Nigeria: Buhari’s mini cabinet reshuffle raises eyebrows ahead of 2023 polls

By Dele Yusuf
Posted on Monday, 13 September 2021 16:56, updated on Tuesday, 14 September 2021 15:09

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari gestures after cutting an inauguration tape as he commissions projects during his visit to Imo State, Nigeria September 9, 2021. Nigerian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

For the first time in his six years in office, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari sacked two of his ministers in a cabinet reshuffle in the first week of September. Though the president claimed it was done based on a performance review, some believe Buhari carried out the mini reshuffle “to save face” amid growing criticisms over the worsening state of affairs on all fronts.

Nigeria has been a theatre of drama lately. There’s the attack on the country’s elite military school, the continued abduction of school children, the lockdown of states in the country’s northwest region, the violent secession in the southeast and then the struggle for businesses and the economy to survive. But none of that beats President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to relieve two federal ministers of their positions.

The development was received with mixed reactions not just because of recent events that further cast doubts on Buhari’s performance and that of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), but also because it was an unprecedented move; the only other time he reshuffled his cabinet was almost a year ago when he redeployed two ministers who swapped their positions.

Most of the ministers are incompetent and have failed in their responsibilities. But Buhari still retains them because he himself is a failure.

In the statement announcing that both Saleh Mamman and Sabo Nanono had been relieved of their appointments as minister of power and of agriculture and rural development respectively, Buhari said the move was informed by an “independent and critical self-review.”

“I have found it essential to reinvigorate this cabinet in a manner that will deepen its capacity to consolidate legacy achievements,” he said.

However, according to Inibehe Effiong, a Lagos-based lawyer and public affairs analyst, sacking just the two ministers based on a purported review shows “the president himself does not have an understanding of what is going on in the country.”

“Most of the ministers are incompetent and have failed in their responsibilities. But Buhari still retains them because he himself is a failure,” Efffiong tells The Africa Report. “If you look at the way the president has led the country, it seems he wants to destroy whatever is left of the country and there have been no serious reforms.”

Nigeria’s main opposition the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) also said it was not impressed while reacting to the cabinet reshuffle which saw Mohammad Abubakar, minister of environment, oversee the agriculture ministry, while Abubakar Aliyu, who had been minister of state for works and housing, will take over as the minister of power.

The PDP’s spokesperson says “there is no hope in sight” for Buhari and the APC ahead of 2023 elections. He adds: “The manifest inefficiency of the Buhari administration is a product of the President’s myopic and divisive approach to governance, as well as the impunity and corruption deeply embedded in his administration and party.”

What really informed the president’s decision?

Femi Adesina, a presidential media aide, later admitted that “…as much as the ministers did in my own esteem, there are areas of improvement in those two sectors.” While speaking to the local Channels TV station, Adesina added: “There are areas of improvement in those two sectors: agriculture and power. We can always improve in whatever we do, but the President must have what he wants to achieve in those two areas within the 20 months left in government, and maybe that was why he did what he did.”

A source close to Nigeria’s seat of power provided further insight into the development, saying the two ministers sacked were among those nailed by the performance review that Buhari had commissioned. The review, the source said, offered all ministers the opportunity to defend their projects and actions, especially during cabinet meetings. Now, the outcome “has made the other ministers to “be on alert,” the source added.

“We all know that power and agriculture are among nine priority areas for the president,” he said. “He was not impressed by their performance and more are expected to go.”

The many ‘sins’ of the two former ministers

Apart from both agriculture and power ministries being considered as key “priority areas” for President Buhari, he was elected due in part to the goodwill he enjoyed after promising to deliver Nigeria from its chronic epileptic power supply and to boost agricultural production to make Africa’s most populous country self-sufficient in food supply.

After power had been merged with works and housing portfolios during his first term, Buhari separated power as a standalone ministry when he created new ministries at the beginning of his second term. Mamman was brought back to active service to oversee the power ministry after retiring in 2002 from the ministry of works where he served as an assistant director in charge of electricity.

Although Nigeria’s power sector reportedly recorded an all-time national peak transmission of 5,459.50 megawatts in October last year, it remained far from adequate and could not light up the country of more than 200 million people.

Not just that, challenges such as the collapse of power systems continued to happen, with the national grid collapsing four times in the last eight months, often throwing the entire country into a blackout.

In fact, The Africa Report learned that “the lack of trust” in the 63-year-old was what informed the decision of Buhari’s late chief of staff Abba Kyari to travel to Germany with the former minister to meet with officials of the German energy company Siemens AG over the deal Nigeria signed with it on improving electricity supply. It was in the course of that trip that Kyari contracted Covid-19 and later died from, presidency sources had said.

In addition to controversial electricity tariff increases announced during Mamman’s tenure, agencies under the ministry of power were rife with internal disputes that culminated in him replacing most of their heads, including at the Rural Electrification Agency (REA), the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) and the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading PLC (NBET).

Nevertheless, the erstwhile minister of power believes he recorded “giant” strides in office. In a Facebook update, he said: “My sincere gratitude also goes out to everyone at the Federal Ministry of Power and its supervising agencies, without your tremendous and selfless efforts, we couldn’t have recorded the giant strides we achieved in the past 2 years.”

On his part, Sanono started off with a promise to move agriculture “to the next level” in Nigeria. On his first day at work as agricultural minister, he said: “I am very much interested in agriculture and most people identify me with that. Agriculture has been a sector that has been holding the economy and we need to work in synergy to move agriculture to the next level.”

90% of his ministers have no business being in government…

Although agriculture contributed the highest to Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter of 2021 at the rate of 23.7%, high food inflation – which stood at 21% in July – and sharp rises in the prices of staple goods meant that there was little or no resultant gain for ordinary Nigerians.

The 75-year-old was also associated with many controversies including the recovery of N16bn ($38m) moved by the ministry in 2020 “under suspicious circumstances” as announced by Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency, reported payment of at least N3.08bn into private accounts of staffers of the ministry, actions with religious undertone such as the approval of N30m for the construction of a mosque in northern Borno state, and his reported marriage to an 18-year-old school leaver in Kaduna State among others.

How many more ministers to go?

The sacking of the two ministers also returned the Buhari administration to the spotlight at a time when the country is battling with security and economic challenges on various fronts. Despite the claim of the presidency source that more people are expected to be relieved of their position at their respective ministries, Buhari’s “slow and not steady” legacy and “emotional attachment to appointees” – as put by analyst Effiong –  could mean that such may not happen anytime soon.

“90% of his ministers have no business being in government,” says Hakeem Baba-Ahmed of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), a prominent northern group that played a key role in Buhari’s emergence as president in 2015.

“It is amazing that a president who came on the back of the promise of change is going to sit with the same cabinet for six years. One would only conclude that it is not an attempt to address inefficiency. And the president does not appear to be concerned that many ministers are not pulling their weight,” he tells The Africa Report.

Counting down to 2023

As the 2023 elections draw closer, Nigeria’s challenges – especially with regards to security – appear to be growing bigger.  And so, every government action is seen as perfecting plans and correcting loopholes ahead of the next round of elections.

The presidency insists Buhari has left Nigeria better than when he first started, and touts the removal of the ministers as a step in that direction. But Baba-Ahmed, who was a former chief of staff to ex-Senate President Bukola Saraki, says relieving the two ministers of their position is “completely useless” in the general assessment of the Buhari administration.

According to him, if the president is serious about addressing loopholes of his administration whether related to 2023 or not, he should do a lot more.

“He needs to overhaul his cabinet, he needs to improve the quality of advice he gets; he needs to rebuild institutions, he needs to improve the levels of accountability and responsibility of the people he trust and above all, he himself needs to be more serious about keeping an eye on the people he gives responsibilities to.”

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