By Mon-Charles Egbo
Nigeria is presently going through her worst of times. The country never had it this devastating. The citizens are not just wailing but are suffocating sequel to pains and frustrations.
Yet ironically, these have provoked an unusual sense of vigilance and activism among the citizenry. Most people have suddenly become interested in governance more than ever. And consequently, there is now a massive expression of impatience regarding the expectations for interventions that deliver direct relief and assurances. The people are lamenting that what they experience today was certainly not what they bargained for with their votes.
Hence, the recent screening and subsequent confirmation of the ministerial nominees by the Senate was one event that underscored these feelings of disenchantment and rekindled citizens’ interest in governance.
The exercise was roundly dismissed as a mere formality, full of frivolities. This perception was cumulatively sequel to the “bow-and-go” syndrome, eligibility and competency questions, lack of scrutiny and vigour as well as the absence of proofs of declaration of assets and liabilities.
Others included low-level youth inclusion, gender disparity, exclusion of people living with disabilities and the over-bloated nature of the nominee’s list, the elevation of partisan patronage above technocracy, and then imbalance along the geo-political divides. Then to dramatise those issues and the belief that indeed, the exercise was below public expectations, there were various protests, advocacies, and petitions.
Therefore by way of illustrations, certain nominees were shielded from scrutiny having been asked to just take a “bow and go” with little or no presentations, thereby denying Nigerians the opportunity of ascertaining the capabilities or otherwise of the would-be ministers.
Also, while some others who had unimpressive outings in the past and the ones with moral burdens were given a clean bill of health, nothing was done about the absence of the nominees’ proofs of assets and liabilities declaration as required by the laws.
Fundamentally, these perspectives sign-post patriotic consciousness and clamour for public officials with proven competencies and abilities who are validated by a responsible and responsive parliament, towards good governance and national development.
But as compelling as those conclusions are, they can still be subjected to objectivity tests primarily by interrogating the laws.
By section 147 of the 1999 constitution on the appointment of ministers, it is the prerogative of the president to nominate while the senate confirms upon screening. It further says that primarily, the nominee must be “qualified for election into the House of Representatives.”
And such qualification according to section 65 sub-section 2 of the constitution; the nominee must be educated up to at least school certificate level or its equivalent and, is a member of a political party and be sponsored by that party.
Instructively, there are no definite rules or a template for performing this all-important function. It thus implies that the Senate enjoys all the latitude and flexibility to apply any mode, provided that the laws, especially on the basic qualifications, are recognized. So by inference, the legislators, in establishing the characters and relative competencies of the nominees, are to restrict themselves to the earlier submitted details and then the interactive presentations on the floor. Also, they can screen and confirm based on antecedence.
Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that screening does not translate to probe. There are specialized agencies that undertake elaborate investigations ahead of the Senate. This is the tradition.
However, citizens have the right to raise objections to the appointments of public officials. But such rights are exercised to their full potential either through the legislature or the judiciary.
Between the elected representatives and the courts of law, including even the security agencies, one is at liberty to express themselves. At least, the nominees are well-publicized before their appearances for screening, which affords ample time to raise whatever misgivings, through either petitions or legal judgements.
And of course, as highlighted above, records spoke for some. Those whose past conducts challenged the institutional memory of the Senate and the ones whose nominations elicited security concerns were duly taken care of.
Furthermore, and except for ignorance or deliberate motives, there are parliamentary conventions that confer some kind of privileges to certain categories of persons. These include those who have previously passed through the legislature, either having served as a lawmaker or screened by the parliament.
By the protocol, they do not necessarily require reassessment given that their background data are already on the legislative archive. As such, their recent details ought to have answered all the eligibility and capability questions. But unarguably, this peculiar courtesy does not completely immune the nominees from re-evaluation, when necessary. And again on another hand, it will be extremely difficult to establish the ingenuity or expertise of a prospective appointee in the absence of the intended portfolios.
Then above all, because the buck stops on the desk of the president, who takes all the glory and blames, the discretion is entirely his, as to the quality of hands to enlist in his bid to actualize his agenda. He was entrusted with the popular mandate based on what he represents and the things he promised to deliver.
Besides, there are mechanisms to regulate productivity or tackle incompetence and ineligibility in governance, such as key performance indices, KPIs, and the force of public opinion. The potency of these instruments has variously been demonstrated wherein some public officials were either sacked or made to resign when found wanting, while those that eventually served out their terms were denied subsequent opportunities.
Similarly, and on the claim of corruption, it is unfair to conclude that someone is of questionable disposition without concrete proof. The rule has always been that whoever is convicted faces the law. Nigeria’s history is replete with instances where variously, a serving lawmaker was sent to jail, serving ministers and heads of agencies notably, a serving secretary to the government of the federation, as well as some prominent judicial officers were relieved of their positions when proven corrupt.
Also by the same token, a finance minister and presidential aides were made to quit offices principally by the immense power of public opinion. So it is uncharitable to just condemn an individual merely on parochial sentiments.
Still, on the issue of code of conduct, section 149 of the constitution says, that declaration of assets and liabilities is not done before appointment but after the nominee has been confirmed and has “subscribed the Oath of Allegiance and the Oath of Office as minister.” As such, anything to the contrary is unconstitutional and diversionary.
So, conceding that Mr President in the exercise of his sole privilege, has put forward those he trusts could deliver, the critical questions then should be: do they individually have the will, courage, and capacity to provide solutions? Are they Nigerians and passionate about national development?, are the states of the federation represented as required by the law, especially for the first time, the FCT? And lastly, does the Senate have the constitutional powers to stop the president from appointing anyone of his choice?
All these uphold the urgent need to tinker with the laws, particularly towards strengthening the legislature and other strategic institutions. The constitution is plagued by a substantial measure of weakness and in its wake, retards democratic governance and development.
But in the interim, the senate in a deliberate bid not to slow down governance, and guided by national interest, has discharged its responsibility. And thankfully also, the people have established the basic moral and performance benchmarks for the prospective ministers. So the ball is now in President Bola Tinubu’s court. As he dispatches them to their respective duty posts, governance has taken off in earnest and also, the assessment and evaluation by the vigilant masses have begun.
But moving forward, everyone should pay attention, with open minds, to the national assembly. The Senate cannot just for political expediency, feign ignorance of the shallowness of the Constitution and begin to question the sense of judgement of the president in assembling those he believes can catalyse his obligations.
The President of the Senate, Godswill Akpabio, was popularly elected by his colleagues on the strength of his avowed commitment to collaboration against confrontation with the presidency, in the lasting interest of the citizenry, without of course, compromising the interdependence of the arms of government.
His ideology is anchored on the truism that it is in the commitment of the arms of government to a shared vision or common policy direction while pursuing their different but complementary functions, that the welfare and security of the citizens are guaranteed. And to his credit in this regard so far, he has demonstrated steadfastness.
Even beyond that, past experiences have shown that whether or not the Senate withholds confirmation, the president who is the appointing authority must work with whoever he chooses, as long there are no significant breaches. The cases of the immediate past EFCC and Customs headships are pointers.
Once again and empirically, the Senate’s confirmation does not mean the end of the process. The ministers are now open to a critical round of ‘screening’ wherein the president’s fire-and-hire powers are wielded against those who fall short of the right traits to hold offices.
But it all depends on how much the people sustain this renewed sense of vigilance and interest in governance, particularly by closing ranks with the legislature, given its peculiar constitutional circumstances. Active participation through a regular exchange of information with the elected representatives backed by constructive criticisms is crucial now if we truly wish for a happy, just, and prosperous Nigeria.
Egbo is a parliamentary affairs analyst