For those harrowing first six months after the change government of President Muhammadu Buhari took the reins, one of the loudest discussions in the public space was the absence of a cabinet. Nigerians who had built castles of expectations in the air about how the President would move in and “hit the ground running,” were soon distraught by what came across as the leisurely pace of the nation’s helmsman. As citizens groaned about the need to appoint capable hands, whether from within his political party or outside it, to pilot different spheres of national life, the President himself chose to take his time. While citizens were kept in suspense, the uncertainty as to what exact direction the government wanted to take the country had serious ramifications, especially in terms of the economy and investment climate.
In response to flaks from the public that the President was taking forever to put together a constitutionally backed component of the governance architecture, the spin-doctors in the Presidency quickly got down to work. They told the public that even without ministers in place, governance was happening unhindered. At the time, critical voices were pointing out that time was of the essence, considering many challenges facing the country. But those in charge of the spin harped on the need for a meticulous and surefooted approach to governance. They pointed to the mess inherited from the previous administration, which they ascribed in many cases to decisions that they were not carefully considered.
Moreover, the President’s communications managers added that by regularly conferring with the Permanent Secretaries in the various ministries, the President was getting to the bottom of the crisis that had afflicted governance. Things got to a head when on one occasion the President described ministers as noisemakers. He implied that it was actually the Permanent Secretaries who were doing the technical work in the ministries, and that ministers only added some dimension of noise to exertions of the technocrats. Interestingly, the President Buhari went beyond words in expressing his aversion to a cabinet. In the groundwork that preceded the planning for the 2016 budget, the major deliberations were carried on with the Permanent Secretaries, who had begun to hug and savour the limelight that comes with working so closely with the supremo. It, however, did not take long for the deficiency of this approach to unravel.
At last, after much hue and cry, the ministers were eventually named, six clear months after the administration was inaugurated. The new men and women came in to inherit a governance template to which they had no input or ideas. It became apparent from the start that the cabinet members, irrespective of their expertise or experiences, had been subtly ordered to work with a framework the President had fashioned with Permanent Secretaries. Observers had noted, at the time, that these same Permanent Secretaries were part of the old guard, which the President’s party had vilified for governing Nigeria into a crisis. Apart from the fact that the budget became a casualty of the usual political and administrative interest and turf wars, the President’s straitjacket approach began to unravel. When the time came for the ministers to defend their budgets, there was confusion all over the place. A good number grumbled about how they were unaware of how certain indefensible items found their way into the appropriation. Critical man-hours were spent squabbling with the National Assembly about items that had been allegedly removed or mutilated in the budget. It was in this disorderly and untidy state of things that the ministers took over.
One year on, therefore, it is not surprising that the Nigerian people are not happy with the lacklustre governance that has been provided by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). While many citizens agree that the current government inherited serious crises, due to the lack of good and patriotic governance by previous administrations, the perspective is clear that the Buhari government was not voted in to make things worse. This is the dominant thinking that has taken the shine off real accomplishments, like the successful military offensive that has beaten back the Boko Haram fiends in the North East, as well as the recent release of 21 Chibok girls from captivity.
Beyond these silver linings, however, the deliverables have not added up in the other areas. The economy, for instance, has been left to drift, with no clear strategy to arrest the continuous impoverishment of citizens. Businesses are closing down in droves, further compounding the crisis of unemployment. Ironically, it is the economy that immediately affects the mass of committed youths who campaigned tirelessly off and online to propel Buhari and his fellow change agents to the Presidency.
Disappointing these young Nigerians by not moving quickly to fix the economy would precipitate a lot of backlash, overshadowing whatever gains have been made. In this regard, the Economic Team made up principally of the Ministers of Finance, Budget and Planning as well as the Central Bank, have come under intense scrutiny. Particularly, the Finance Minister, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, has struggled to present what particular direction the economy is headed. Although she has talked about monies that have been injected into the system to reflate the economy, the ordinary man is yet to feel the impact. Inflation has continued to gallop out of control, taking the prices of basic necessities beyond the reach of ordinary Nigerians. The national currency, the naira is taking a serious lashing from a combination of factors, including decline in oil price and attendant low revenue profile of the government.
In the face of these realities, the Buhari cabinet has not collectively demonstrated the readiness to reconfigure the nation’s revenue generating base. The whole talk about diversification of the economy and reducing reliance on volatile oil has remained in the realm of rhetoric, with no corresponding action to put the nation on the road to diversification. In terms of the engagement of youth, the one bronze medal won by Nigeria at the Rio 2016 Olympics tell a story of an administration that did not do much of different thinking in preparing for a global showpiece. The inability of current Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, to come to terms with critical aspects of sports administration, largely portrayed the government as confused. Similarly, when it comes to massively providing jobs for young unemployed Nigerians, the social intervention programmes are yet to make any dent on the challenge of unemployment.
The other critical sector, where Nigerians are looking forward to vast improvements is the infrastructure sector, where former Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, holds sway as the Super Minister in charge of Power, Works and Housing. The Minster was recently on record as saying that no new contracts would be awarded for roads until the current contracts are paid. The Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is being prioritised as a major artery to and from the nation’s commercial hub. These efforts notwithstanding, Nigerians want to see roads get better, housing projects come on stream, and a revamped power sector. Some would even argue that Fashola could have just squarely faced power, so that the gains in that area would rub off on the economy. Citizens who hold this view do so on the basis that other areas within his current purview could be handled by other colleagues, like the Ministers of State. This notion speaks of how desperately Nigerians want the power problem addressed.
In the end, the one-year assessment of the Buhari cabinet in the eyes of many Nigerians would be gleaned from the fact that citizens are clearly getting disappointed. There is the groundswell of complaints across the land that what is currently on offer is not what the people voted for. The next one year is therefore, critical for the cabinet, reshuffled or not, to define its legacy by providing good governance. Anything to the contrary would cement the perception that the Buhari Presidency performed below par. That would be an anti-climax, considering the mountain of expectations that heralded this government.