Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ministerial screening: Shedding the garb of insinuations

The volume and vehemence of criticisms that have trailed the ongoing ministerial screening are enough to drown Aso Rock and the National Assembly. Indeed, such knocks are almost gradually taking the shine off the whole exercise, which is of far-reaching significance for the President Umaru Yar’Adua administration.

Some critics are angered by the non-inclusion of the portfolios in the list of nominees sent for screening. Others are offended by the banal nature of the questions asked by the senators, which they hold cannot bring the best out of the would-be ministers. They reason that at best, the ongoing exercise will be a return to the status quo which, in the words of Chief Gani Fawehinmi SAN, “had produced unsuitable ministers in the past.” It is also the contention of some that the decision of the Senate to sit in the open in the name of transparency is hypocritical. This group holds that the Senate should have referred the matter to the appropriate committee, which, in turn, should report its decisions to the whole House.
The critics’ anger is understandable. Nigerians’ collective experience since independence has shown that Nigeria’s disappointing level of development is mainly a function of the quality of its leadership. Nigerians seem to be resolute for a change this time, after what is believed in many quarters to be 47 years in the wilderness.

Besides, before the Senate are the 34 men and women whose activities will determine what development this nation can experience in the next four years, and indeed, the character of the Yar’Adua administration. And getting it right is not open to question.
But a cursory look at the rules directing the actions of the Presidency and the Senate shows that both institutions are justified under the circumstances. Rule 118 (a & b) of the Senate Standing Orders 2007 (As Amended), which deals with Proceedings on Nominations, says, “When nominations shall be made by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the Senate, the nominations shall: (a) if the responsibilities of the nominees are specified, be referred to the appropriate committee, (b) if the responsibilities are not stated, be referred to the Committee of the Whole Senate.”

Going by the afore-mentioned rule, the President is left with two options: to delay the presentation of the list of nominees till the Senate constitutes its committees, or to send it immediately but without portfolios for consideration by the whole House.

The first option has its constraints. Nigerians are already impatient with the pace of governance since this administration was inaugurated on May 29, 2007. This has earned the President the nickname, ‘Baba go slow.’ So, in keeping with the expectations of Nigerians, the President in his wisdom must have decided to act with dispatch. And in adopting the ‘Do it now’ method, he was left with no option but to send the list without portfolios in consonance with Rule 118 of the Senate since the committees are not yet in place.

In retrospect, the Senate 5th had, on a motion moved by its Majority Leader, Senator Dalhatu Tafida, and supported by majority votes as specified by relevant rule, set aside its Rule 118 (a) during the screening of the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Maurice Iwu for appointment. The House had agreed with Tafida that in view of the importance of the office to the nation, the screening should be handled by the Committee of the Whole House.
On the issue of the decision of the Senate to sit in the open in the name of transparency, the House derives its powers from Rule 119 which states that, “The Senate or Committee shall sit in open session unless the Senate or Committee by a majority vote decides otherwise.”

The real trouble with the ongoing screening
The National Assembly was constituted on June 5, 2007 and its principal officers were elected the same day. With about 20 per cent returning Senators, analysts say that the Senate should have been proactive by constituting its committees promptly, so as to enable it to respond to the exigency of screening in view of its importance to national life. If the committees were to be in place, for instance, the President would have possibly attached the portfolios of ministerial nominees and the type of screening Nigerians yearn for would have been done.

Another trouble with the ongoing screening with regard to the mode and manner of the exercise is essentially information management, chief among which is a communication gap between the Senate and the Presidency. The two should have met to discuss the problem and how to go about it. There is the possibility that the President would have been advised to wait for the Senate to constitute its committees before presenting the list, in the interest of the nation.
‘Take a bow’: Another look

The Senate, as a rule, does not screen one of its own. When a member of the Senate, former or serving, is presented for screening, courtesy is the word; they are asked to “take a bow and go.” While conceding this tradition and the fact that the position of a Senator of the Federal Republic is a distinguished and respectable one, one must nevertheless state that most Nigerians are of the opinion that the bow should not exclude necessary grilling on how the ‘distinguished nominee’ will deliver, if appointed. The skills and competences needed to excel as a minister are far different from those needed for lawmaking.

Such thoroughness is advisable, furthermore, because a poor performance by a distinguished ex-senator will be a dent on the image of the whole House.
Senate Rule 120 and former public office-holders
President Yar’Adua stole the hearts of most Nigerians last month when he declared his assets publicly. Having tasted this spring of transparency, Nigerians will want to know if the Senate respects Rule 120 (a) which compels it to scrutinise the assets declaration forms of nominees who had held public offices prior to their nomination. The Rule says, “The Senate shall not consider the nomination of any person who has held any public office as contained in Part II of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution prior to his nomination unless there is written evidence that he has declared his assets and liabilities as required by Section 11 (1) of Part 1 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Such declaration shall be required for scrutiny by the Senators.”

The way forward
In view of the experiences with general screening in the past and the shortcoming already identified in the ongoing general screening, there is the need for Mr. President to put appropriate measures in place to break way from the past and put round pegs in round holes. It is obvious that the ongoing screening cannot produce the kind of ministers that will take the nation to the next level.

Since there is no provision for re-screening of nominees, the onus is on the President to cause the nominees to submit a blueprint on how to move the ministries forward, in line with the vision and seven-point agenda of his administration.

The Senate President, David Mark, came close to this in his parting remarks to the first screened nominee, Dr. Abbah Sayyd Ruma. He said, “I think we have had enough lectures on education. What I would want you (Dr. Ruma) to do is to do a short paper on the Education Task Fund, with regard to the autonomy of universities that the Academic Staff Union of Univesities is asking for and a few other similar topics. These are the areas where we need to work on.”
The nominees’ presentations should address their areas of competencies. In other words, they should be competency based and the nominees should demonstrate a deep knowledge of the issues and challenges in their proposed ministries, provide measurable strategies toward addressing them and assign time frames to their targets to enable the President and Nigerians to assess their performances.

Besides, the President should have progressive performance assessment indexes – e.g. quarterly, annually, biennially – for measuring his ministers’ performance. Besides the fact that this will put them on their toes, it will control unnecessary pressure from politicians and sponsors each time the President wants to remove a minister on the grounds of non-performance.

There is also the need for leaders to be more forthcoming in the area of information management. Silence on issues of critical national importance creates room for innuendoes and insinuations. The battering that the President and the Senate have been receiving would have been avoidable if the public had been informed about the relevant portions of the Senate rules that prompted the procedure of the ongoing screening

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