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Complex art of cabinet reshuffle

Broad and specific hints dropped by President Muhammadu Buhari last week that he is about to reshuffle his cabinet have created speculation about all aspects…

Broad and specific hints dropped by President Muhammadu Buhari last week that he is about to reshuffle his cabinet have created speculation about all aspects of the impending shuffle. The only aspect of it that is clear is that the next cabinet will be larger than the current one. How much larger, we shall see.  The number of ministers will increase from 36 to 42 or more.  It was the wily President Obasanjo that invented the 42-member cabinet back in 1999, one minister per state as the constitution requires and an additional minister for each geopolitical zones. That formula was retained through 16 years of PDP rule because it gave the president a chance to personally source for six quality professionals to head his biggest ministries while he made do with the 36 ministers of varying political and technocratic quality nominated by PDP state chapters. 

At the start of his tenure in 2015 Buhari reduced the number of federal ministries from 28 to 22. He also dispensed with the extra minister per geopolitical zone and appointed only the constitutional minimum of 36 ministers. Buhari did not miss the six extra ministers because he discarded the PDP tradition of allowing state party branches to nominate ministers. Instead he nominated all the ministers himself, with the help of his closest associates. The new system highly displeased APC governors and party leaders throughout the country. They were left holding the hat because each state APC chapter had bargained away the ministerial appointment as part of the jockeying for power the state level. Ordinary party members too were displeased. They wanted a minister who knew them personally and also knew the role they played during the campaign. Bestowing favours and patronage usually depends on that.

We do not know why Buhari reversed himself at this time and decided to have a larger cabinet. He did say that the economy has improved and there is now money to pay extra ministers. This is not very convincing. Some people think it is because there is less than a year to go before party primaries. From the point of view of APC governors and party leaders, a question more pertinent than the increased number of ministers is whether the president will allow party branches to nominate the new ministers. If he sticks to his old formula and does the nominations himself, the increased number will not satisfy governors and party stalwarts. Instead it could lead to more grudges and more allegations that PDP members occupy top posts, as Customs Comptroller General Colonel Hameed Ali sensationally charged last week.

What criteria will the president use to carry out the cabinet reshuffle? There are at least a dozen different criteria that he could use, in various combinations. Here is the bad news for armchair pundits, newspaper columnists and ambitious APC men and women: the president is not bound to use the criteria that we want him to use in carrying out the reshuffle. The criteria that he ends up using will stem from his real motives for carrying out the reshuffle, and there are at least three of these. The president’s aim could be to improve the quality of his cabinet and enhance its performance. A second likely motive could be to address party men and women’s complaints and placate APC governors and power brokers ahead of 2019. A third possibility is that President Buhari, who took five months to constitute his first cabinet, may not want to do this reshuffle at all but has been stampeded by public opinion.

If you ask most non-partisan pundits, they are likely to advise that a minister’s performance should determine whether he or she survives the cabinet changes. Trouble is, the president’s assessment of a minister’s performance could vary from the public’s assessment of a minister’s performance. Among the factors that add up to shape the public’s view of a minister’s performance are his or her appearance, visibility in the news media, cheerfulness on TV, eloquence, innovation, energetic travelling within the country [but not abroad], unscheduled visits to project sites and scolding non-performing contractors on camera, having the common touch, commissioning of completed projects [even if he did not start them], honesty in addressing problems and above all, lack of involvement in scandals. 

Of course some ministerial portfolios are more visible than others and some portfolios are easier for the public to assess than others. Citizens are quick to form opinions about a minister’s performance in power supply, roads, security, hospitals and sports but slow to form opinions about national planning, culture, foreign affairs and labour. It is entirely possible for the president to see a certain minister as a performer while the public thinks otherwise, and vice versa.

When the president finally carries out the cabinet reshuffle, pundits are likely to read the changes backwards and deduce which of the three motives motivated the changes in the first place. If the changes suggest that Buhari scored his ministers on the basis of political relevance, then pundits will charge that 2019 calculations weighed heavily on his mind and were the reason for the reshuffle. Buhari appears to value loyalty very much. In states where APC does not have the governor and in states where APC has a governor but his loyalty to the president is not assured, a minister’s political weight and savvy could become more important than his performance in office. One minister has already declared her loyalty to someone else in 2019; pundits are eager to see if she survives the reshuffle. 

Balancing is likely to be uppermost in the president’s mind as he undertakes this reshuffle. The Buhari presidency has been stung by criticisms that its appointments are regionally lopsided. It went out of its way at the weekend to publish a list of 150 political appointees in order to show that it has been fair. Sometimes balancing is carried to undue levels, in my opinion. For example, when Secretary to the Government of the Federation [SGF] Babachir David Lawal was sacked last week, it was not necessary to replace him with an Adamawa Christian, in my opinion. To narrowly zone such a critical post narrowed the scope for finding a replacement with rich public service experience. The danger is that Buhari could emulate one sad legacy of Obasanjo, who zoned particular ministries to particular states. Anytime he did a reshuffle, a new minister went straight to the ministry vacated by the last minister from his state. Gender balancing is crucial, however. When one of the five female ministers left for the UN, a man replaced her. Balancing is also needed with respect to youths, who are hardly represented in the cabinet. In the next cabinet, Buhari should also try harder to put square pegs in square holes. 

One last issue. The president said in May last year that the news media should tell him what to do with his ministers, so here are some tips. Do not change winning horses that have achieved calm and progress in their sectors e.g. Education, Finance and Transportation. Some ministers with political and technocratic heft deserve more challenging portfolios e.g. Kayode Fayemi, Ogbonnaya Onu and Chris Ngige. Although Babatunde Raji Fashola is a formidable all-round guy, Power should be separated from Works. 

Finally, APC has fellows on its reserve benches that could add star quality to the cabinet. I will mention three of them. Dr Olorunimbe Mamora was star quality as State Assembly Speaker and senator. Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed is quick on the draw in all intellectual, technocratic, political and diplomatic matters. And there is Brigadier General Lawal Jafaru Isa, who was a wunderkind as military administrator of Kaduna State and who was exonerated in the probe of buying DSS safe houses in Kano. In local football matches, reserves are called in at half time.

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