely on ethnic basis. Our constitution has unabashedly prescribed that a minister must be selected from each of the 36 state of the Federation and Abuja. First, that saddles a president with an unwieldy cabinet.

In some ministries where you have three ministers who, on the basis of state representation, are equal, the president may spend more time settling petty quarrels and defining areas jurisdiction for them. And then down in the states, there is a senatorial zonal battle about where the minister should come from. In the senatorial zone, there is another war about which local government’s turn it is to “produce” a minister. At the local government level, the communities fight over which of them should produce a minister. All these are resolved in favour of a candidate with the strongest political ties.

In maneuvering through this labyrinth, it becomes very difficult to designate ministers for specific ministries before their screening. In order words, it is near impossible in Nigeria to screen ministers for specific portfolios to assess their competence for the post.

Unknown to many Nigerians who demand that ministers be screened for specific portfolios, such an attempt will not fly in the Senate. Legislators are also looking out for their states and constituencies. They are likely to wage wars if they see that their man or woman is not getting a grade “A” or “juicy” ministry. So, as desirable as it is, it is not as easy as we propose, for a president to pick his ministers based purely on competence. That is why the clamour for so-called technocrats does not impress the political class.

A few technocrats may be grafted into some ministries either because we are in dire need of salvation, as in the ministry of Finance or the professionals have fought for one of theirs to be the minister, as in health. But you would have noticed that the so-called technocrats do not remain technocrats in government once they get in. They are pressured into becoming card-carrying members of the ruling party.

The reason is that at the end of the day, the minister fills a political slot and becomes the political “leader” in his community or simply uses the opportunity given him or her to serve Nigeria as a springboard for a latent political ambition.

Political culture and card shuffling

The point is that the political culture we have established and operate can only leave us with constant shuffling of the cards. While we do this, we lose the benefit of the trillions budgeted in our name annually.

I keep using Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s tenure as Minister of Finance as an example. She came during President Obasanjo’s administration and did a marvelous job in returning Nigeria’s credibility in the international community. But just as the nation’s economy and fiscal behaviour were turning round, she was frustrated out.

I keep imagining the milestone we would have covered in our economic recovery were she to be on the job throughout Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan’s administration. That is how other countries get the best out of their citizens with requisite experience and passion to serve their nation.

But I also imagine that some Nigerians would have cried out against that, asking if she was the only qualified Nigerian for the position. Some people would have protested that since independence their community has not produced a finance minister!

Now President Jonathan has, in his wisdom, recalled Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to lead his transformation effort. I have read some nihilists who can never hold a candle to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala run her down because she came to serve Nigeria. The problem is that she is not only going to begin all over again to sort out the mess created in her brief absence, she may not even stay long enough to make any meaningful impact, since she is seriously gunning for the World Bank presidency.

Those who benefit from the rot in our system may even regard her candidacy for the World Bank presidency as good riddance. Her case vividly illustrates the type of disruption frequent changes in ministries create for the country.

Prebendal politics and ministerial appointment

In an article titled: “How Bad Politics Killed Our Education” published on this page on 16 August 2011, I graphically illustrated how frequent changes in the education ministry since independence tallied with the progressive rot in the education sector.

It was revealed that with the exception of three, no minister had lasted two years in the ministry. Some lasted only three months! In concluding that article, I cautioned that: “For us to turn things  round, especially as we dream about 20: 2020, we should identify our national priorities in key ministries and allow ministers, who know what they are doing, to last long enough in such ministries to make impact”.

Prebendal politics has been the bane of this country. Today, there is hardly any group or even individuals who put national interest first and above their personal or group interests, except the  men and women of the Armed Forces.

For Nigeria to make progress and deliver all those good things we salivate about, our attitude towards those who can serve us creditably must change. We must strike a balance between our prebendal demands and the needs of the nation.

That way, it will then be possible for a president to present to the Senate, a list of ministers for screening and confirmation with their portfolios attached. Such screening will then be less a matter of “bow and go”. Ministers can even be reappointed by a succeeding president to enable them execute policies to their logical conclusion for the benefit of us all.

At the end we can all joyfully point to a remarkable achievement and say this is what Mr. or Mrs.  “X” did for our nation as minister.


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