By Owei Lakemfa
FELLOW countrymen and women, people of my country, I have not come to criticize the wise decision of President Muhammadu Buhari, to appoint only those he personally knows, as ministers.
Tears trickled down my face, and I am sure from the faces of all patriots when at his maiden 2019 meeting with the leadership of the National Assembly, President Buhari lamented: “(In) the last cabinet which I headed, most of them, majority of them, I didn’t know them.
I had to accept the names and recommendations from the party and other individuals. I worked with them for three and half years at least – meeting twice or two weeks in a month. So I didn’t know them.” No wonder the government largely failed to meet the expectations of Nigerians.
I personally propose that the National Assembly should move a joint motion on behalf of the Nigerian people praising Buhari for enduring such a nightmare and being unable to change even ministers whose integrity were called to question. He deserves medals for his stoic resignation to work with strangers whom he was unable to reshuffle even when it became clear that some were non-performers.
I think kudos should also go to the First Lady, Aisha Buhari, who first alerted Nigerians that her husband was working with total strangers. In October, 2016, she told the British Broadcasting Corporation that: “The President does not know 45 out of 50, for example, of the people he appointed and I don’t know them either, despite being his wife of 27 years. Some people were sitting down in their homes folding their arms only for them to be called to come and head an agency or a ministerial position.”
Her Excellency who also claimed that her husband’s administration had been hijacked by “a few men” threatened that: “if things continue like this up to 2019, I will not go out and campaign again and ask any woman to vote like I did before. I will never do it again.”
At that time, the President was on a visit to Germany, and was actually standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when the imprudent press asked him his response to his wife’s clearly embarrassing statement. As a macho African man ‘wey no dey carry last’ Buhari had given a memorable answer: “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” His guest, Merkel looked embarrassed; that in the 21st Century, women still belong to the kitchen and the bedroom. Also, his answer carried a riddle that remains unraveled: what is “the other room”?
But all that belong to the past as Her Excellency vigorously campaigned for the re-election of her husband. In his German response, Buhari had claimed that having run for president three times and succeeded at the fourth attempt, he could “claim superior knowledge over her.” But today, his thought concurs with hers. To correct the past, President Buhari told the legislators: “But this time around, I’m going to be quite meticulous in the sense that I will pick people I personally know.”
Who but the unpatriotic can fault such received wisdom driven by experience? My only observation is that it is a right decision in a wrong context. In the African village setting, everybody knew themselves, and even if nobody knew you, the elders would know your family history. So the problem with the President’s decision is that Nigeria is not a village, and in a country with an estimated 200 million people, it is impossible for him to know personally, up to five per cent of the populace; that is 10 million Nigerians. It means that at least 95 per cent of Nigerians will be strangers to him. This translates to millions of Nigerian adults who are strangers to Buhari, being screened out, yet our constitution says that there shall be no discrimination against any Nigerian for whatever reason.
The other problem is that the President’s wise decision to appoint only those he personally knows as ministers, is what is called nepotism. As you know, nepotism shares affinity with cronyism. In this case, a basic criterion that must be met in order to be appointed a minister is not competence, knowledge or skill, but having some affinity with the President maybe from his village, childhood, days in the military, years as military governor, minister, military head of state or as president. Political scientists will also characterize this as prebendalism.
That President Buhari appoints ministers only amongst those he knows, is no guarantee that they will be competent. Some may be living on past glories. It is like an old football coach deciding to choose his team only from amongst players he knows; some might be suffering from injuries, some may not be in form, some might be past their playing days. So, a good coach should always look out for young, undiscovered talents and blend them with older players whom he might not even have known.
Even if President Buhari picks ministers only from those he knows, there is no guarantee that they will be suitable. If for instance, he knows a competent carpenter in Daura and appoints him the minister of health; it might be putting a square peg in a round hole. It will be like adding zero plus zero and expecting the answer to be two.
If he reflects deeply, he might discover that the problem was not in appointing strangers into his last cabinet, but partly being hoodwinked to believe that lawyers as “tested nobles” are jack of all trades and master of all. Hence, he populated his cabinet with lawyers; 10 out of 36 including the ministers of foreign affairs, communication, information, sports, women, petroleum, justice, planning, works, housing and power.
He might also find that the ministers were not given a free hand to operate as was obvious in the Health Ministry where the minister could not discipline or cause to be disciplined, the head of a health agency indicted for fraud. For me, the most fundamental issue in this matter is the wrong impression created that ministers are personal aides of the President. Rather, constitutionally, they are chief public servants charged with being the eyes and ears of the people and responsible, along with the President and Vice-President, in determining the general direction of domestic and foreign policies in the country and running government.
Also, ministers have powers to cause an examination of the President to determine if he is fit to continue in office. So what the constitution dictates are competent and knowledgeable patriots as ministers not friends and cronies of the President. Such patriotic men and women can be sourced from anywhere including the diaspora.