By Josef Omorotionmwan
ONE theme that runs across the entire spectrum of public administration is that leaders should say less than necessary because power cannot accrue to those who squander their treasure of words.
Essentially, the more you speak, the more likely you are to make mistakes. And words are like the toothpaste – once you press it out of the tube, it cannot be put back. In the words of Cardinal de Retz (1613-1679), “It is even more damaging for a Minister to say foolish things than to do them”.
This is where we commend President Muhammadu Buhari – a man not given to grandiloquence; and a man who chooses his words very carefully.
There is, however, a second side to this coin. A serious commandment in public administration is that a leader should not, under any circumstance, answer questions that are not asked; or yield information that is not solicited. In most cases, people fall into problems when they attempt to answer questions that are not asked or when they volunteer information that are not solicited.
This is one area where our President has received more than enough baptism. In the short period of four months that he has been in office, this has been where critics have caught him, sometimes, almost napping. A few instances here will suffice:
Recently, Buhari almost consigned Ministers – even the ones he was yet to nominate – to the dustbin, when he quipped rather glibly, that the job of the Ministry is done by the Permanent Secretary while the Minister is merely a loafer. Even where nobody took him up on this, it still remains a classical case of a Captain attempting to pitch his lieutenants against himself.
From historical antecedent, we know that as soon as former President Olusegun Obasanjo pulled his “khaki” uniform and put on the “agbada” as a civilian president, he dropped the appellation of General and became Chief, without singing about it and nobody raised an eyebrow.
But here was Buhari, without any prompting, announcing to the world that as soon as he was sworn into office, he would drop the appellation of General. Then, that became an issue for public discourse. At a point, some citizens even threatened to drag him to court if he dared drop the appellation.
Buhari’s famous declaration at inauguration, “I am for everybody but I am for nobody” was perhaps an innocuous statement. But who asked him? He was stating the obvious. He was elected as President of Nigeria, not part thereof. As soon as he released the unsolicited information, people began to speak to it. Surely, he did not expect any ovation from his party-men who stood by him throughout the struggle and who expected him to be for everybody and be for them.
Admittedly, facing Christen Amanpour, one-on-one, is not a tea party. But there are certain questions one should envisage from such an interview. Before President Buhari left for the US where he encountered Amanpour, there was already anxiety at home over the delay in appointing his cabinet. He was already nick-named “Baba Go Slow”.
Our President had no reason to stampede himself into the unsolicited September date for the appointment of Ministers. The interviewer would have been more than satisfied to hear the type of vacillation we were getting at home: “The situation in Nigeria is peculiar. We met a messy situation on ground, to the extent that even the Senate that would clear the nominees is not properly in place yet… so, we are taking our time to ensure we don’t make more mistakes….”
See where answering an unsolicited question has led us? September has come and gone and the Ministers are not in place! In an attempt to fulfill all righteousness, only God knows how long it will take the Senate to confirm the patch-patch nominations now being rushed in.
Again, we cannot remember who asked President Buhari if he wanted to retain the Petroleum Ministry or any portfolio, for that matter. Former President Obasanjo occupied that Ministry for long without seeking an entry permit. President Buhari has attracted to himself the unnecessary opprobrium – all because he has been answering questions that were not asked. Each time you answer unasked questions, you deprive yourself of answers to the ones asked. He is now being asked to submit himself for Senate confirmation – the height of ridicule!
All that is required under Section 147 of the 1999 Constitution is that he nominates at least one Minister from each State. After the nominations have been confirmed, the unfettered right to assign portfolios to Ministers belongs to the President. At that point, he would be breaking no law even if he assigned five Ministries to himself.
Sometimes, the Constitution is at war with itself. Even where, in Section 147(1), it makes vague reference to the fact that “There shall be such offices of Ministers of the government of the Federation as may be established by the President”, it is also true that every existing Ministry is a creation of the Legislature and cannot be singlehandedly abolished by the President.
So much has been said about the Report of the Steve Oronsaye Committee, which we hear is aimed at rationalising some Ministries for optimum efficiency. Good! But that cannot be concluded without the appropriate input by the National Assembly.
Is it not on the basis of the Ministries that the Committees of the National Assembly are arranged? If the National Assembly is arranging its Committees based on say 52 Ministries, should the National Assembly not be involved in the process of pruning the Ministries to say 10?
Let nobody be deceived into thinking that there is absolute independence of any branch of government. The best anyone can ask for is a situation of healthy inter-dependence.
And what is true of the Miranda warning at investigation is also true in public life – the public official must constantly keep his tongue in-check because whatever he says can be used against him.