By Rotimi Fasan
This week, perhaps on this very Wednesday that you are reading this, President Muhammadu Buhari would assign portfolios to the ones that must be considered lucky of the 36 ministers-designate. There have been media reports of anxiety among the ministers-to-be as to which of them would be lucky to be assigned portfolios.
This followed the President’s remark that not all of the 36 would be assigned offices. While the Constitution recommends that the presidential cabinet must have at least one minister from each of the 36 states of the warped federation that is Nigerian, the president argues the Constitution does not compel him to assign portfolios to all of them. This is Buhari’s not-too-ingenious way of keeping to his promise to run a lean administration while respecting the constitutional stipulation of one minister per state.
That this constitutional provisional is a ‘federal character’ requirement to give all Nigerians from different parts of the country a sense of belonging is not in doubt. What has never been tested, until now perhaps, is the continued relevance of this provision in the face of gross abuse by Nigerians. Of course Nigerians deserve to be given a sense that they are all part of any government of the day.
This is especially important now that people from different sections of the country display a heightened sense of dissatisfaction with the present structure of the Nigerian state. This sense of neglect that finds expression in cries of marginalisation swings from one part of the country to another.
Following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, it was the Yoruba that spearheaded the marginalisation movement. After Obasanjo emerged president, the Hausa-Fulani took over with their call for the implementation of sharia while militants of the Niger-Delta fought their own battles on the side. After Umaru Yar’Adua took over as president the militants of the Niger-Delta moved into the vanguard of the marginalisation clamour.
But they would soon be supplanted by a reinvigorated movement of misguided fundamentalists that would in due course scale up its activities into the murderous Boko Haram insurgency that our military is now doing its best to send into oblivion. But since Buhari emerged president six months ago, it’s the Igbo of the South East that are now belting the marginalisation song with a rather extremist wing within the region taking up the separatist call of a return to a hitherto comatose Biafra nation.
These therefore are desperate times requiring that all be given a sense of belonging. It would seem therefore that Buhari’s move to cut down on the number of persons in his administration was not well thought through.
But the step the president has taken to appoint ministers without portfolios may not be as foolish as it may appear placed side by side of the kind of questions it would raise; namely, the wisdom of running a large cabinet at any time at all, to say nothing of a time of austerity. Yes, to name ministers without portfolios may seem a blind adherence to the letter of the law (in this case the Constitution) that the Bible in a related context tells us ‘killet, rather than the spirit of it’.
But Buhari has taken this apparently ridiculous option in a bid to drown out the more damning accusations of unjustifiable violation of a constitutional provision that the opposition would be too pleased to trumpet. We may also need to ask ourselves the significance of appointing people into office simply on account of their ethnicity irrespective of whether they are true representatives of their ‘people’.
Perhaps, this latest state of affairs may force us to reconsider the idea of a large administration of public servants that end up serving their personal interests while increasing our national overheads. When we have ministers without portfolios who function as leeches on the national treasury, we may need to question their continued stay in government.
Buhari is on the right path provided he ensures that those of his ministers assigned portfolios work for Nigeria and not their little enclaves. His determination to cut down the cost of governance is one that should earn national support. For many years now the very cost of governance, of maintaining the jet set lifestyles of public officers, has been identified as one of the main sources of wastage of public funds.
While countries far richer than us put strict limits on the amount to be spent for the upkeep of public officers, we adopt the irresponsible position of squandering our limited resources on government officials. People now go into government simply to partake of the loot that is guaranteed in public office.
Our presidents envy and ape the extravagance of the American presidential system, and the apparent comfort that an American president enjoys in total ignorance of the disparity that exists between the American economy and the Nigerian state whose national budget for a year is probably less than what an Ivy League University appropriates for a year.
Things were taken to the worst possible extent under the PDP government that was sacked by Nigerians last March. Under that administration, we had a president that had what must rank as perhaps the largest fleet of presidential aircraft in the world. Aside billions of Naira spent to maintain the presidency- on food, fuelling vehicles, buying newspapers and maintaining the fleet of presidential limousines, ministers had their own sets of hangers-on, advisers, personal assistants and others without definite designation beyond their association to the ‘Oga patapata’.
And these surely had their own sets of advisers and personal assistants too. You can imagine a personal assistant to a minister with his own personal assistant and advisers, all directly or indirectly paid from public funds. That was what governance and public office, corrupted beyond words, was reduced to- personal service.
But now we hear ministers will have to make do with far less. Gone, hopefully, would be the long list of security guards, convoy of vehicles and the general atmosphere of ‘bigmanism’ that is built around public officers. We need to return to our modest past when public officers rode Peugeot cars to office.
There is no reason why a public officer who lives in a house provided by the state, uses guest houses reserved for both legal and illicit purposes; rides fleet of vehicles provided and fuelled by the state, is fed by the state and enjoys many benefits on the bill of the state- there is no reason why such an individual should earn a salary more than an average senior civil servant.
This belt tightening measures should be extended to our idle National Assembly that spends more time on recess than on making laws. Public office should be for service, not a means for wealth acquisition.