President Muhammadu Buhari infamously described ministers as “noisemakers” in an interview with a French channel in September.
The president was then trying to explain the delay in appointing ministers and suggested the real work was done by civil servants and not the “noisemakers”.
He eventually named his ministers and this week they were assigned portfolios. This has kicked off a lot of “noise” from Nigerians in the media and social media ranging from the suitability of some ministers, to the ministries assigned them, to why certain ministries were merged, such as Power, Works and Housing, and Transport and Aviation.
Some have labelled the former Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola as a “super minister” because he now in charge of Power, Works and Housing. Others have claimed that the aviation ministry involves specialisms that should separate it from the transport ministry.
What most of the chatter on ministers and portfolios demonstrate is that many Nigerians don’t know how government works.
This morning on Channels 24, a Lagos-based TV station, there was a discussion on “Buhari’s cabinet: The challenges ahead”, with guests Sanya Oni from the Nation newspaper, Ken Okolougbo, a former commissioner from Delta State, and Ezekiel Nya-Etok a “commentator”.
The last two guests kept banging on about the need for “square pegs in square holes”, which Okolougbo said Buhari had claimed would be his motivation with ministerial appointments. Nya-Etok claimed that without being an expert in an area, the minister had to rely on advice and could be “bamboozled and misled” and ministers should be people who knew the “terrain” and the “subject area”. This is not a sound argument because even experts rely on advice. Anyone that thinks they know everything, is setting themselves up for failure.
Only Oni seemed to have the right idea. He said that the key issue is whether the minister wanted to work. Within a week, a hardworking minister should have an idea what went on in their ministry. A minister’s job was to lead and provide strategic direction. There were enough experts in each ministry and the minister didn’t need to “micromanage”. The minister was meant to be the “face of the administration” and “translate the vision of the president into the day to day” running of the ministry. In other words, he is the political figurehead.
According to Oni, what mattered was the minister’s level of exposure in leadership and not specialism. Okolougbo argued that Kayode Fayemi, the new Minister for Solid Minerals, would have been a better fit as Foreign Minister. This makes little sense. If a former governor like Fayemi is not suitable for any ministry, then the country is in trouble. As governor he was responsible for and was expected to provide strategic direction for all the ministries in his state.
There has also been a lot of noise whether Power, Works and Housing are too much for one minister to handle. But there is little going in the Ministry of Works. Unlike decades ago, when the ministry had its own tractors and equipment to build and maintain roads, all that stuff is now outsourced to private companies. So the argument for that ministry to remain separate is dodgy. There is little going on either with housing provision at federal level. So why should this be a standalone ministry?
Power supply is a huge task and should constitute about 90% of Fashola’s time. He has a Minister of State in Mustapha Baba Shauri and permanent secretaries and directors to support him, without him having to micromanage. If he fails it would not be because the job was too big for one person.
Another argument claims that the dire safety record in Nigerian aviation makes it a specialised environment that needs a separate ministry, and a domain expert as the minister to ensure the right regulatory framework is in place. But there are experts at the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) as “the apex regulatory body, overseeing the activities of all airlines and their pilots, engineers and cabin staff, airports, airstrips and heliports, navigation aids, all service providers including the airport authority and the air traffic service provider, aviation training institutions, etc.” There are also experts at the ministry to ensure that the NCAA is kept on its toes. The Federal Airports Authority Nigeria (FAAN) is “a service organization statutorily charged to manage all Commercial Airports in Nigeria and provide service to both passenger and airlines”.
So if the NCAA regulates airlines and FAAN manages airports, where is the need for a separate aviation ministry? Aviation is a form of transportation and belongs to the transport ministry. Different ministries dealing with trains, planes and automobiles leads to silo working, little joined-up thinking and not seeing how decisions made in one area affect the other.
Needless to mention that the new Minister for Transportation Rotimi Amaechi also has Hadi Sirika as the Minister of State in Aviation to support him. Any failures to deliver would have nothing to do with the fact that the aviation ministry was added to Amaechi’s portfolio.
Nigerians like to make noise about the fact that we have always had lawyers as Attorney-General and physicians as health minister, so the argument goes that domain experts should be ministers elsewhere. An Attorney-General has to be a legal practitioner because it is in the constitution and the role involves being the “Chief Law Officer”. It means he/she is the chief legal adviser and the constitution rightly requires he/she must have at least 10 years legal experience.
There is no such requirement in health or any other ministry. We have had many experienced physicians and professors of medicine as health ministers. None has had any impact on delivering decent healthcare services to the majority of Nigerians.
If Buhari’s cabinet fails to deliver for Nigeria it would be because they were “noisemakers” that didn’t want to work for ordinary Nigerians, and not because they were not specialists in their ministries or the size of the ministry.
The president should have gone even further and merged Science and Technology with Education. The Ministry of Budget and National Planning belongs to Finance. Solid Minerals should have been under Industry, Trade and Investment. I’m sure that would have led to even more noise about “noisemakers”.