By Dan Agbese
Sometime in March, the President-elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, dropped what I regard as an important hint about the nature and the composition of his cabinet. He said the qualification for entry into the sanctum of his administration would not be ethnicity and religion. Since he has not denied the statement credited to him, I take it as authentic. The only qualification, he said, would be proven competence. The ethnic and religious jingoists would do well to take due note of it. Tinubu will not follow in the footsteps of President Buhari to whom ethnicity and religion mattered more than proven competence.
Leadership recruitment at national and sub-national levels is a serious national problem and, by my estimation, is responsible for our spectacular rise and our disastrous fall. You could say that competence is a subjective judgment. But we should have no problems with knowing who can and who cannot – and we should therefore welcome Tinubu’s commitment to competent men and women who will help him pull the country up from the murk of incompetence, nepotism, and indifference into which it is rapidly sinking.
But he will face an obstacle that I would imagine has hobbled everyone or almost everyone who has sat on the chair to which he aspires. That obstacle to the right of a president to form a lean, competent cabinet of his choice is found in section 14 (3) of our constitution. It provides that “The composition of the government of the Federation or any of its agencies and the conduct of its affairs shall be carried out in such a manner as to reflect the federal character of Nigeria and the need to promote national unity…”
The generals who gave us the 1979 Constitution from which much of the current constitution was derived, saw the provision as a legal instrument necessary to build and cement our national unity. Their reasoning was a mark of simplicity in its approach to a weighty national problem, to wit, if every state is represented in the executive council of the federation, then two things would not happen. One, no state would be marginalized. Two, all the states would exercise equal rights to the nation’s feeding trough. You-chop-I-chop and none go vex.
What then is the problem when the recruitment process appears to have been mapped out for the president? The problem is that the recruitment of cabinet members is vested in the state governors. Perhaps, what began as mere convenience has today solidified into a political tradition that, in my view, has done more harm than good.
Under this political tradition, state governors nominate ministers. Each state government nominates three persons. His choice is, of course, number one. The president accepts the judgment of the state governor as to the character and competence of his number one nominee. The president has no way of knowing the nominee and cannot in truth vouch for his antecedents or guess what value he would bring into his cabinet. To make the governor’s team, you must be the governor’s man or woman. This method of recruitment into the federal cabinet promotes ethnicity, religion, and nepotism at the expense of our national aspirations and our dreams as citizens.
Let us not mince words about this. It is wrong for state governors to pack the executive council of the federation with their nominees. At least, not all the state governors over the years could lay claims to being poster children for competence. Should Jagaban allow this tradition to continue? I do not think so. The constitution does not empower the state governors to pack the federal cabinet with their nominees. The governors are not recruitment agents for the president.
We have abused this constitutional provision through the law of unintended consequences that have made it an obstacle to the emergence of competent men and women who can add value, true value, to the character of an administration and help to move the nation forward, not towards the precipice but away from it. It is not a constitutional matter; it is a conventional matter and does not require a constitutional amendment to make it head down into the wastepaper basket.
If the president-elect is reading this, this is my advice offered gratis. For him to make a difference in the composition of his cabinet and in the process, effect an important paradigm shift in our leadership recruitment process, he should, if he has not already done so, set up an informed team of head hunters who can identify competent men and women from every state of the federation, vigorously interview them and make appropriate recommendations to the president-elect.
He, in turn, needs to interview those so recommended to appreciate their antecedents and their thoughts on national issues and problems, especially, his own plans for the country. Some of the most brilliant men and women in Obasanjo’s second term in office such as Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Professor Charles Soludo, and Ahmad El-Rufai, did not come through that conventional process. Some food for thought?
The constitution requires the Senate to approve the ministerial nominees sent to it by the president. This again has been so thoroughly abused that it makes little sense in terms of the senate’s ability to know a suitable man or woman for the high political office. What the framers of the Constitution had in mind is that the Senate should have the basis for judging the competence of the nominee for the ministry to which he is posted. It is not the case.
What happens is that the president sends a list of individuals as ministerial nominees to the Senate for confirmation. The Senate invites the nominees for a routine appearance on its floor. Some take a bow, but the Senate really has no basis for questioning the nominees and ascertaining that they are able and competent men and women who can hold their offices. After thus confirming the list, the Senate sends it to the president who proceeds to assign ministries to them. The result, despite the caution exercised by baba-go-slow, was that he put some square pegs in round holes and some round pegs in square holes. We should do better than this. We should appreciate more than we do now the intendment of the constitution makers in terms of providing the framework for good and effective governance.
Tinubu can make a dramatic shift here by acting differently. The list of his ministerial nominees should indicate the ministries to which each of them will be posted. This is the proper thing to do. It gives the Senate the basis on which to judge each person’s assumed competence for the job he is about to be given.
One other thing. An unwieldy crowd of ministers is not indicative of national unity and progress. Crowds are good as support elements and for protests but not for good governance. The point here is that every president had felt handicapped by Section 14 (3) of the constitution and had simply packed their cabinet with crowds said to represent the federal character.
Let us try for once, a lean and competent cabinet that is mindful of the structure of our federation. The right to federal goodies must be protected even when a state has no face in the executive council of the federation.
This piece was first published in my column on March 26, 2023. This is an edited version of that column.