It would appear unfair to blame public opinion for the frenzy over the ministerial lists. This is how it has always been. Not this prolonged, maybe, but always contentious. A new government means that old positions have become vacant and new candidates must fill the vacancies. It’s a time when those who contested and won elective positions have to settle IOUs.
In parliamentary systems, the shadow cabinet ensures that the spoils are even shared in anticipation of victory. In our own system, our nanny state mentality ensures that we pile enough pressure on the incoming government, if need be, to rob the treasury to pay for our support and loyalty. And then, we turn around to complain.
At the Federal level where there could be up to 1500 vacancies, it starts with the appointment of ministers (including ministers of state), one each from the 36 states, and special advisers/assistants. Then, each minister appoints a dozen and a half special advisers and assistants and the special advisers and assistants appoint their own special advisers and assistants.
As appointments collide within the first few days of a new government, civil servants come up with very long lists – from furniture to stationery – of things that have to be thrown away and brand new ones that must replace them. And contractors trip over themselves for a share of the pie in the new regime. The bazaar begins. For only 11 months when military head of state Abdulsalami Abubakar was in power between 1998 and 1999, Christopher Kolade reported that the government awarded contracts worth N635.62 billion.
And then we turn around to complain.
Within the first eight months of the administration of former president Goodluck Jonathan, he announced a budget of N4.22 trillion in 2011. That budget was far short of expected income by N1.4 trillion and the president knew. Yet, he didn’t give a damn. He had made up his mind – or his advisers had made it up for him – to borrow about N400 billion to finance consumption.
That, among other things, meant settling political IOUs.
In 2013, the office of the president, vice president and the secretary to the government of the Federation budgeted N1.6 billion for “welfare”, yet this amount set aside for a few persons in the Presidency, Nigeria’s most expensive orphanage, excludes what was also reserved for the offices of other political office holders in that same budget.
Each new government turns on the tap, almost from the word go, and the first business of government is settling political IOUs through appointments, especially appointment of ministers.
We are not used to waiting for weeks, let alone months, for the appointment of political appointees who are supposed to hit the ground running with the business of dispensing favours.
Who really needs the ministers? Don’t get me wrong. I know they do more than noise-making and awarding contracts. I also know that the constitution requires that ministers be appointed from each of the 36 states and even if the constitution didn’t say so, common sense makes it a necessity.
What I don’t understand is why and how we have made political appointments so important that the contest for positions has become a matter of life and death. In a bid to either obtain the office or block those we do not like from obtaining it, nothing is spared. In his recent piece, poet and columnist, Ikeogu Oke, described it as “politics of attrition.”
Sure, we need quality people to lead and inspire us. But sometimes, opponents go to ridiculous levels to settle personal scores with nominees in the name of scrutiny. It’s amazing how we trash some of our best and brightest and yet mourn the scarcity of heroes.
Much of the noise over Buhari’s ministerial lists suggests a wrong and fruitless investment of time and energy. Ministers may satisfy ethnic or gender quota; they do not create jobs. Ministers may award contracts to a few well- connected individuals; they do not lift citizens out of poverty. Ministers may occupy positions of power and privilege; that is not a guarantee of impact or service.
We have almost exhausted ourselves splitting hairs over the wrong lists. I think the list we should be more interested in is the entrepreneurs’ list – the list of disruptors, innovators and inventors. These are the ones who take risks, create jobs, solve problems, reinvent and secure our future, in spite of government and politicians.
Think about them. In January, one Mark Nwani One-On-One (Nigeria) at Mara Foundation published a list of 20 young Nigerian entrepreneurs doing stuff that will supplant any ministerial list. They include Mark Essien, Founder of Hotels.ng, who has changed the way we book our hotels; Mosunmola Umoru, the “Pretty Farmer” and CEO of Honeysuckles PTL Ventures and the new face of farming; Bankole Cardoso, CEO of Easy Taxi Nigeria, who created an app for taxi booking; Eseoghene Odiete, Founder and Creative Director of Hesey Designs, whose fashion label has caught the imagination of Google and Richard Branson; and the trio of Jobberman’s Opeyemi Awoyemi, Olalekan Olude and Ayodeji Adewunmi, who are connecting skills with the marketplace.
Only last week, I met Ify Aniebo, the Nigerian PhD student at Oxford who is on the verge of a breakthrough in her research on tropical malaria under the auspices of the Gates foundation. What she’s doing will help us fully understand the Nigerian strain of the malarial parasite and, hopefully, lead to more specific measures to monitor and control malarial drug resistance in the country.
For me, this is the more important list. I have seen ministers come and go – and our lives have remained the same – sometimes, worse. Yet, for the first time in a very long while, something tells me things will be different this time.
If the wait for Buhari’s ministers has done us any good, I think it should help us focus on the things that really matter. And sometimes these things are outside the realm of politics.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine.