Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ministerial screening: Senate in another shadow boxing?

As Senators began confirmation of President Umaru Yar’Adua’s ministerial nominees, political observers doubt whether the Upper House can do a thorough job of ascertaining the competence of persons appearing before it without portfolios attached to their names. Vanguard politics looks at the merits of this arguement.
Yesterday the Senate began to examine the backgrounds and qualifications of persons forwarded to it by President Umaru Yar’Adua to occupy positions of ministers, in line with section 147 of 1999 Constitution, which empowers the Upper House to screen ministers forwarded to it. Coming 43 days after the inauguration of the present government, a lot of people had dubbed the process of forwarding these names to the Upper House as slow and an indication of poor preparation by the government to tackle very quickly the challenges of governing the country effectively. Those who hold this view see Yar’Adua’s style as exposing his insufficient grasps and understanding of the country, bequeathed to him by his predecessor.
Organising a government is seen in many quarters as the first true test of the character and complexion of any leader. And to those who hold this opinion, the quicker a government is able to settle down, the more confidence it elicits from the people. So far, there are not many people who think President Yar’Adua has shown strength in this regard. In a way, the slowness of President Yar’Adua in forming his government is not altogether surprising considering the manner he emerged. He was until last November a dark horse, who was picked by erstwhile President Obasanjo as his successor out of the blues. Yar’Adua before then had little contact with the rest of the country outside Katsina. With limited political contact and knowledge of the country, President Yar’Adua had to take his time before appointing people into offices.
On the converse, the speed and firmness with which Obasanjo constituted his government in 1999 did a lot to stabilise his government on coming to office. However, this comparison might not tell that much considering that Obasanjo was elected President on February 28th and he took over formerly on May 29th. Meaning he had three months to cross check the background of those he was appointing into offices. Yar’Adua had his election announced on April 23st and inauguration a little over a month later. Thus, in terms of time, Obasanjo had an advantage over Yar’Adua, a fact many people might gloss over in evaluating the settling down for business of these two administrations. Still, there are those who think that if Yar’Adua had averted his mind sufficiently on how he would compose his administration, he would not have delayed this long.
Nevertheless, having crossed the rubicon by naming his nominees, a new round of debate has emerged, and that is the quality of persons he has forwarded to the Upper House. It has been a combination of notable persons, some of whom has image baggage and a collection of unknown persons without antecedents; in other words, dark horses. Names like John Akpanudoudehe, from Akwa Ibom; Halima Alao, from Kwara; Akinlabi Olasunkanmi, from Osun etc do not ring a bell of any sort. Some others on the list are known PDP stalwarts, who have held public offices and have achieved national visibility over the years, and these are: Charles Ugwu, from Imo State; Ojo Maduekwe from Abia; John Odey from Cross River State.
Following the unveiling of this list last Thursday, the reaction to it has been mixed. Some opinion feel that its composition did not rise to the level that would impose a definite character on the Yar’Adua government other than that it is a party’s cabinet. The nay sayers doubt whether the persons on the list have the pedigree to cope with the challenge of rapid transformation of the economy, which Yar’Adua says he wants to see as one of 20th largest economy by year 2020. They fear that there are too many politicians among them, men whose pedigree are commonly known and whose track record does not generate much confidence. In some people’s mind, an Ojo Maduekwe, General Godwin Abbe, Adamu Waziri Maina, Charles Ugwu despite their individual accomplishments have not over the years shown the stellar character that makes them the most sought after talents the country can muster to move it forward. The way it stands at the moment, the collateral effect of having these number of persons in Yar'Adua’s cabinet is that they define the way the public responds to the administration. A combination of Yar’Adua’s dour personality and this mixed bag of ministerial appointees, is any ones guess how the government would fare in the next four years.
For instance, what is there to write about Halima Alao. By the same token as some people have argued - what was there to say about Dora Akunyili, before she became a national icon. Still, there are those who recall without much enthusiasm Maduekwe’s proposal to the country to adopt a bicycle policy as transport minister, coupled with his belligerent rhetoric as PDP’s national secretary. Nor is Waziri Maina smelling of roses after the PTDF affair. His blame game with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar over the corruption scandal that trailed his tenure, left many questions unanswered over the motive for his nomination, after his failed bid to become governor of Yobe State. CharlesUgwu achieved political fame after he converted his position as President of Manufacturers Association (MAN) as a platform to campaign for the tenure elongation of President Obasanjo. His posture so embarrassed his colleagues that a few months after he was forced to stepped down on the grounds that his tenure had expired.
His attempt to become governor of Imo State was thwarted by the Supreme Court, which ruled that his nomination was tardy and violated the 2003 electoral act. In all these three examples, what is remarkable is that the list before the Senate may well be composed of Obasanjo’s hench men angling for compensation. The image baggage which these men are bringing to the Yar’Adua cabinet, which already has legitimacy question, would definitely make it hard for the Federal Government to win public confidence.
The other strand of the question that bothers a great deal of people is why President Yar’Adua did not attach portfolios to the names of his nominees so that the Senate and the general public can be able to bench mark these people against the background of what they plan to do if they assume office. Under President Shehu Shagari in the second republic, nominees to offices had their portfolios known such that it was easy during screening for the Senators to ask specific questions regarding the ministries they would be heading, and for the general public to be properly informed on what to expect from the nominees. Under President Obasanjo, who viewed the process of screening as a Constitutional intrusion into his powers to appoint whoever he wanted without question, made sure the Upper House became lame duck by declining to attach portfolios to his nominees. Thus making it difficult for anyone to ask tough questions, which might expose certain inadequacies and be read as a reflection on the President’s judgement in nominating such a person in the first place.
By refusing to include such crucial information in his letter to the Upper House for confirmation, Obasanjo, effectively short circuited the work of the legislature. Attempts to draw the former President’s attention to this deliberate oversight was rebuffed. He maintained that there was no law demanding that he should do so, and would therefore not bow to legislative order. President Obasanjo’s penchant for legalism on this matter rendered the screening a routine affair, which the Upper House themselves did little to reverse when they turned it into a circus by asking some ministerial nominees who appeared before it to take a bow and leave because they had sterling reputation and, thus, demanding any further explanation as to what they would be doing in government was unnecessary. Or sometimes banal questions that elicited laughter if the responses were adjudged good. A confirmation process that should be a heavy and difficult affair, lost its potency under the previous dispensation. The failure to grill nominees on their understanding of the assignment they were about to handle did not help this country in the past.
Indeed, a particular example of Late Chief Bola Ige, who bowed before the Senate and left, and eventually was saddled with the tasks of running ministry of mines and power, which proved problematic to the extent that by the time President Obasanjo removed him unceremoniously, he was adjudged to have failed. Ige’s case would have been different had he been interrogated by the legislature and was pressed to outline his vision such that if there were missing gaps in his thinking, the exchanges would have enriched him. In any event, it can be assumed that if any nominee knew the particular portfolio he was going to handle ahead of time, he would make independent effort to investigate the challenges and prepare himself mentality for what he would be facing not just when he appears before the Senators, but also how best he would acquit himself, on assuming office.
With President Yar’Adua aping Obasanjo’s style unlikely to enrich the process of evaluating his ministerial nominees, the Upper House should do itself the favour of asking the President to attach the portfolio to the names of the nominees. Senate President David Mark’s promise before adjourning the House last Thursday to do a thorough job can only be meaningful if he is able to get the presidency to include these additional information. Otherwise, the Upper House is unlikely to improve on the record of his predecessors, who for want of what to ask, restored to finding from such nominees whether they can recite the national anthem or what is the full meaning of such acronyms like NEEDS or SEEDS. As important as it is to find out the general knowledge of these people, it is a far cry from investigating their grasps of policies and challenges they would likely face when they assume office. Because, ultimately, Nigerians are not going to be impressed nor judge them based on whether they were able to recite the national anthem.


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