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Mr President, may we discuss your cabinet?
By Simon Kolawole
Your Excellency, I want to seize this opportunity to wish you the best of the Ramadan season as you prepare to be inaugurated for your second term in office. May the lessons of Ramadan — especially the aspects of sacrifice and service to God and humankind — guide your next steps as the leader of this potentially great country called Nigeria. I have many complaints about your first four years in office, some of which I have written about in this space, but I would rather let the past be gone and hope for a new chapter as you renew your mandate on May 29. But I also have many things to say ahead of the next four years, some of which I will be writing about in the coming weeks.
Can we first talk about your ministers, Mr President? Before I proceed, I have a sad story to tell you. I was a fierce supporter of the candidature of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo at the dawn of this democratic era in 1999. I campaigned for him in my little corner, believing that he had the capacity and the goodwill to take Nigeria to the right place. I believed he was not corrupt, and was further energised by his promise to fight graft if he was elected into office. I was also fascinated that he could keep the military guys in check so that we would consolidate our new experience of democracy. I voted for him even though my political sympathies were elsewhere.
On his inauguration at the Eagle Square on May 29, 1999, Obasanjo delivered a powerful speech, promising to fight corruption. At some point, he stamped his foot on the platform to demonstrate his determination. He said it would no longer be “business as usual”. Good God, I was over the moon! I said finally, Nigeria was going somewhere after the devastating years of Gen. Sani Abacha. To tell the truth, Your Excellency, police officers stopped collecting their N20 tribute from commercial bus drivers at checkpoints. Civil servants started resuming work at 8 am. Everybody seemed to take Obasanjo seriously. It definitely looked like the dawn of a new era. But it was short-lived.
As soon as Obasanjo appointed his first cabinet and named Chief Tony Anenih as the minister of works, my heart broke into pieces. That singular gesture proved to me that Obasanjo was joking about fighting corruption. At that point, I gave up on Obasanjo. It was not about Anenih per se, but I tend to analyse people’s intentions by their actions. It was a foreboding signal. If Obasanjo had made Anenih special adviser on political affairs or minister of cooperation in Africa, I would not have minded. But ministry of works is too central for any government to use for political patronage, so I immediately understood Obasanjo’s direction. It was a sad story. It broke my spirit.
Now, Mr President, let me say here that I will pre-judge your second term by the ministerial appointments you make after your inauguration. First, I have asked my fasting Muslim friends to help pray that we would not wait for another six months for a cabinet and they have assured me that they would spare no “rakat” in doing that. You are aware your delay in naming a cabinet in 2015 did no favours to the economy. I would even say we are yet to recover from the damage this inflicted on the system. That period was so critical to the repair of many economic fundamentals that would later shape the exchange rate and worsen inflation, unemployment and poverty.
Mr President, I will now be straightforward: if you retain certain ministers, I will finally give up on your government. I have seen enough reasons to lose faith but there is this never-say-die spirit that keeps me hoping even when it does not make sense. That is in my DNA. I have, however, been gravely worried that most of the ministers have been saying quietly that they are returning. In fact, I am told more than half of your cabinet will be re-appointed. I hope this is a joke, Mr President. Tell me it’s a joke, Mr President. Assure me, Mr President, that this is a joke. This is a cabinet you should have dissolved years ago! How on earth would they be retained? Say it ain’t so, Mr President.
Your Excellency, if you retain Mallam Abubakar Malami as your minister of justice and attorney-general of the federation, I will finally give up on you. It will show that you are not getting the memo or there is something you are not telling us. One of the most important cabinet positions in a civilised society is that of the attorney-general. In fact, that is the only ministerial position mentioned in the constitution. The position is too critical and too powerful to be toyed with. A president will never get sound and frank legal advice if the attorney-general prostrates to greet him. The position requires a cerebral and principled appointee. I will leave it at that.
Mr President, if you appoint election losers as ministers, then I will surrender. One of them is Senator Abiola Ajimobi, the “constituted authority” in Oyo state who lost his bid to return to the senate after spending eight years as governor. Tell me he is not on your list, Mr President. Of course, we know Alhaji Adebayo Shittu will not return as minister. Or will he? No, Mr President, you won’t do that to Nigeria. Neither would you reward Alhaji Abdulaziz Yari with a ministerial appointment after his election as a senator from Zamfara west was annulled by the Supreme Court. I know you have the power to appoint whoever you want, but use that power wisely.
I hope, Your Excellency, that we are not going to see Chief Audu Ogbeh in your cabinet again. If you love him so much, you can send him as ambassador to Thailand so that he can go and regale Thais with his tale that the Asian country is experiencing increasing unemployment because of the “rice revolution” in Nigeria. Ogbeh is very good at embarrassing the country at the slightest opportunity. I hope never to see Solomon Dalung at FEC meetings again, and this has nothing to do with his beret. To cut a long list short, Mr President, if you return more than five ministers, you will be sending a depressing message to Nigerians about your direction in the next four years.
Beyond the issue of individuals to be appointed, Your Excellency, is the need to bring in relevant people into the cabinet to meet the glaring skill deficiency. I cannot believe that you have never appointed an advanced and experienced economist as minister since you came to office. I just cannot believe it — not at a time of our worst economic crisis in decades. We have a ministerial team full of lawyers and not one economist. I don’t understand. This is a great opportunity for you to address the glaring deficiencies in your appointments. It also affords you a golden chance to correct the lopsidedness against some sections, including women and youth.
Mr President, what is keeping your administration going is not the performance of your team but rather the enduring faith in you and the hope that you will eventually come good. But you are as good as the people you assemble to assist you. If you had IOUs in the first term, you have either discharged them or they have expired. It is now time to prove the growing army of critics and doubters wrong and to reassure the enduring believers that you are on top of your game. You need a brand new team of those whose competence is not in doubt and those who have fire in their bellies. Trust me, Mr President: most of your ministers are fatigued and have nothing more to offer.
If you are bent on doing favours, there are some ministerial slots you cannot afford to joke with. I list them: finance, education, health, defence, petroleum, power, attorney-general, works and interior. Long after you have left the stage, those are the things Nigerians will remember you for. A strong economic team (in which there are indeed economists), a revamped education system, a fit health sector, an infrastructural revolution, an efficient petroleum sector and massively improved internal security will change the fortune of Nigerians if you make them your priorities. All ministers are important, but some are more important than others.
Finally, Mr President, you must now take your cabinet more seriously. Your “non-interference” philosophy, which you take as a strength, is actually a weakness. It is your government. You cannot afford to be aloof! Where is monitoring and evaluation? It would make sense if you fire ministers once in a while. The joke in town is that you are the best employer of labour: you never fire anyone, no matter how woefully they perform! Non-interference has given many ministers the cover to be doing things at odds with the advertised values of your administration, secure in the faith that no one is watching and no one will be punished. Not good, Mr President, not good.
Lest I forget, Mr President, can we have a new way of doing things at the federal executive council? All I hear every Wednesday is that a contract has been awarded to buy dustbins for Damaturu or clear the drainage in Akungba. That is a bit disgusting. Governance is serious business. There should be more to FEC than contract awards. They should be discussing serious policy issues. Let Nigerians look forward to ministerial briefings that will give them confidence that the country is in safe hands and that a great future is loading. All these contract talks are banal. It has been so since 1999. We need a new direction, Your Excellency. Enough of these meaningless routines!
Meanwhile, until my next letter, please accept, Mr President, the assurances of my best wishes.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
In the end, the All Progressives Congress (APC) has lost it all in Zamfara state. After months of crises and legal battles, the Supreme Court has declared that the party did not hold primaries in the state and therefore was not eligible to participate in the general election. All its results in the house of assembly, governorship, house of reps and senate polls were nullified. Candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) instantly became the beneficiaries. I don’t like to gloat but I just cannot hold myself from celebrating that fact that Alhaji Abdulaziz Yari, the outgoing governor, will not enjoy the retirement benefit of becoming a senator after mismanaging Zamfara for eight years. Sweet.
Question: describe in not more than two words why crude oil is $70 a barrel but the benefits to the federation account are not commensurate. Answer: oil theft. In April 2012, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then minister of finance, raised the alarm that Nigeria was losing about 400,000 barrels per day to crude oil theft (usually perpetrated with the connivance of security agencies and government officials), the value of which was $1 billion daily. It was one of the reasons we couldn’t build massive forex reserves despite high oil prices. All indications are that oil theft is back in full swing — meaning the more things seem to change, the more they remain the same. Slippery.
A few days after former President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke about “West African fulanisation” — which many have taken the liberty to interpret as they wish — the last thing you would expect from the federal government is to announce the establishment of a radio station for the Fulani as “a vehicle for social mobilisation and education”. No matter how well-intentioned, this is difficult to justify in a multi-ethnic society where there is already an endemic suspicion that there is a “Fulani agenda”. Whose brainwave is the radio idea? Will there be radio stations for other ethnic groups as well — in the spirit of balance? Are radio stations not better left to the private sector? Baffling.
“LOL” used to mean “Lots of Love” in the heyday of SMS, but it soon transformed to “Laugh out Loud” and “Laughing out Loud” when instant messaging apps such as BBM and WhatsApp took the centre stage. There is a joke that a girl sent this message to her ex-boyfriend: “Heard you lost your mum. Take heart. LOL.” You can guess how the boy interpreted it! But have you been told recently by some Christian fundamentalists that LOL actually means “Lucifer Our Lord”? If you believe that, then you could as well believe that SWAG means “Satan’s Wishes Are Granted”, YOLO means “Youth Obeying Lucifer’s Orders”, and “ROFL” means “Rise, Our Father Lucifer”. LOL.
Simon Kolawole is the founder and CEO of TheCable. He tweets @simonkolawole.