Ministers Without Portfolios

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 By Akeem Soboyede

Whatapp NewsTelegram News

Nigerian politicians are a pretty combative lot. From the Lai Mohammeds, Olisa Metuhs, Nyesom Wikes, Rotimi Amaechis and Femi Fani-Kayode,  to mention only a few, there is no shortage of controversy, intrigues and, yes, mudslinging.

Others will quickly argue, with some credibility, that such a trait is of course found in politicians from other climes. That school of thought contains some truth. Just witness the unceasing antics of US billionaire Donald Trump in his ongoing quest to score the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. To ensure he stays atop the all-important opinion polls and eventually win the 2016 elections, the flambouyant politician has engaged in a deliberate strategy of mocking, insulting or otherwise “taking out” his fellow contenders. To Trump, Jeb Bush “lacks” the “energy” to be US president, as does Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon. Carly Fiorina, a woman, has a face that is presumably too “ugly” to belong to a future US president.  Perhaps Rick Perry received the most unkind “cut” from Trump; “The Donald” accused Perry, a former Texas governor, of “wearing glasses to seem start”.‎

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It was hardly surprising Rick Perry got out of the race for the Republican nomination not too long after Trump uttered those words about him!

Still, Nigerian politicians do stand out in their capacity for trading insults in the public space. No, we’re not even talking about Femi Fani-Kayode’s recent threat to “spank” Lai Mohammed, outgoing spokesman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party, for whatever reason. That would surely be quite a spectacle! But Mohammed still sits squarely at the centre of this discourse, in the wake of the apparent insult and ill-wish directed his way recently by his permanent traducer, the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The insult this time actually took aim at Mohammed’s future prospects in Nigeria’s political space, which in itself must be a first in the pantheon of politically-motivated invectives.

Everyone in the land knows the APC scribe was recently named and confirmed a Minister of the federal republic. It is also no longer news that the president who made the appointment recently told the world that not all those recently confirmed as Ministers in his incipient cabinet will be assigned a portfolio, since there will presumably not be enough ministries to go around.  That latter clarification by President Buhari has let loose a legion of speculations in the polity, while equally serving as fodder for those given almost exclusively to trading in political mischief.

The president’s statement certainly implies a significant segment of the 36 individuals already confirmed as ministers would simply have to sit on their hands while they are purportedly in government, devoid of an office, authority or similar appertunances. There are now vivid recollections of the debacle in the Second Republic government headed by former President Shehu Shagari, where simple prepositions marked the distinction between an unwieldy band of ministers foisted on the country at that time, solely for reasons of political patronage.‎ Anyone still remembers the “Ministers of” and the “Ministers for” from that era?

The PDP apparently has Lai Mohammed permanently in its bad books. No surprise therefore that it loudly expressed its belief that Mohammed will end up as a “Minister without Portfolio” in the Buhari government, despite what it characterised as “efforts” by the APC scribe to avoid that sad fate.  It is apparent the PDP is trying mightily to elevate a non-issue into one, while it is also clear Lai Mohammed’s malefactors in the PDP suddenly believe Nigeria now runs a parliamentary system of government, instead of the American-style democracy that has been the norm in these parts since 1999.  A “minister without portfolio” is very uncommon in a presidential system of government.  Even without being assigned to any ministry to supervise as senior or junior minister—if that will indeed be the case—it is hard to imagine any of the 36 confirmed ministers being completely redundant in the current dispensation. There are always important and weighty roles that can be assigned to such ministers by the president, including the all-too-familiar “Special Duties”.

Even if the PDP’s thoughts and wishes for “the-man-they-love-to-hate” comes to fruition, what exactly is bad about being a “Minister without portfolio”?  None, as it turns out.
History and contemporary experience show that the influence wielded by certain individuals in particular dispensations is often not directly proportional to the offices they hold or to which they are assigned in that government.  Grigori Rasputin was a mere “faith-healer” in the Court of Tsar Nicholas II, the last imperial ruler of Russia. But he exercised such substantial influence on the policies and decisions of the Tsar’s government and members of the royal household that he was eventually assassinated in a plot hatched by vengeful senior members of the Tsar’s court.

Much nearer home, no Nigerian of an appropriate age can forget the “Kaduna Mafia” and the influence members of that shadowy group were said to have had on Nigerian governments of the 70s and 80s, particularly the military government headed by retired General Olusegun Obasanjo and his successor in office, Shehu Shagari.  During Obasanjo’s “second coming” as president, the influence and access certain individuals enjoyed, like the Otunba Fasawes and Afe Babalolas  of this world, certainly eclipsed what many “ministers with portfolios” in that administration could dare to imagine.  On a more contemporary note, no one recalls Chief Edwin Clark held any official position in the Goodluck Jonathan government that ruled Nigeria up till only a few months ago. But the great influence he wielded over that government and president was undeniable, so much so that the “Et Tus” of consternation have not ceased pouring from certain person’s lips, in the wake of declarations Clark recently made about Jonathan and the government he led.

It is comforting that President Buhari, from his utterances and famed “body language”, does not appear intent on condemning any of the 36 Ministers he has appointed to redundancy. Whatever position of trust or power they are entrusted with however, members of the first Buhari cabinet should ensure they conduct themselves in and exercise their power with adequate circumspection and a determination to uphold the public trust.
It is only then that their “portfolios” will be fully and truly deserved.

*Soboyede is a public affairs commentator.


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