Wanted Noisemakers

With technocrats in the civil service doing all the work needed for effective governance, Nigeria has little need for ministers. That is close to the truth, albeit not the whole truth, President Muhammadu Buhari told his interviewer in Paris last week. The declaration came when France 24 TV asked him if the lack of a finance minister was not hurting Nigeria’s economy. “No,” he replied. “The ministers are there, I think, to make a lot of noise – for the politicians to make a lot of noise. But the job is being done by the technocrats.”

The president’s statement in a foreign land, however, needs some clarifications: He couldn’t have written ministers off, for he himself was once a minister in a military regime. He said the technocrats do “most of the job”, not the whole job. Though “the end of the month is coming too quickly for my liking”, he still promised to name his ministers in September. And he didn’t consider noisemaking completely useless in politics.

Ministers may be named this week or next, but it’s not likely they will start work before the end of October. What the president promised is to send his list to the National Assembly in September. The Senate, battling with “cash crunch” and its leadership crisis, may require unusual time to screen them. Politicians that will not be comfortable with the ministerial list may also attempt to make trouble. To douse tension, the Presidency may follow up with ambassadorial nominees, and then fill some more positions in government agencies. We should expect President Buhari to start working with a full cabinet from next year.

But for the Nigerian constitution, which prescribes at least one minister from each state, it would have been advisable for the president to work without minsters until the end of his tenure in 2019. What he has saved the nation in the past four months alone runs into billions of naira. In fact, the salaries of 40 or 42 ministers and their aides in one month exceed N1billion. Do the maths: Three years ago, when senators were being criticised for earning N22million each monthly, they pointed fingers at ministers who, they said, were receiving more.

I know President Buhari likes cutting costs. But can he gamble also? He would have a hard time justifying his action before fellow politicians if he simply converted the permanent secretaries he has been working with to minsters. They would ask him where the technocrats were when they [the politicians] were working for his election.

Noisemaking has its uses, especially for politicians. Perhaps Buhari meant that ministers help to explain government’s programmes and policies or sell them to the people. They speak to the press and grant interviews. Since every state has a minister, every state is represented in the affairs of the executive branch of government at the centre. So ministers are desired noisemakers in a democracy.

Besides, it’s not completely true that the job of ministers ends with noisemaking. The actual noisemakers, in a negative sense, are in the legislature. Judging by what we’ve seen so far, the makers of the 1999 Constitution created a booby-trap for the Fourth Republic by making law-making a fulltime job. Having “lawmakers” at the local, state and federal levels who do nothing but fight and receive jumbo pay is clearly unsustainable. Those who shout “aye” and “nay” once a month are the real noisemakers the nation doesn’t need.

Ministers, at least, attend FEC meetings and contribute ideas. It’s civil servants or “technocrats” that teach ministers how to steal and not get caught. Nothing gets done in time because of webs of bottlenecks civil servants create. Some ministers may benefit from overinflated contracts, but they share the loot with their collaborators in the civil service.

Who, for instance, created ghost workers through which billions of naira are stolen every month in Nigeria? Perhaps the president should be informed that many government departments and schools don’t exist in real life. They exist only in the books of the “technocrats” who provide “continuity” and “do most of the job”. Contracts for office blocks, cars, office equipment and stationery of ghost institutions are awarded regularly. And the salaries, allowances, gratuities and pensions of “workers” in these ghost departments and schools are paid promptly every month! The efficacy of IPPIS and now TSA in blocking these drainpipes is yet to be tested.

President Buhari would do well to save scarce resources by striving to reform our politics immediately. Using the 2014 National Conference as a springboard, he should pressure (and arm-twist) the legislature to endorse an edited version of that report, and then implement it to ensure a new political order from 2019. To eliminate noisemakers and drainpipes, the country won’t need 36 states, 774 LGAs and 42 ministers. Lawmakers would be paid stipends per sitting. There wouldn’t be 1, 400 officeholders who consume 30 per cent of the nation’s resources.


Follow me on Twitter: @Eyewayng

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