Tinubu’s Unwieldy Cabinet and Unhurried Pace

Postscript by Waziri Adio

At a time when Nigeria sorely needs a lean and swift government, President Bola Tinubu has opted for an unwieldy cabinet and an inscrutably slow approach to fully constituting his government. Maybe his approach would have served, or would have been more tolerable, at another time. But definitely not now. Nigeria’s social-economic challenges are many and mounting, and they are screaming for prompt, surefooted and coordinated actions by the president and his team. For bolting off the starting line, Tinubu was generously garlanded with the title of ‘Baba-Go-Fast’ by a foreign news agency. That appellation, which appeared earned about two months ago, is now rapidly peeling off.

To start with, Tinubu breached the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) by not submitting the names of all his ministerial nominees to the Senate within 60 days of his being sworn-in as the president. On July 27th, he sent a list of 28 names to the Senate. That was just a day before the deadline mandated by the amendment to Section 147 of the constitution. He submitted his second batch (of 19 nominees) and third batch (of two nominees minus one) five and seven days respectively after the hard deadline set by the constitution.

The attempt by Senator Godswill Akpabio to play down the constitutional infraction fell flat. As a presiding officer he surely has the prerogative to rule on any point-of-order as he sees fit. But this is a constitutional issue. No one, not even the president, should be allowed to choose what part of the constitution he wants to obey and when. Neither should anyone be allowed to indulge in convenient interpretation of the constitution. It is a dangerous slope.

The deadline set by the constitution is not unreasonable. Even if it is unreasonable, it remains the supreme law of the land until amended. To be sure, the president had to wrestle with the complexity of balancing various interests in selecting a minister from each state of the federation as also mandated by the constitution. But a prepared president, and one in tune with the dire conditions of the country, should be able to identify, contact and screen the people he wants to work with as ministers within two months of coming into office.

Besides, the search for ministers is not meant to start only after inauguration day. The search should have started much earlier, possibly before or during the campaigns and definitely during the space between electoral victory and inauguration. We had a very long campaign period in the last electoral cycle. Also, Tinubu was declared the winner of the 2023 presidential election on March 1st, almost three months before his inauguration on May 29th. He had about five months between being declared the president and the constitutional deadline for sending list of ministerial nominees to the parliament. So, Tinubu has no excuse whatsoever for not submitting the names of his ministerial picks early, and, more importantly, for not doing so within the window allowed by the constitution.

Not that it takes away from the seriousness of the infraction, a solid list of ministerial nominees from Tinubu could have offered a bit of redemption or useful distraction. Tinubu chose to offer neither. Referencing T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men,’ I stated two weeks ago that Tinubu’s first list of ministerial nominees landed ‘not with a bang but with a whimper’. The second and third batches were progressively hollower, dominated by ex-governors and ex-legislators with unremarkable records in office. The combined list, to say the least, was underwhelming.

In all, Tinubu submitted 48 ministerial nominees to the Senate. This is a record, and not a great record to set as we shall show shortly. The Senate confirmed 45 of the 48 nominees on 7th August, after a marathon session over a week (minus Sunday) and a confirmation hearing defined mostly ‘bowing and going’ or leading or perfunctory questioning (except for those they had personal issues with). The Senate said the remaining three nominees were still undergoing security screening, then it adjourned till September 26th with some holiday ‘enjoyment’ allowance for senators or ‘some prayers’ in their emails.

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On the matter of security screening, it must be said that the presidency was quite clumsy in the way it handled things. The names of ministerial nominees being misspelt (including using alias instead of the real surname for one nominee) and the allegation about names being smuggled on the lists pose questions about the quality of vetting and staff time around the president.

But more importantly, it is disturbing and improper that the executive arm would send names of nominees to another arm of government without first getting security clearance from agencies that are part of the executive arm of government and whose heads indeed report to the president. It is either incompetence or deliberate mischief. If it is deliberate, then it is bad form. The president is not obliged to nominate anyone as a minister, but when he exercises his prerogative to nominate anyone, it should be taken for granted that he had done his own checks and he really wants to work with them.  

Well, the remaining three nominees may or may not be confirmed, and they may or may not be available to take up the offer even if confirmed. Whether the number stays at 45 or expands to 48 or even more (based on the legitimate case being made by the South East), we are going to end up with our largest cabinet in history, and at a time our public finance is all over the place.

There are many issues with having such an unwieldy cabinet. The first, as hinted above, is cost. Having 45 or 48 or more ministers and about 20 special advisers will definitely have a higher cost implication than having a fewer number. These costs will include salaries and allowances of the cabinet members and their aides and basic working tools like offices, cars etc. Such a gratuitous expansion is ill-advised for a country with heavy debt burden and budget deficit.

The second issue is about sensitivity. The Tinubu government is implementing some necessary reforms that come with attendant pains to most of the citizens, especially the poor. At a time that the government is asking Nigerians to make important and painful adjustments, the least the government wants to do is to demonstrate that the burden will be shared. Having more than 36 constitutionally-mandated ministers at this time is totally inconsiderate. Even if for symbolic reasons, the government needs to make a conscious effort to reduce the cost and size of government. The government needs to demonstrate in words and deeds that it understands the pains Nigerians are going through and model the need for sacrifice.

Related to this is the matter of optics. Nigeria will need substantial help from other countries and partners to stand a chance of pulling back from the brink. How do you convince these partners that you are in dire need, that they should make concessions for you, and that you are serious when you parade the most bloated cabinet in your history or that the support they would provide would not be frittered away on frivolities?

Then there is the concern about the practicality of managing a cabinet of almost 70 ministers and advisers. Will they be attending Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting together or in batches? How do you ensure robust deliberation in a cabinet of almost 70 people? Will all of them, alongside others, be reporting directly to the president, and if so, how does that leave him with the bandwidth to focus on strategic things?

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But the most troubling thing is that the size of this cabinet is not redeemed by its apparent quality. At this time, more than ever before, Nigeria needs a star-studded cabinet. Unfortunately, not up to a quarter of the crowd assembled by President Tinubu can be said to be really stellar based on comparable experience, antecedents and credibility. Some of them should not even be head of federal agencies if we take into consideration the depth of talents available to us within and outside the country. By my generous reckoning, I can count only 10 high-achievers in Tinubu’s big band, and most people are convinced that they are even playing hanky-panky with Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, the only one among the standouts with solid experience in implementing difficult and consequential reforms at the federal level.

Tinubu was supposed to be the politician with a special knack for assembling a great team of professionals and technocrats. Maybe that was the Tinubu of 1999 and the Tinubu that was not constrained by the need to settle political IOUs or not hamstrung by a constitutional requirement to pick a cabinet member from each of the constituent units. Maybe Lagos had a richer pool of talents. Maybe his Lagos outing was pure luck. Whatever it is, Tinubu has not done himself and his well curated myth a favour this time. This cabinet crowd is a form of self-demystification. I pray to be wrong.

The other concerning issue is Tinubu’s ponderous pace. The Senate put its recess on hold to expedite the confirmation of Tinubu’s nominees. With 45 ministerial nominees confirmed on August 7th, Tinubu would have been expected to promptly inaugurate the cabinet, assign portfolios and fully constitute his government. Retreats/inductions can follow. Critical stakeholders within and outside the country need to know who is in charge of what. While the presidential system revolves around the president, the system works well when there are ministers in place to flesh out the president’s vision, follow through, drive and get things done. Besides, there are urgent issues in critical sectors that need prompt attention.

For example, the economic reforms introduced by Tinubu in his first few days in office are increasingly at risk and need urgent steadying. Presidential fiats and will are important but not enough. We need a finance minister with heft and gravitas to be the face of the administration to critical partners and the citizens, rolling out and guiding plans, and making important calls. We needed this like yesterday. With what is going on in Niger and the subregion, we also need an empowered, connected and energetic foreign minister to be the face of the country and to be leading the diplomatic engagements. It is becoming clear that our approach on this issue could have benefited from more internal consultation and more nuanced expert knowledge and advice.

Apart from these two sectors, there are other areas of national life crying for urgent and continuous attention too. Even if his predecessors took their time to get going, Tinubu doesn’t have that luxury. He should pick up his pace. And now that he has chosen and gotten approval for his cabinet, he should put them to work without delay. We need Tinubu to recover his Baba-Go-Fast moniker. But more importantly, we need a fully constituted and fully operational government. Nigeria in its present state doesn’t have all the time.

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