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Nigeria’s newly appointed government ministers attend their swearing-in ceremony in Abuja. Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

Buhari’s cabinet: solid choices, but too few women and too elitist

Nigeria’s new cabinet, perhaps the most awaited in the history of constitutional democracy in Africa, has finally been sworn in. The wait involved at first a shocking and unexplained silence, and then the release of a partial list which was approved by the Senate in October – a full 131 days after the president was sworn in. Ministers apparently got to know of their respective portfolios 35 days later. It was shambolic.

Clearly the governing party had not listened to the message delivered on behalf of Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, about the importance of the first 100 days of office. In a keynote address at a special two-day policy dialogue held in Abuja immediately after the party secured victory in May, Blair, through his former advisor Peter Mandelson, said:

You will have more good will and more authority to do the difficult things at the beginning of your term than at the end.

No-one at that stage imagined that it would take more than 100 days to even form a cabinet. But then Nigeria is no ordinary country and it has its own inherent logic.

Eventually nearly all appointees came from inside Nigeria and were quite well-known, if not predictable faces from the coalition-opposition.

Some have suggested that President Muhammadu Buhari needed time to fish out the very best from home and abroad. Others point to the fact that he needed time to understand the rot in the system and put in a host of ingenious strategies to fix loopholes that made corrupt practices easy.

But the wait could very easily be due to party intrigues and sloppy handling of the task.

The country could ill afford the long wait. Longstanding energy instability is taking its toll on industry. Unemployment is skyrocketing.

With a depressed economy, crime rates have begun to rise. Things are getting so worrisome that stocks on the Nigerian Stock Exchange continued to fall as investors reacted indifferently to the inauguration of the new ministers.

All the president’s men

The list of new ministers appears to have generally gone down well with the public. Citizens were so fed up with the last Peoples Democratic Party government that the first 50 names in the telephone directory would have been preferable to the status quo. There are some notable personalities in the new cabinet.

  • Babatunde Fashola, former governor of Lagos state with a population of 18 million, is now minister of power, works and housing.

  • Kayode Fayemi, former governor of Ekiti state, is minister of solid minerals. Both Fashola and Fayemi have enviable records of performance and the halo of much-needed technocratic competence.

  • It would have been unimaginable for the brilliant communicator, Lai Mohammed, not to be the minister of information. He was virtually the only authentic voice of the opposition even before there was an effective opposition party.

  • Transportation Minister Rotimi Amaechi is experienced and is expected to flourish.

  • The corporate and political gravitas of a politician like senator Udo Udoma, minister of budget and national planning, is expected to come in handy.

  • Abubakar Malami (Kebbi), the minister of justice, is young, dynamic and belongs to Buhari’s political circle. He has an enviable legal practice record but is relatively new to government.

  • Then there are younger northern stars like senators Hadi Sirika, Ibrahim Usman Jibril and Ahmed Musa Ibeto, who are ready to earn their stripes on a national stage. They have enviably clean records and are expected to be massively loyal to Buhari. He will need lots of loyalty given the tumultuous times ahead.

The list is quite short on academics and intellectuals. There is only one professor, and Fayemi, who has an academic history.

Buhari himself has a keen and trained mind even though he has no degree. This is notable because only two Nigerian presidents have had a degree. Modern African political scientists lament the near total absence of the philosopher king in modern African states.

On the other hand, the immediate past president, Goodluck Jonathan, brandished a doctorate degree but had little luck putting it to use.

But there are gaps

The gender balance is disconcerting even by African standards. Just five out of 37 ministers are women. But it is significant that the economy is in the hands of a woman – former investment banker Kemi Adeosun.

It is not that women hold the key to all positive change in Nigeria. Nigeria has had its fair share of rogue female leaders. Buhari’s predecessor as prime minister for petroleum, Diezani Alison-Madueke, is being held in the UK and faces up to ten years in jail for corruption and money laundering.

Nevertheless, the appointment of Taraba’s first female attorney-general, Aisha Jummai Al-Hassan, as minister of women’s affairs is commendable. It is hoped she’ll make a meaningful impact on empowering women, particularly in the northern regions of the country where paternalistic attitudes and religion are very oppressive.

There are other shortcomings in the appointments. For example, the spread is very elitist and there is little hope of a left-leaning agenda – at least at this stage.

This is a shame because there is a massive percentage of the population needing directed socialist policies to lift them out of severe hardship, chronic poverty and generational underachievement.

Lessons to be learnt

The Nigerian government must learn to communicate better. Silent governance is fast receding as an effective strategy everywhere. It is quite unforgivable that in nearly six months there was no systematic communication to the citizenry on a new cabinet. At the very least this was disrespectful.

It was also awkward from an international relations point of view. As Mandelson, the UK’s renowned “Prince of Spin” himself, explained in Abuja recently:

Strategy without communications is like a car without headlights.

There is no excuse for Buhari’s shoddy handling of the appointments. On his wide shoulders lie the fate of 150 million people that sorely yearn for successes. And the emergence of Nigeria as a truly great African nation will have spillover effects that can lift an entire region out of stark mediocrity.

He has been entrusted with possibly the most difficult job of any leader on the continent. Now he must perform in a way that promotes transparency. He must nurture Africa’s largest economy back to strength. This entails transforming its agricultural, financial and industrial base into that of a 21st-century jet-stream economy.

There is little doubt that Buhari is a man of conviction and a patriot. But he must become a phenomenal leader.

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