By Simon Kolawole
Anybody who is interested in studying the quality of leadership in Nigeria and why our country is perpetually stuck in underdevelopment would have learnt a great deal from the screening of ministerial nominees by the senate. I don’t know where to start from. After the reign of speculation and anxiety, President Muhammadu Buhari finally sent a list of 43 nominees to the senate without attaching their portfolios — as usual. The PDP governments did that in their four terms over 16 years and we criticised them. Buhari and APC promised us “change” but they have continued with that tradition. If APC rules Nigeria for 16 years, we can expect the tradition to endure.
In keeping with tradition, the senate — made up of 109 supposedly seasoned leaders, some of them former governors — are screening the ministers and asking questions that may be of no value to anybody. The nominee they are asking questions about petroleum may end up as the minister of youth, and the one they are asking questions about infrastructure may be appointed minister of women affairs. How a group of veteran politicians and educated people, as we suppose the senators to be, would gather together in a room and be entertaining Nigerians like this on live TV is something Okey Bakassi, my favourite comedian, needs to study and replicate.
We like to deceive ourselves a lot in this country, don’t we? The elephant in the room was there for all to see: how can you be screening ministers without knowing the duties they are going to be assigned? What is the basis of your questioning? Even if you don’t know the portfolio, can’t you manage to grill them properly and ascertain if they are fit and proper candidates? Is it not a job interview? If it was your company, would you tell job applicants to “just take a bow”? Are all the 109 senators sleeping and facing the same direction, as the Yoruba proverb says? When are we going to start taking ourselves seriously in a country that has so many intelligent people?
As the tradition goes, any nominee who has been a lawmaker of any kind before is not to be questioned or screened. He is just to grandstand and then “take a bow” and leave the chamber like a royal father. I hope this gesture will be extended to ex-councillors in the future. It is a custom that the PDP-led senate nurtured for 16 years. The APC-led senate has continued the self-serving tradition. If you were once a senator, you are automatically qualified to be a minister. Really? So a former senator that has committed murder or has criminal cases on his head can just “take a bow” and go? How does “take a bow” represent rigour in our leadership selection process?
I like the “gender friendliness” of the senators — as they put it. If they are truly gender-friendly, though, there are two things they could have done. One, they should have rejected the ministerial list for having only seven women out of 43. The list is not gender-friendly anyhow defined. Many developing countries are moving towards parity while we are doing tokenistic gender-friendliness. Two, does being gender-friendly mean you should not assess the quality of the female nominees? One of the biggest ways of promoting gender is to ensure that the nominees are of high quality so that the anti-women lords can see reason why women matter in leadership.
Generally, many Nigerians have expressed disappointment with the ministerial list. They seemed to have expected something better from Buhari. As for me, immediately I saw Mallam Abubakar Malami on the list, I gave up. Nigeria has had many awful attorneys-general, but Malami will take the trophy any day. In a weird way, though, I am happy for him. The “whistle blower” venture, his favourite plaything, will certainly blossom during his second tenure as AGF. In the final one year of his first tenure, he took upon himself the duty of calculating corporate taxes, as we saw in the MTN case. Going forward, the FIRS will have its mathematical burden lessened by the AGF.
Don’t forget, also, that there is some $267 million Abacha Loot sitting somewhere in the Island of Jersey. The recovery was done by the Swiss lawyer, Enrico Monfrini, and was frozen by court order in 2014. It was about to be repatriated to Nigeria in 2015 when Mohammed Abacha rushed to a European court to stop it. However, the Jersey government has succeeded in legally seizing the money and all that is left now is a government-to-government communication for the money to be returned to Nigeria. Well, Malami has a wonderful opportunity to engage his lawyer friends to “re-recover” the loot and get their cut. With Malami’s return, the lawyers must be salivating.
His lawyer friends got a cool $15 million as their cut from the $322 million loot restituted by Switzerland last year. What did they do to earn it? They wrote a letter to the attorney-general of Switzerland to ask for the return of the loot! This is a letter Malami could have written himself. I could have helped him draft it for free if he was too busy. The monies had been recovered from Luxemburg by Monfrini and domiciled with the Swiss government in 2014 for onward journey to Nigeria. Meanwhile, Monfrini, who did the actual recoveries from various accounts and after several legal tussles over a period of seven years, got $12 million for his services. Malami’s lawyers got $15 million for their awesome letter-writing prowess. Good news: Malami is back as minister!
In keeping with the tradition started by the PDP, Buhari has nominated many politicians with dubious character into his government. Many of them have cases in court. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is my witness. Buhari came to power in 2015 promising to fight corruption, and the biggest credential he still showcases today is his anti-graft war. So why on earth would he nominate those undergoing corruption trials or those under EFCC/ICPC investigation into his cabinet? The worst he could do is to allow them clear their names before nominating them. I am not saying they are guilty, but why not let them clear their names first? As things go in Nigeria, that is the end of the matter. EFCC and ICPC will just stylishly step back.
In fact, one of the nominees, Mr. Uche Oga, was charged to court in 2016, along with his company, Masters Energy Oil and Gas, for allegedly forging a document to get a bank loan. He was even arraigned in court, granted bail and the case is still ongoing. His company was also named in the subsidy scam of 2011. They allegedly collected N2.9 billion for a cargo that never was. That is, Masters Energy was accused of not importing any petroleum product at all. They refunded N1.2 billion. He has now been presumably screened by DSS and may be passed fit by the senate to be minister. That is how we recruit leaders in Nigeria. And we keep wondering why Nigeria is like this.
Alhaji Lai Mohammed, as minister of information and culture, reportedly approved a N2.5 billion grant to a private company for the digital switch-over programme. The case is being prosecuted by the ICPC. People are still undergoing trial for this. In fact, he has been listed as a witness in the case. If he tells the court that he indeed approved the payment “in error” (as widely reported), the judge may ask him to step into the defendant’s box. The least Buhari could have done, I would say, was to ask him to clear his name before re-nominating him as minister. No matter the explanation and attempt at justification, this is not good for the eyes.
To be fair, some new nominees inspire me. I certainly like Sharon Ikeazor, who has made her mark at PTAD despite the enormous difficulties. Festus Keyamo also impressed many Nigerians, and I think he will do well in any capacity. Sunday Dare (full disclosure: we are friends) was thoroughly screened and I was not surprised he rose to the occasion. In the end, we are not asking for a cabinet of saints and geniuses but of decent and competent people who do not need to be passed fit on the basis of “take a bow”. It is even a disservice to some of the nominees who can stand their own. For a country serious about development, I would say our leadership recruitment process is still too low for zero.
-Simon Kolawole is the Editor-in-Chief of TheCable