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Ministerial Screening: Meaning and Purpose

By Tonnie Iredia

Politics in Nigeria is understood to represent irrational occurrences. That is probably why certain inexplicable things which occur in the country are simply attributed to politics and conveniently ignored. Only last week, our senate used politics to screen 43 nominees as ministers of the federal government of Nigeria. We all overlooked it, but the true meaning of ministerial screening cannot be understood without reference to the purpose for which the nation requires ministers. Is it just for every state to have a member of the federal executive council? Can it also be that it is to enable the political party which wins a presidential election to reward its members? If so, why can’t the president just appoint some people as ministers as is done with other positions without involving the senate? If these questions are properly interrogated, it would become clear that the senate screening of nominees as ministers is a serious business which is intended to assist the president to constitute a team of visionary actors who are capable of formulating and implementing government policies and programmes.

Ministerial Screening
Former Hon. Minister of Power, Works & Housing, Mr Babatunde Fashola, SAN exchanges greetings at the Senate Chamber, National Assembly on Monday 29th July 2019. Photo by Gbemiga Olamikan

Unfortunately, both the Senate and the ruling party, as well as many Nigerians, always trivialize the subject. Can anyone imagine Niger state politicians opposing the nomination of charismatic ambassador Zubair Dada as not belonging to their party? On the side of the senate, of what use is the concept of the ‘bow and go’ approach to the determination of persons with the capacity to function as ministers? The original explanation was that past and present federal legislators needn’t be screened because they belong to those empowered to screen. How does that give capacity to a person to serve as minister? What do legislators do which enables them to have executive competence? What this suggests is that there is an erroneous mix up of the functions of law-making with those of executing public policies. There is nothing to suggest that to be able to be a good minister, a person must first be a legislator. To exacerbate the perversity of the bow and go concept, our current senate extended it to persons who have never been in the National Assembly thereby trivializing the subject

Irrespective of the nature of previous assignments carried out by a ministerial nominee, the Senate has an obligation to satisfy itself that the nominee can also dutifully serve as a minister bearing in mind the constitutional expectations of an occupant of the office. Not many know or remember for instance, that it is ministers who are empowered to resolve that a president or his vice “is no longer capable of discharging the functions of his office.” Those are the express words of section 144 (1) of our constitution.  Although Senator Rochas Okorocha said Rauf Aregbesola can do that, we all know that our new ministers are individually and collectively incapable of even thinking of such an act. How will any recalcitrant minister explain such rascality to his godfather? When the late President Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua was transparently sick, his ministers were only terrified. We saw the same situation in Taraba state when the late Governor Suntai was no longer able to function due to his plane crash. All that his followers led by the state House of Assembly did was to sheepishly pass a vote of confidence in him.

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On the basis of history, therefore, it is patently unpatriotic to clear a nominee without finding out his capacity and degree of self-confidence thereby unleashing on the nation some timid characters as drivers of national development. It is indeed against the spirit of our constitution to ask anyone to take a bow and go. If as we hear, more than half of the nominees enjoyed the bogus privilege, the present senate has merely joined its predecessors to circumvent the constitutional mandate. The power given to the senate is to examine a nominee of the president for the post of minister so as to determine the suitability of such a nominee. It cannot extend to the power NOT to examine nominees. In other words, to confirm a nominee without screening is wrong because to screen one nominee and exempt another are not the same thing; the one that was exempted is yet to be screened. Besides, the copious screening that Babatunde Fashola, Festus Keyamo, Sunday Dare etc. got, shows that there was an attempt to hide from the nation, certain frailties of those exempted. If so, why were we deceived with a televised screening if there was much that needed to be hidden?  Since the few that were screened did well, it is not irrational to say that the bow and go approach is not only incompetent and inequitable but also showed that the senate acted in excess of its mandate

This trend of acting in excess of its powers is an issue that the current senate needs to watch. The other day, when the house of representatives ordered the Edo state governor, Godwin Obaseki to issue a new proclamation for a ‘proper’ inauguration of the state house of assembly, we discountenanced it as political rascality. Now that the senate has arrived at the same conclusion, we are disturbed. First, none of the investigative panels found that Obaseki did not issue a letter of proclamation; what appears to be in contention is the inauguration. If so, why not restrict the issue to that instead of extending it to a proclamation that had been done.  Even then, assuming Obaseki’s proclamation had any defect whatsoever, from where did our federal legislature acquire the power to redress the act. Considering that our senate can rightly be described as the retirement home of former governors, are such people now in support of the federal legislature ordering a governor? It is again an act in excess of powers.

If our senators are in search of what to do, they can relate more with the federal executive to move the nation forward. They can draw attention for example to certain gaps which the screening of ministers has put forward. First, there are not enough young people in the coming cabinet. Our senate should work with the executive to give meaning to the inclusion of the youth in governance which the not-too-young to run law connotes. Second, our constitution says Abuja shall be treated as a state, yet no one was nominated as a representative of the federal capital territory. Third, in this age of affirmative action, the number of women among the nominees is rather scanty. Fourth, the list of ministers without their proposed ministries does not help the task of determining suitability. All these can be revised to get a balanced and virile team. Whenever the opportunity arises again, our hope is that the senate would clear new nominees against the background of not just the letter but also the spirit of the constitution. We also hope that such clearance will dwell on the substance and not the frivolity of ministerial screening

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