• Saturday, February 24, 2024
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Buhari was right: His first-term ministers were just ‘noisemakers’


Remember what President Muhammadu Buhari once said about ministers? In an interview with the French TV station France 24 in 2015, he was asked whether he thought that having no ministers, particularly a finance minister, for several months was hurting the economy. He responded with an emphatic “No”! Ministers, he said, “just make a lot of noise; they are there to make a lot of noise”! The civil servants, who he described as “technocrats”, could run the country successfully, with him as president, without the “noisemakers”. For Buhari, therefore, having no ministers, no cabinet, for months was doing no harm to the economy!

But no serious government treats a cabinet with such insouciance. Elsewhere, ministers are not seen as noisemakers. They provide political leadership and policy direction; they articulate visions and set strategic objectives, and work with the civil servants to drive and ensure their delivery. Of course, as part of their leadership role, ministers are also public advocates for government policies, securing wider public support for them. But they are more than the public faces of government ministries; they take the general policy directions determined by the cabinet and translate them into specific, measurable, action-based, result-oriented and time-based (SMART) objectives.

Indeed, so pivotal are ministers to the success of any government that some presidents and prime ministers fill their cabinets with some of the best and brightest in their countries. A former British prime minister once formed a cabinet he described as “governments of all the talents”, GOATS. Of course, at the heart of any talent-based government is technocracy. Truth is, good policymaking and technocracy go together; indeed, some believe that a precondition for good policy is that technocrats are in charge of making it.

Thus, a government that wants to succeed must recognise the role of technocracy, not just at the bureaucratic level, which is the only sense President Buhari sees technocrats, but also at the ministerial level. Of course, the constraints of intra-party politics require that some people are appointed ministers for purely political reasons; however, good governance dictates that the preponderance of any cabinet should be “non-political” technocrats, or what the economists Jose Dominquez and Richard Feinberg called “technopols”, that is, technocrats assuming positions of political responsibility, namely as ministers. They – technocrats or technopols– should be in charge of critical economic-related ministries.

But by describing ministers as people who are there “to make a lot of noise, President Buhari ignored all the above. Most of his misters were appointed for political rather than technocratic reasons. Take, for instance, the minister of finance. When a large economy like Nigeria’s is in deep crisis, it needs as finance minister a strong, authoritative and experienced technocrat, with sufficient international clout, who can inspire the confidence of international financial markets in times of crisis. But Kemi Adeosun, who Buhari gave that job, was appointed purely for political reasons; she was not the right person for that job, nor was her successor!

The Oxford Dictionary defines technocracy as the “organisation and management of a country’s industrial resources by technical experts for the common good”. And in the book, The Political economy of policy reforms, the economist John Williamson wrote that a successful technopol “needs to be able to judge what institutions and policies are needed in specific circumstances in order to further desired objectives”. If you take the dictionary meaning of technocracy and Williamson’s description of the qualities of a successful technopol, it is clear, given the worsening situation in this country across many areas over the past four years, that President Buhari’s first-term administration lacked technocracy and that the few technopols in the government did not pull their weight. Truth is, over the past four years, there was more ministerial “noisemaking” than actual delivery.

There is no space to consider all the ministers in Buhari’s first term, but any assessment must start with the former governor of Lagos State Babatunde Fashola, who was the minister of power, works and housing in Buhari’s first term administration. President Buhari himself once described Fashola as “Super Minister”, who headed a super ministry. Of course, he was given that role because of his achievement as governor of Lagos State, which earned him local and international kudos.

But as super minister, Fashola was more a “noisemaker” than an achiever! He barely addressed the country’s housing deficit, estimated at over 17m, and did very little to improve the power supply, with Nigeria still producing less than 4,000 MW of electricity as against the estimated demand of 12,000. But he was good at insulting Nigerians, arrogantly saying, for instance, that “If you don’t have power, it’s not the government’s problem”. Rotimi Amaechi, Buhari’s first-term transport minister, is in the same category of ministers who make “a lot of noises”. He would claim that, in four years, he made significant achievements in developing transport infrastructure, but, in truth, across the country transport bottlenecks, on land, sea etc, are making everyday life difficult and running businesses unbearable. Nigeria is a country where the government talk about achievements, but people and businesses do not see or experience them.

Of course, when it comes to the macroeconomic environment, the finance minister and the central bank governor are the technopols who, as Williamson put it, must “be able to judge what institutions and policies are needed in specific circumstances in order to further economic objectives”. Well, I said earlier the Kemi Adeosun and her successor as finance minister, Zainab Ahmed, were not up to the job; and, of course, a few weeks ago, I ranked the CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele, a failure in the management of the economy. Inflation is high, interest rates are too high, the exchange rates are not competitive, unemployment, poverty and inequality are unbearably. Basically, Nigeria lacks the optimal macroeconomic environment to generate economic growth and prosperity. And that’s because, let’s face it, there is no technocracy, properly defined, in the management of Nigeria’s economy.

From macro, you move to micro. I once wrote that then minister of industry, trade and investment, Dr Okechukwu Enelamah, was one of the most important ministers in Buhari’s government because of the critical roles of industry, trade and investment in getting Nigeria out of the woods economically. I happen to believe that he was, broadly speaking, a successful minister, who understood technocracy. The tenacity and intelligence with which he pursued the ease of doing business agenda was impressive; his political or ministerial leadership over the negotiations of the agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) would be remembered along with the technical leadership of Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe, Nigeria’s Chief Trade Negotiator and the Director-General of the Nigerian Office for Trade Negotiations (NOTN). President Buhari received the AfCFTA impact and readiness assessment report last week, a credit to the Dr Enelamah and Ambassador Osakwe, and one must now hope that Nigeria signs the agreement.

So, Enelamah demonstrated significant technocracy in government. But Nigeria has a very unproductive and uncompetitive industrial sector and a very protectionist trade regime. Given what we know about the benefits of liberal economic policies it’s a failure of technocracy to preside over such a regime. Dr Enelamah would probably fit the description f the economist John Toye of “the economist-turned-politician who retains the vision and rhetoric of normative economics but doesn’t practise his or her economic policy-making skills”.

Truth is, virtually all of President Buhari’s first-term ministers failed to demonstrate sufficient technocracy in their roles. Buhari said ministers are there “to make a lot of noise”, and so most of them turned out to be. But what kind of ministers does he want for his second term: noisemakers or technopols? Well, we have to wait and see!


Olu Fasan