by Abba Mahmood
If you are a ministerial nominee who endured many months of agitated suspense, followed by the excitement of hearing your name being read on the Senate floor as a ministerial nominee, quickly followed by days of tension at the snail-slow pace of ministerial screening, succeeded by the anti-climax of taking a bow and go when you had spent many nights rehearsing, then the tense wait for the President to return from India, swear you in and allocate to you a Cabinet portfolio, how do you now feel at the prospect of being a siddon look member of the Federal Executive Council?
I know that the forgoing is the longest sentence I ever wrote but I seek the forgiveness of English teachers all over the country. It is because I cannot remember a time when a Nigerian minister’s high anticipation was punctured so rudely. President Buhari’s interview with two Nigerian television stations in New Delhi has halted the euphoria and marred the celebratory mood in many political camps ahead of this week’s anticipated swearing-in of ministers.
The hint that Buhari dropped in that interview was worse than letting a cat among the political pigeons. Already, before we got to this stage, many citizens were unhappy that it has taken more than five months to constitute a Cabinet. Foreign and local investors are unhappy that the government’s economic direction is not known and business plans are at a standstill. When the ministerial nominees were finally revealed, ruling party bigwigs in many states were disappointed that they didn’t get to nominate the candidates. Some pundits were distressed that Buhari did not name portfolios along with the nominees, as is done in the United States. Many reporters were disappointed by the Senate screening sessions, described in most cases as a farce. And now, this.
The president said many things in that short interview, some of them realistic, others a bit puzzling, still others a little bit outrageous. He said he will reduce the number of Federal ministries. Most citizens will approve of this, although in practice it does not translate into much savings because only a couple of directors will be reduced. Not many permanent secretaries will be shed because, as with ministers, federal character trumps need. In fairness to the Federal Government, it has maintained a fairly stable number of ministries over the years, unlike some state governments that more than doubled the number of their ministries in the last two decades. What is not understandable is why the president did not go ahead and reduce the number of ministries long before now, so that they would have settled down before the arrival of ministers.
Buhari said the number of ministers under the PDP regimes, 42, is too many. Again most Nigerians will agree, though not the politicians who spent fortunes and sleepless nights in the campaign. Those ones will not mind if the president appoints 100 ministers. If 42 are too many, what does he think is the right number? Buhari said, “There used to be 42 ministers but we will be lucky if we can have half of that now…” There are many problems with that number. First we don’t know the number of ministries and we expect each ministry to be headed by a minister. Buhari has already nominated 36 ministers, all of whom have been screened and confirmed by the Senate, so how on earth can we have 21 ministers now?
Some people were asking at the weekend if a ministerial nominee already confirmed by the Senate can be dropped. The answer is yes, though at some cost to the president’s image. Becoming a minister is a four-step process: nomination, Senate confirmation, appointment, and then swearing-in. Even if one is confirmed the president can refuse to appoint him. In 2007, Chief Godsday Orubebe was confirmed and actually appointed by President Umaru Yar’adua but when he arrived for the swearing-in with a huge entourage of drummers, he was told to leave the hall.
President Buhari gave an inkling into his current, somewhat controversial line of thought when he said, “Others may not be substantive ministers but they will sit in the cabinet because that is what the constitution said and we can’t operate outside the constitution.” He seems to be saying here that the constitutional provision will be satisfied if some people sit in the FEC to represent some states even though they are not heading any ministries. It is doubtful if this is what the Constitution said. It talked about a minister from each state; it expects ministers to head specific ministries; and it talked about ministers constituting the FEC. I don’t think the constitution envisaged a siddon look minister who is not heading any ministry but only comes to town for FEC meetings.
Quite alright, there were Ministers Without Portfolio in the First Republic. In the North and in the West, these were prominent traditional rulers who were heading their own Native Authorities. In the Second Republic, only Oyo State Governor Bola Ige appointed a traditional ruler as a Commissioner Without Portfolio, and the media ridiculed him for that. If President Buhari intends to have 21 full ministers, the safest thing to do is to make the remaining 15 to be junior ministers or what is called Minister of State. In 1983 President Shehu Shagari tackled this same problem by appointing Ministers of and Ministers for; the former were the senior ones and the latter were the junior ones, though all were members of FEC.
President Buhari’s main reason for toying with the idea of having siddon look ministers is lack of money. He said Nigeria is broke and does not have the money to pay so many ministers. The truth is that ministers’ salaries do not cost all that much, no more than a million naira a month each. Surely the Federal Government can afford that. It is their perquisites that are much more expensive and Buhari should trim those. Official ministerial perquisites too are insignificant compared to hidden ministerial costs, such as N10 billion spent by NNPC to charter planes for Madam Diezani.
If Buhari’s change regime actually manages to do away with the hidden ministerial perquisites as well as the Nigerian system where a minister must shovel money to his party and constituents, the president will find that ministers are not all that costly.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Abba Mahmood/Daily Trust