Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ministerial appointments and non-performance syndrome

The history of ministerial appointments in Nigeria is a history of putting square pegs in round holes. State governors nominate individuals on the basis of political patronage rather than ability to perform. This entrenched blunder is the cause of the logjam in our national development effort. It is also the principal reason why the country cannot move forward but remains in abject situation more than four decades after independence in 1960.

There will be no end to this embarrassing underdevelopment quagmire until this ill-conceived structure is done away with such that the president is free to select his team of competent persons from anywhere in the country that would help him realize his vision as a leader. In that case, even if every state should have a minister, the president should be free to pick competent professionals and experts with the right track record without involving the governors.

Since the dawn of the war-induced divisive and retrogressive state structure, ministers have been nominated by the state governors to serve as representatives of their states on the federal cabinet. These ministers are nominated not on the basis of their expertise or ability to perform on the job but based on party patronage and whims and caprices of the state governors. The result is that at every point in time, incompetent persons who are unprepared and lack the necessary skill to help the country are appointed into the federal cabinet.

Year in year out, government propose huge budgets that end up not achieving anything simply because those charged with the responsibility of budget implementation cannot perform. They waste the country's precious time and resources and leverage on their appointment and eventually leave the country in worse state.

The sack of 20 ministers in one swoop recently by President Yar'Adua clearly illustrates the point I am stressing. The various state governors at the beginning of the Yar'Adua administration in May 2007 nominated the ministers. Having observed the enormity of the socio-economic problems confronting the nation, that kick-off team of ministers ought to have been selected on the basis of their competence and ability to give the dwindled economic fortunes a push.

But that was never the case. Not even the promise by the president to declare a state of emergency in the power sector has been realised. The ministers supervised the 2007 national budget allocation to their various ministries that recorded zero performance. At the end, they were sent packing while the economy worsened over the period. Unfortunately, the same mistake is being repeated as new ministers are being nominated by the same governors to replace the sacked team. There seems to be no end to our groping in the dark.

The immediate past President Olusegun Obasanjo did a good job in this area. He deviated from the retrogressive norm after wasting his first four-year term (1999-2003) with minister-representatives of the governors in his cabinet by appointing technocrats that helped him achieve the few things his administration could boast of only in his second term. The first term was wasted. President Obasanjo didn't hide his predicament when he confessed at one point that he didn't know some of the ministers working with him in his first term. He realized himself thereafter and was blunt in appointing individuals such as Professor Chukwuma Soludo, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, Malam Nuhu Ribadu and Nasir el Rufai into his economic team. Each of these individuals left unprecedented mark in the administration.

For instance, while Professor Soludo revolutionized the financial sector through consolidation that has today stabilized our banks even in the face of global recession, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was instrumental to the huge $18 billion debt cancellation the country secured from its bilateral creditors. On her own part, Mrs. Ezekwesili introduced due process that for the first time exposed the magnitude of graft perpetrated by government officials and contractors in the award of contracts. The country has since then saved billions of naira that would have been swindled by unscrupulous government functionaries.

Malam Nuhu Ribadu's headlong attack against high profile corruption is unprecedented and that is one reason why he is being persecuted after being edged out of office. I think the allegations of corruption against him are politically motivated and need to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt. And, Nasir el Rufai embarked on a sweeping demolition of largely illegal structures that strewn the FCT, which de-faced the Abuja Urban Master Plan. His doggedness in that assignment has made Abuja look like the only city in the entire country.

I wish to observe that none of these technocrats who knew what their job entailed and how to go about doing it has been involved in the endemic corruption bug that is the hallmark of public officers in this country. Because they were aware that their integrity was at stake, they didn't leave any stone unturned in seeing that they effected remarkable change in their assigned portfolios. This is unlike a situation where the cronies of the governors who have no integrity to protect are appointed into high ministerial office just for its sake. These are the ones who apart from not performing go ahead to loot the treasury and still move about with volt face seemingly unruffled.

Any one who has followed the happenings since Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States on November 4 would observe that he has been going about painstakingly to appoint the best among the best in America to help him realize the vision of change he promised Americans during his electioneering campaigns. He has not relied on the state governors in America to appoint persons into key posts in his new cabinet. He has been doing it himself with due consultations with appropriate party and none party officials. His goal is to use whosoever has something to offer in the new cabinet even from outside the Democratic Party. There is no sentiment about it because failure is dangerous as it were. This is more so when the new administration is inheriting an ailing economy.

Without wasting time, soon after he was declared winner of the election, Obama pledged to "jolt" the economy when he assumes office by rapidly implementing measures that would stimulate the ailing US economy. (This is similar to President Yar'Adua's promise to declare of a state of emergency in the power sector without action to realize it). The steps Obama has taken so far leaves no one in doubt that the man means business and is determined to succeed.

Obama has been assembling highly trained experts to constitute the White House team that would help him drive the change train. For example, he has selected experts such as Rahm Emanuel as Chief-of-staff, Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State and Robert Gates as Defense Secretary. Others include Steven Chu as Energy Secretary and Tom Daschle as Health Secretary, among others.

Altogether, Obama has appointed eleven men and women with excellent track record of achievement in their respective fields into his cabinet. The latest appointment was that of Shaun Donovan, former New York Housing Commissioner, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Shaun Donovan is credited with managing a $7.5 billion to provide affordable housing to New Yorkers.

Why on earth would a team selected on the basis of what they would offer and not what they would reap from office not succeed? It is also pertinent to note that each of the appointees was assigned a portfolio right from the outset. The consideration (or call it screening in our own case) is matched with the envisaged portfolio. No individual has been appointed without knowing exactly the department (ministry in our case) that he or she is going to be in charge of.

On this note, the so-called screening of ministerial nominees carried out by the Senate is of no value without the individuals screened on the basis of the ministry they would head. It is fun bringing individuals to the Senate and asking them general questions and that is used to determine the suitability of the individual for ministerial post.

What is wrong in assigning portfolios to ministerial nominees and then screening them based on what they plan to contribute to the ministry? That is the right thing to do if those at the helm of affairs sincerely want this country to move forward. After screening and passing the nominees without a focus on what they are going to do, the nominees when eventually appointed into a strange ministry would take one year to adjust and familiarize self to the happenings in the new office. While this is going on, nothing is working and the country is worse off.

President Yar'Adua should take a cue from former president Obasanjo by appointing competent individuals with track record of performance to drive his much flaunted 7-Point Agenda otherwise, I am afraid we will be marking time on the same spot and nothing would change in the current four-year term.