Yar'Adua and the cabinet shake-up

Friday, October 31, 2008  

Yar'Adua and the cabinet shake-up

By Reuben Abati

That President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua needed to restructure his cabinet, to ensure greater efficiency and better rhythm is a generally admitted point. But the first step that the President has taken in this direction: the sacking of 20 Ministers on Wednesday this week is so clumsily executed, so obviously lacking in impact and depth of reason that the perception is again re-affirmed that this is indeed a poorly organised government. The first thing that rankles about the change of cabinet is the unnecessary long delay. Why did it take the President five months to change the cabinet?

It was in May 2008 in the course of his one-year anniversary address that the President first hinted at a likely cabinet change. A month ago, when he announced a restructuring of the Ministries, including the creation of a Niger Delta Ministry, a cabinet change became an inevitable follow-up. But rather than act swiftly, the President allowed the Federal government to be overtaken by undue stasis (nobody took their assignments seriously as everyone in the corridors of power awaited a series of exits and entrances), speculations (by members of the public who found it convenient to indulge in permutations as to who will remain or leave); lobbying (by persons seeking to join the government, or remain in it), confusion (on the part of the general public and investors in the Nigerian economy who needed a clearer picture of the character of government for the purposes of investment planning).

Altogether the President's indecisiveness created so much unease in the land. To spend five months to plan a proposed cabinet change is the ultimate sign of weakness. And now that a list of 20 expelled Ministers has been announced, it is difficult to see how the President made his selection. It will be recalled that we had been told before now, that the President had set up a Committee to assess the performance of the Ministers and advise him accordingly. Except for three or four Ministers, most of the Ministers that have been sent away are marginal players, relative unknowns, whose presence or absence in the government makes no difference. Agreed, there are a number of award-winning non-performers who have been nicely booted out, including the Minister of Education, the former Minister of Commerce and Industry, the former Minister of Sports and the former Minister of Women Affairs.

But many of those who have been retained have no business staying a day longer in that cabinet. To cite an obvious example: what is Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke still doing in the Federal Cabinet? She has made two famous contributions to Nigeria's development process so far: weeping profusely over the poor state of Federal roads and lamenting like a rejected wife, at the Benin-Ore Expressway and excusing the non-performance of her Ministry on the grounds that the Budget for her Ministry has not been cash-backed. In the past eighteen months, there have been crises in the justice administration sector and the economy. But the Ministers in charge have been retained.

There are at least three persons in the list of dismissed Ministers whose rejection by the President is difficult to explain: One, Aliyu Umar Modibbo, the FCT Minister. If performance is one of the yardsticks used, the former FCT Minister who was one of the more diligent members of the Yar'Adua cabinet should be attending the next Federal Executive Council meeting. Why sack a productive Minister? Two, Mohammed Daggash, the former Minister of National Planning was one of the very few stars of the Yar'Adua Government. And three, the same can be said of Sarafa Tunji Isola, the former Minister for Solid Minerals Development. And to some extent, Halima Alao.

One newspaper, The Nation has already tried to provide an explanation for the President's decision as follows: "Five factors accounted for yesterday's elimination of 20 former Ministers from the cabinet" it writes. "Investigations by The Nation revealed that the Ministers lost out due to the following: slow rate of performance, lack of knowledge of their assignments, bickering with their godfathers and political ambition which pulled some ministers against their governors. And the newspaper quoting an unnamed "highly-placed source", adds: "The President took his time to assess the Ministers. He was so meticulous that he did it independently. I can tell you that only the President compiled the score sheet himself and consulted extensively on those he would drop".

The Nation may be speculating, but this is the best that can be guaranteed in the absence of any explanations by the Presidency. But if slow rate of performance is an issue, it is the entire government that should be guilty as charged". Lack of knowledge of their assignments"? This is a system-wide problem. "Bickering with godfathers". This certainly should not be an issue. Differences between some Ministers and the Governors in their states? This is no useful criterion. The Nation, on page 3 provides further explanations, but what is confirmed is the President's obvious confusion. Who is talking about being meticulous? And definitely, President Yar'Adua lacks the moral authority to accuse anyone of, of all things, "slow performance".

But the President can still be granted the benefit of the doubt. His choice of Ministers is his prerogative, subject to Senate confirmation, under the 1999 Constitution. And although he has dropped 20 Ministers, he still has an opportunity to re-organise his cabinet in a manner that signals his priorities. But he must realise that the entire country is waiting, Nigeria's partners in different parts of the world are also waiting, even more anxiously. Truth is: eighteen months after the Yar'Adua government assumed office nobody knows where the Nigerian Government is headed. There is the slogan about seven-point agenda and that other clich� about Vision 20-2020. But what else?

It took President Yar'Adua more than two months to announce a cabinet in 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France and Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, did the same thing immediately they assumed office. It has taken our President five months to change his cabinet. Hopefully, he'd not have to spend another five months before announcing his new Ministers! Naming new Ministers and assigning portfolios to them should not require excessive planning (a major shortcoming of this government) or the setting up of a committee (the perfect vehicle for inaction in Nigeria). If the President were sure of his programmes, he would have announced a new cabinet by now, to allow the Federal Government to focus more on productivity, rather than the current endless drift, to re-energise the civil service, and to reassure the international community.

The President allegedly accuses the Ministers that have been dropped of non-performance. The main problem is the President's own pace and style. Leadership is about focus, action and results. The Yar'Adua government at the centre needs to become more efficient and this must begin with the President setting a different example and encouraging a new work ethic. One major shortcoming of this administration is its indecisiveness. The President changes his mind, too often on policy issues. This is a President that has acquired a reputation, sadly, for unending self-reversal. For example, the Federal Government openly blacklisted Siemens, the German company, for its involvement in the bribery of Nigerian officials, and the violation of the ethics of corporate governance. Less than a year later, Siemens' sins have been forgiven; the company has been rewarded by government with a huge power project contract. All the top Nigerian officials who were named as having collected bribe from Siemens are walking free and enjoying the interests on their loot.

Here is a government, which promised in June 2007 to negotiate with ASUU and recall the UNILORIN 44. But it soon changed its mind on that too. The other week, the President turned down the proposal to host the FIFA-organised U-17 World Cup. The President was alarmed that the tournament would cost Nigeria as much as N35 billion. He then asked members of the Local Organising Committee (LOC) of the tournament a number of salient questions. He wanted to know what Nigeria stood to gain from hosting the event. His various questions have not yet been answered but the government has since reversed itself. Reason: members of the LOC reduced the budget for the tournament from N35 billion to N9 billion - a totally suspicious action. In more serious societies, those creative book- keepers in the LOC would be with the police by now, undergoing rigorous interrogation.

So much indecision on all fronts: to be added to the foregoing is the Federal Government's somersault on the Niger Delta Summit, the re-denomination of the Naira, Nuhu Ribadu's headship of the EFCC, the sale of refineries and the unbundling of the NNPC. This government changes its mind wilfully. No one should be surprised therefore, if any of the dropped Ministers is suddenly re-appointed or rewarded with a bigger appointment. But there is an unwritten moral dimension to the prerogative that the President exercises in appointing his ministers. The inability of our President to act with greater resolve and follow-up promises with dynamic action is a comment on the quality of leadership in Abuja and invariably on the People's Democratic Party, the majority but ineffective party in power which is threatening to rule Nigeria for more than 60 years!

President Yar'Adua has a bigger stake. The nature of his legacy is already being constructed. We expect from him today, not tomorrow, a list of Ministers. We need to know, quickly, who is in charge of what. Not out-of-their-depths Ministers who may be in transit, overseeing other Ministries, thus further complicating an existing web of confusion. We need Ministers who are knowledgeable and capable, not the yes-men or girlfriends of obtrusive Godfathers and Governors.