By Mahmud Jega
Appointment of men and women to occupy key offices in the new administration was delayed for three months “in order to get it right” and also “to avoid making mistakes,” as President Muhammadu Buhari variously explained. In the event, as soon as he appointed a Secretary to the Government of the Federation [SGF], Chief of Staff and four other important officials last Thursday, a storm of social media criticism greeted the appointments. Apparently, the strategy of delaying appointments for several months in order to get everything right failed, in some citizens’ eyes, to ensure balance and fairness in a diverse federation.
I had wondered several times on this page whether trying to get things right warrants several months’ delay. A man who gets to become an elected president of a populous country such as Nigeria should know enough people all over the place that can be trusted to hold important posts. This is especially true of Buhari who was a soldier for 32 years, was military governor of a very large state, was minister in charge of the richest Federal Ministry, was a military Head of State and who has also been in politics for 13 years now. If that experience was not enough to know good people all over Nigeria, I don’t know what else is.
If personal knowledge of good material comes short, that is what political parties are for. The problem is that Buhari does not think that his party shares in his vision, beyond mouthing the change slogan at rallies. His insistence from the start that he will not rely on party state chapters to nominate ministers is indicative of this distrust.
At the end of the long wait, Buhari appointed three men who are known to be very close to him to three top positions. Chief of Staff Malam Abba Kyari, SGF David Babachir Lawal and Customs boss Colonel Hameed Ali have all been with Buhari during most of his 13 year quest for the presidency. The message that other APC chieftains will get from these appointments is that Buhari has rewarded the men who stood by him the longest. The question is, why did it take three months’ search, only to end up with the men who were closest to him all along?
For three months the president threatened to jettison considerations of party loyalty for technocratic merit. In the event, he rewarded the longest-standing loyalty. This is not bad at all, but old ACN and ANPP elements are likely to say that well, old CPC members deserve consideration but then, without our coming on board, Buhari would never have made it to the presidency. Afterall, they will say, he tried three times with the CPC circle around him but he never made it until we came along.
ACN and ANPP chieftains think their role was decisive in Buhari’s victory but yet another element, old nPDP, believe that they were the final straw that broke the obstinate PDP camel’s back. They believe that without their coming over, APC would not have been able to defeat PDP. A still later camp joiner is Obasanjo, who seems to believe that the missiles he hurled at Jonathan made all the difference. It is noticeable that none of these APC camps came out to defend Buhari’s latest appointments from charges of lopsidedness. It was left to Buhari’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity Femi Adesina to say on Friday that the president will ensure balance in his future appointments. That is to say, the president agrees that the ones he has made so far are not balanced and he also agrees that balancing is necessary in Nigeria.
Only three days prior to last Thursday’s appointments, the [opportunistic] Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly had criticised a situation where Northerners hold the offices of President, Senate President, House Speaker, Chief Justice, Head of Service and National Security Adviser. The fact that Buhari did not appoint the Chief Justice or the Head of Service and the fact that he opposed the emergence of both Senate President and House Speaker was conveniently overlooked by SNPA.
The army of Northern social media warriors that rushed to Buhari’s defence were equally selective with facts, history and principle. Some said that Jonathan’s appointments were similarly skewed, a horrible way to defend anything. Others said that the president still has many appointments to make. While that argument was plausible a week ago, it became tenuous after last Thursday. The most important appointments yet to be made are ministerial, which contain an in-built balancing scheme since the constitution requires that each state must have at least one minister. Still others argued that balancing is a selfish elite issue. It is, but you ignore it at your peril because societies often rise and fall on the back of selfish elite issues.
Still other social media warriors said that President Buhari should be given a free hand to pick his aides purely on merit without regard to regional balancing. Any Northerner who makes this argument could be suffering from historical amnesia. Forty years ago when most Federal public servants were Southerners, they insisted that “merit” must be used as the basis for all public service appointments. Northerners however insisted on “federal character” and succeeded in writing it into the 1979 Constitution. Northerners’ vigilance has kept it in the Constitution ever since.
Not that the Southern Nigerian elite is more principled than its Northern counterpart. In the late 1970s, even while arguing against federal character in public service appointments in one breath, the Southern elite pushed for the adoption of “zoning” in the political theatre, where it was disadvantaged. Twenty years later the Southern elite amplified zoning into the principle of power shift. So, the promotion of self-serving principles that suit their immediate needs is not the preserve of one regional elite in Nigeria. However, it will be doubly opportunistic if the North comes round at this point to adopt the Southern position of 40 years ago because the tables are now reversed.
Federal character principle was so contentious in 1980 that the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies [NIPPS] organised a national seminar on it. At that seminar, prominent Southern intellectuals such as Godwin Sogolo, Eghosa Osaghae and Peter Ekeh defended it as a form of affirmative action, saying an arrangement that keeps a diverse Federation in peace is superior to the need for “merit.” To those who said federal character lowers standards, Sogolo said no standard is lowered if a federation works out an arrangement that guarantees peaceful co-existence within it because there is no higher standard than that.
Balancing aside, last Thursday’s appointments threw up a few other issues. The new SGF Lawal’s CV did not show that he had any experience in the mainstream public service. Equally curious is the appointment of Colonel Hameed Ali to head the Customs. This is not the first time that a non-Customs officer is being sent to head the paramilitary organisation. In 1989 the IBB regime brought Dr. Bello Haliru Mohamed from outside to head the Customs. The Abacha regime later sent Army Brigadier Samuel Ango to head the Customs.
There was uproar in the 1990s when Abacha appointed Major General Haladu Hananiya to head the Federal Road Safety Corps. Under the military regimes, soldiers headed many civilian agencies including Nigeria Airways, Federal Housing Authority, Nigeria Railways and National Sports Commission. Since then however, the trend has been to allow large state agencies to nurture their own leaders. Speculations before the appointments were that Ali was to be sent to EFCC. While the Customs Service could do with some of his tough guy reputation, Customs has grown in recent years into a sophisticated operation with a huge IT system infrastructure driving its destination inspection and other complicated trade rules.
Whatever are the president’s calculations, he ought to remember that an Army General who is launching a big military offensive does not leave his flanks badly exposed. The same rule applies in politics. Trenchant criticism of his fairness in appointments as well as silent restiveness within his party’s ranks could outflank the president in his main offensive battles against Boko Haram and corruption.
By Mahmud Jega