5 October 2015

Curtain-up for Muhammadu Buhari

By Joseph Ogbonna

At last the wait is over. The long anticipated list of Cabinet members has been submitted by the President of Nigeria to the Senate for confirmation.

Muhammadu Buhari celebrated his first 100 days in Office on 6 September 2015 amid some controversy about his achievements and failings.  Topping the list for most critics, was his delay in appointing ministers without which they believed, his government could not function.

To put this in perspective,

  1. President Obasanjo, inaugurated on 29th May 1999, announced his cabinet on June 30, 1999.
  2. President Yar Adua, inaugurated on 29th May 2007, announced his cabinet on July 26, 2007.
  3. President Jonathan, who had inherited a cabinet which soon had a minor re-shuffle, was inaugurated on 29th May 2011 after his election victory, announced his team on July 6, 2011.

In the short history of Nigerian democracy, Buhari’s 4 months is uncharacteristically long. How much does it matter, if it is not unconstitutional?

Mr Buhari said that the long wait was needed to ensure that the individuals he selects as ministers are capable of carrying out the root-and-branch reforms he has promised. Last week he said that the reason for the delay was that his government has “set out to do things methodically and properly.”  He also said that with a need to respond properly to the ‘Joda Transition Committee’ which recommended a re-organisation of the Federal Government structure, “It would have been haphazard to announce ministers when the government had not finalised the number of ministries to optimally carry the burden of governance”.

At his inauguration, he aired a vision and, using history, sought to lift the wider populace to high aspirations, drawing on the Nigerian natural sense of pride. So what has he actually done since coming to power, apart from not appointing a Cabinet? He has appointed new top management to the nation’s most powerful parastatal, the NNPC which handles Oil and oil revenues.  He has moved the headquarters of the military command close to the epicentre of the Boko Haram crisis.  The local refineries have come-back online. There have been modest improvements reported in power supply. He and his deputy have publicly declared their assets. Without a Cabinet, he has had the Permanent Secretaries in the Federal Civil Service reporting directly to the Presidency for the past 100 days.

The Civil Service has over the past 2 decades, been de-professionalised and instead acted as errand children for Politicians, and who were also seen as helping themselves to the drinking trough. This direct relationship with the Presidency must therefore be doing a lot for their moral and professional pride, and should hold up even on appointment of Minister “Middlemen and women”. Perhaps President Buhari does indeed know what he is doing and is acting, not talking.

President Buhari understands power play in Nigeria and believes he understands how to change the behaviours of the ordinary Nigerian. I say this with an eye on his history. As a soldier and later as a civilian, the President has been involved in every change of government since Nigeria’s independence.  For most of them he was an active proponent and on a few, he was on the receiving end of the rough justice that is Nigeria.

He has therefore learnt lessons that no doubt will be playing out in his actions. In his earlier incarnation, he appeared to have lost the South prior to his removal during a military coup which removed him from office.

That earlier incarnation was described in an insightful article by Max Siollun on Gamji.com as Nigeria having “…missed a golden opportunity to change for the better.” He attributed the cause of that failure to Buhari himself, saying “While Buhari’s austere policies could be justified on the basis that he was battling against corruption and economic waste, his public relations machinery was poor.  He made a number of strategic errors and failed to ingratiate himself with the mainly southern based print media.  His regime was savaged by the press as a result (many of Nigeria’s print houses were then owned by the multi-billionaire businessman/politician: the late Moshood Abiola). Buhari was seen to be stern, serious and resolute.  In pursuing his aims in that regime, he did not abide by the agreements made or the wisdom of the times.  Buhari hails from the Northern part of Nigeria and the Supreme Military Council which surrounded him was constituted of mostly Northerners, including his effective Deputy who although from Yoruba stock, was a seen as a Northerner and a Muslim.

Boundaries appear not to hold him back. He was unafraid to promulgate a decree that made it a criminal offence to publish any article which brought the Government or any public official into disrepute (Decree 4 of 1984: the Public Officers ((Protection Against False Accusation)) Decree). He tried former Ministers who served with his predecessor (Shehu Shagari) who was overthrown for presiding over a corrupt administration.  He and his cabinet ran a campaign which was directed at changing not only public behaviour but also the psyche of Nigerians.

One can only speculate what he is up to this time, as a 72 year-old elected official, selected to run for office by a political party.  He has appointed his closest aides from those he believes are untainted with corruption and were loyal to him through his three election attempts.  The fact that they are mainly from the North is a moot point.

“I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody” he said in his inauguration speech. “At home we face enormous challenges. Insecurity, pervasive corruption, the hitherto unending and seemingly impossible fuel and power shortages are the immediate concerns. We are going to tackle them head on. Nigerians will not regret that they have entrusted national responsibility to us. We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism. We can fix our problems.” “In recent times Nigerian leaders appear to have misread our mission… behaved like spoilt children breaking everything and bringing disorder to the house.”  He added “Furthermore, we as Nigerians must remind ourselves that we are heirs to great civilizations: Shehu Othman Dan Fodio’s caliphate, the Kanem Borno Empire, the Oyo Empire, the Benin Empire and King Jaja’s formidable domain. The blood of those great ancestors flow in our veins. What is now required is to build on these legacies, to modernize and uplift Nigeria.”

Many agree with Mr Buhari’s focus on tackling institutionalised corruption that cuts across all sectors and understand that it takes time and deft manoeuvring.  I feel Mr President means well, has a clear vision and only time will tell whether his approach was the best strategy to achieve his vision.  History after all, is often the best judge of wisdom.

Joseph Ogbonna is a coach and a consultant, and the director of Ruuvand Ltd.