Following President Buhari’s second inauguration, Nigerians turned their attention to the next act of our political drama: cabinet appointments. The role of a minister is one of the most coveted positions in government and presidents have often prioritised political loyalty over talent. Given the role ministers play in policy advisory and implementation, presidents ought to prioritise their ability to coordinate and implement policy over political loyalty.
How did political parties first get involved?
At independence, Nigeria adopted the Parliamentary system, which required cabinet ministers to be selected from Parliament. This meant they were accountable to the legislature—both ruling party and opposition members—and not just the Prime Minister. This was especially true when the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and the Northern People's Congress (NPC) formed Nigeria’s first government, with NCNC leaders Jaja Wachuku and Festus Okotie-Eboh joining the Balewa cabinet.
When Nigeria adopted the presidential system in 1979, nominated ministers no longer had to be party members in the legislature, and were only required to be approved by the Senate.
However, President Shagari, who had served under the parliamentary system, passed up this opportunity to remove party influence in cabinet appointments. Instead, Nigeria’s first democratically-elected president asked his party members to send in nominations. A reluctant president, Shagari struggled to control his cabinet and the party power brokers that determined its composition.
We can trace today’s problems of party loyalists influencing ministerial appointments back to Nigeria’s first presidential cabinet.
Do politicians make good ministers?
Since 1999, every cabinet has mainly consisted of politicians with strong party ties, with the occasional technocrat or business leader thrown in the mix. When comparing calibre and experience, there appears to be some difference between ministers who were selected based on their relevant experience and those who were chosen because of political loyalties.
For example, one could compare Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Rabiu Kwankwaso, who served as the respective Finance and Defence Ministers under President Obasanjo. Okonjo-Iweala, a technocrat with no party ties, negotiated a historic debt cancellation and introduced key financial transparency initiatives. Her success as Finance Minister followed a stint at the World Bank.
On the other hand, Kwankwaso was an influential member of the PDP, who had previously served as the Kano State Governor before losing his re-election bid after being accused of corruption. Kwankwaso’s term as Defence Minister was at best inconsequential and at worst detrimental. He is most remembered for his alleged involvement in a controversial arms deal and his role in the management of the Niger Delta conflict which worsened during Obasanjo's second term.
That said, non-partisan Ministers do not always perform well. Diezani Allison-Madueke had limited party engagement before being chosen as a minister, yet she has since been charged with gross corruption.
Similarly, a few partisan Ministers, such as Adamu Ciroma and Mohammed Daggash, have been successful in implementing policies and improving the running of their ministries. Ciroma served as the Central Bank of Nigeria governor before his appointment as Minister of Finance while Daggash had considerable experience as a civil engineer before being appointed as Minister of Works.
Partisanship, in theory, is not a problem; it only becomes one when viewed as the only requirement for the ministerial post.
Is the current process bad for the nation?
One could argue that in practice, the cabinet is mostly a political body and the civil service does the technical work. If so, it may not matter so much that ministerial posts are used to reward loyalty.
However, this view of the cabinet as a political body may stem from the fact that presidents have prioritised political capital over role suitability, making policy secondary to politics. In essence, the Nigerian cabinet is a political body because our presidents have made it so.
The cabinet should influence and help drive pro-development policies; this is unlikely for as long as it is staffed with politicians who know little about the ministries they are charged with running and misappropriate budgets and contracts. It is not about whether ministers make a difference in Nigeria today, it is about whether they misuse the opportunity to do so and if we are complicit through a system that engenders this.
That said, one could also argue that giving budding politicians cabinet roles allows party members to develop their leadership and managerial skills. However, Nigeria’s extensive executive branch provides ample opportunity for leadership and development at lower levels of government.
Moreover, Ministers are required to provide direction for career civil servants, and by prioritising influence over merit, party involvement in ministerial selection can create a situation where civil servants are discouraged and fail to serve adequately. The consequences of policy mismanagement and corruption present a significant hurdle to Nigeria’s development.
Parties have always had involvement in the ministerial process, and it is unlikely to change anytime soon because it is an easy way to reward ‘delivering votes’ to a presidential victory. Ministers hold a lot of discretionary power over government spending and contract allocation, all of which make the role especially appealing for politicians looking to wield influence. Changing this will require either stronger accountability by the Senate in vetting proposed ministers or improving the role of the civil service to ensure quality service even if some unqualified elements survive the vetting process.
The most important check remains more informed and politically-conscious Nigerians holding presidents to account for their cabinet selections. If this doesn't happen, Nigeria may continue to suffer from the consequences of policy mismanagement or the cabinet may become relegated to a figurehead role in which citizens continue to expect little of them.