By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor, Charles Kumolu, Gbenga Oke & Levinus Nwabughiogu
ABUJA—Anxiety among the 36 ministers-designate heightened, yesterday, after President Muhammadu Buhari reiterated that the nation’s economy can not support 36 ministers with portfolios.
No date has been scheduled for the inauguration of the cabinet, and many of the ministers-designate, Vanguard gathered, are hanging around Abuja for the call from the Presidency to assume office.
High ranking presidency officials kept mum on when the new cabinet would be inaugurated.
President Buhari, who last week said that some ministers would not have portfolios, during his visit to India, reiterated that point, yesterday, as he affirmed that he would not shy away from saying that the economy cannot support 36 ministers with separate portfolios.
The President’s assertion, however, received mixed reactions from some former ministers and other political stakeholders, yesterday.
Among those who spoke on the issue were Senate President Bukola Saraki; the National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Olisa Metuh; former labour leader, Chief Frank Kokori and three former ministers, Chief Don Etiebet, Chief Segun Babatope and Chief Ken Gbagi.
Economy and 36 ministers with portfolios
Speaking when he received the list of confirmed ministerial nominees from Senator Saraki at a brief ceremony at the Presidential Villa yesterday, President Buhari said:
“If I can remember, there must be a member from each of the 36 states. That was why I limited the number of my nominees to that number, 36. The Senate worked extremely hard, and they have passed all the nominees. I think there was some enthusiasm in some parts of the Presidency today that portfolios were to be given to the 36.
“The constitution certainly said there must be one member of the cabinet from each of the states, but the constitution did not say I must have 36 ministries.”
Dismissing speculations in some media outlets on the portfolio to be assigned to the ministers-designate, the President said:
“I think that the economy as I have seen it now since my sitting here for the last four months, was so much battered. Although some people are saying I am giving bad publicity and scaring away investors. Any investor who is interested in investing in Nigeria will want to know more about the economy more than ourselves.
“But I am confirming to them that we are truthful, that we need them to come and help us help ourselves by getting in industries, manufacturing and services. They know our needs. The economy of human resources, I believe, will make them eventually come and help us. I assure you that we will follow the constitution and all the 36 will be sitting in the cabinet as the constitution stipulates.”
Ministers without portfolio not new — Saraki
Speaking to State House Correspondents after his meeting with the President, Saraki said the designation of ministers without portfolio was not something entirely new to the nation. His words:
“Well I think before you had ministers of state in the past, I don’t think there is anything new, there were ministers for special duties which really didn’t have portfolios. I think the key issue is being in cabinet, is being part of the government and those that would have the responsibilities of ministering are those that at the end of the day would do that.
“We have the challenges of revenue drop, challenges in trying to boost revenue and create jobs and you know we have some of these issues which we really need to address.
“I think that it is time for us to address them and these are some of the issues we looked at as a Senate, that it is time for us to give support to the executive to move the country forward.”
Asked why he had to deliver the names personally to the President, Saraki said he had other issues besides presenting the list of ministers to the President. He, however, robustly denied engaging the President on his on-going trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal.
Mixed reactions trail Buhari’s assertion
There was, however, mixed response from some former ministers and others on the President’s assertion that some ministers would not have portfolios.
While Etiebet, Metuh and Kokori accepted the President’s stance on not assigning portfolios to all ministers, describing it as his style, Babatope said it was not ideal while Gbagi said the measure would not save any money as envisaged by the President.
Metuh, who again questioned the rationale of the president’s motive in ascribing his action to a battered economy said:
“It is his style, and it is his prerogative. We are not struggling for space with him, and the constitution does not require him to assign portfolios to all 36 ministers.”
Chief Etiebet, who served as Minister of Petroleum in the Sani Abacha regime and until recently a member of the Board of Trustees of the PDP said:
“There is nothing wrong with Buhari running his government with a lean cabinet if he can achieve his aims. He is the President and has a herculean task of saving this country from collapse. I believe the buck stops on his table and not on any minister’s desk.”
He was supported by erstwhile Secretary-General of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, Chief Kokori who said:
“It was like that in the past. In the First Republic, we had ministers without portfolios. They were like ministers of special duties. There are so many jobs to be done, and they can be assigned to do any of them by the President without necessarily having portfolios.
“Buhari knows what he is doing because the rot in the system is not quantifiable. As it is, we should watch him and see what happens. It will not be fair to condemn the move without seeing if it will work or not.”
Former Minister of Transport in the Abacha regime and present member of the PDP BoT, Babatope, however, disagreed saying:
“I think we have much to quarrel with Buhari over what he said. If he decides to do that, we have to accept it as his style but it is not the ideal thing. This is not the first time such will happen in Nigeria. Let us watch and see how it works. It is from watching that we will know whether he is doing it in the interest of Nigeria or not. We saw this in the past. For us in the opposition, our duty is to watch so as to hold the government accountable and we have been doing that in the interest of Nigeria. If it succeeds, we will give him kudos.”
On his part, former Minister of State for Education, Olorogun Gbagi said: “I expect his advisers to guide him on this to avoid going contrary to the positions of the constitution. How will having ministers without portfolios make any difference on the cost of governance? Whatever the President decides to do, he should ensure that we have ministers as stipulated in the constitution because the absence of ministers is taking a toll on governance.”