One hundred and sixty-one days after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) picked a winner in Nigeria’s presidential election at the beginning of March and 72 days after the inauguration of a new administration, the Senate on 8 August, 2023, transmitted to the Presidency the names of 45 persons whom it had cleared for appointment as ministers, including some politicians described as some of “the most violent, corrupt politicians the country has ever seen.”
Azu Ishiekwene – a columnist who is not unsympathetic to Bola Ahmed Tinubu – writes about the in-coming cabinet that “a few nominees…. make the legend of Robin Hood look like a child’s play” and raises informed doubts about the “integrity of the nominees list”. This is an insult to Robin Hood who is reputed to have accomplished some good with his plunder.
This raises two legitimate questions about the cabinet list. The first concerns its provenance. On this, Leadership newspaper alleged that an original list of cabinet nominations had been “tampered with”, laying responsibility for this at the feet of the Chief of Staff and former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila. The new chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and immediate past governor of Kano State, Dr. Abdullahi Ganduje, claimed that neither he nor the president knew anything about a female nominee from his state who was subsequently stood down from the list of nominees, before being replaced.
The second question goes to the strategy that informs the list. For an answer to this, we must look at the composition of the cabinet list. Eight of the 45, representing 17.78%, are women. This is marginal improvement on the seven women (16.67%) who made Muhammadu Buhari’s 42-member cabinet in 2019 but considerably less than the 13 (31%) in the 41-member cabinet of President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011. Three of the eight women are from the South-East zone, which gets the least number of ministers. Two are from the North-West, which has nearly double the number of ministers from the South-East.
The final list that returned to the presidency also features eight former governors and a similar number of former or serving legislators. With a ministerial list largely comprising a majority of former elected officials or senior political office holders, the screening felt like a mutual admiration club mostly bereft of both seriousness and purpose. What passed for ministerial screening for most of the nominees was a process of ritualised bowing, after which the Senate set them free to go.
In response to what has become known as “bow-and-go”, columnist, Nosa Igbinadolor, complained that the “Senate has turned its screening powers into a laughable jamboree that ensures that incompetent and corrupt former governors and unproductive MDA chiefs walk boldly through the process to become ministers because they are not being sufficiently asked critical questions.”
For playing their part excellently in this ritual, Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, himself also a former governor and former minister, announced to the senators with some initial relish at the end of the process, that they were the proud recipients of a “token” to see them off to their holidays. When some fastidious officials called his attention to what appeared to be a faux pas, Senator Akpabio upgraded the token to “prayers”. This was a mere fortnight after he appeared to take equal relish in joking about the contagion of poverty in Nigeria. The appearance of a self-absorbed Senate leadership was not lost on Nigerians.
As they departed for their holidays after the screening, some senators at least appeared to share that feeling. Senators reportedly let it out that the “token” sent to them from the Senate President was a mere two million Naira. Some of them could not hide their disappointment at the “paltry sum” while others appeared to be clearly upset that the Senate President had gratuitously exposed the fact “that they received bribe money from ministerial screening.”
Premium Times computed the sum of money administered among senators for this “token” at 218 million naira, a figure ostensibly arrived at by multiplying the number of Senators (109) by two million. It is claimed that the money was part of a pot of one billion naira contributed by or on behalf of the ministerial nominees to facilitate the screening process. If so, then it seems clear that some members of the Senate would have received more than just two million naira and that the sum of N218 million is only a fraction of what got shared out, unless the Senate President was overcome by an uncharacteristic affliction of selflessness.
Sources in the Senate compare this with the sum of $30,000 which was the reported capitation for each Senator after the conclusion of a similar process four years ago. If that figure is correct, it was nearly fifteen times the size of the “token” administered this time around to the senators.
If, however, the suggestion that the screening process was under-written by a deferred quid pro quo turns out to be true, it could go a long way in explaining why the process felt like a mutual back-slapping festival enacted with parliamentary circumstance. For instance, the Senate failed to account for the fact that at least two of the nominees, a male from Lagos and a female from Katsina, do not appear to have done the mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme. The NYSC Act, which is entrenched in the 1999 Constitution, makes national service mandatory for eligible persons. Those who fail to undertake it are ineligible for employment assuredly in the public service or political office.
In 2018, Kemi Adeosun, whose NYSC discharge certificate turned out to have been invented, was forced to resign as finance minister. Five years later, the 10th Senate under the leadership of Senator Akpabio appears to have decided to retrench the NYSC Act into a statutory artefact without any need for a formal parliamentary process.
For some reason that remains still undisclosed, however, the Senate at the point of voting through the confirmations, failed to extend its forbearance to three nominees. One of the three is former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and recent Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai. Neither the Senate nor the Presidency has issued any formal reason for the failure to confirm Mr. el-Rufai besides the unspecified claims of delayed “security clearance” or “suppressed animosity” from the Presidency.
Mr. el-Rufai’s first ministerial screening in 2003 was nearly scuppered after he accused some senators then of bribery. This time around, his nomination appears to have been sunk by “allegations of human rights abuses, unguarded public utterances, and a purported flood of petitions” masterminded by some well-connected persons.
In a quarter of a century in public life, he has got into what has been delicately described as a “romance with controversy.” In 2016, Mr. el-Rufai gloated as state governor that he had paid identified killers in Southern Kaduna to stop killing. As state governor, he gleefully took credit for the death in 2010 of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was his senior in high school. Ahead of the 2019 general election, he threatened international observers, warning them that they would “go back in body bags”.
Shortly thereafter Mr. el-Rufai went to Lagos, the political home of Mr. Tinubu, to attack him as a political godfather who needed to be defenestrated. He has been viciously intolerant of criticism and one of his foremost critics as governor, Dadiyata, has been missing for over four years. This record forced the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in 2020 to cancel an invitation to him to address their annual general conference.
After the Senate declined to vote through his nomination, Mr. el-Rufai remembered that he is a doctoral student in the Netherlands and stood down so he could return to school. It is not inconceivable that his record as governor will attract attention if and when he reports to Europe to pursue his doctoral research.
In the interim, Muhammad Pate, an accomplished doctor in both medicine and the academia and one of the few experts in the world on health systems, emerged as one of the few bright spots on the ministerial list. Another bright spot on the list is the talented Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria’s current Ambassador to Germany. Both Yusuf and Muhammad, coincidentally, are from Bauchi State.
•A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at [email protected]