Timeline on Cabinet Formation: How Relevant is a Legislative Backup?

The bill to provide a timeframe for a President-elect to appoint Ministers scaled second reading in the House of Representatives recently. The bill seeks to, among other things, ensure that a President forms his cabinet within 30 days of his or her swearing-in.

According to Kpam Sokpo, a lawmaker from Benue who sponsored the bill, the bill seeks to provide a legal framework for the transition of the President and Vice-President. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Special Duties for further legislative functions.

The importance of a cabinet in government is significant in many ways. The Federal Cabinet is part of the Executive Branch of the Government of Nigeria. The Cabinet’s role, as written in the Ministers’ Statutory Powers and Duties (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1 is to serve as an advisory body to the President of Nigeria. The Cabinet oversees Federal Ministries, each responsible for some aspect of providing government services, as well as several parastatals (government-owned corporations). The Federal Cabinet in Nigeria is backed by a Federal Character Principle, which provides for a statutory representation from each state of the federation; thereby making it a national body and a reflection of all parts of Nigeria.

The Cabinet in Nigeria is a deliberative and policy formulating body that meets every Wednesday as the Federal Executive Council. It discusses and decides all sorts of national and international problems confronting the country. It is responsible for planning, coordinating, and implementing the day-to-day running of government Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs).

It will be recalled that in 2015, Nigerians held the presidential election on 28 March 2015. The official result was announced on 1 April 2015 with the inauguration taking place on 29 May 2015, nearly two months after the elections. Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) won the election, defeating the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of PDP. Of course, a new government is expected to put in place a fresh cabinet upon taking over the mantle of leadership. It is in fact one of the reasons why elections are held two or three months before inauguration, to give the incoming leader (especially those freshly elected) ample time to put in place necessary plans for the government.

Nigerian political office holders, nonetheless, are reputed to be laggard and slow in setting up cabinets both at Federal and State levels; due to intense politicking and gerrymandering. The new President in 2015 displayed unprecedented dawdling and passiveness in forming a Federal Cabinet. The President went for four months without an established or prospective cabinet; finally sending the first batch of Ministerial Nominees to the Senate for vetting and approval on 30 September 2015. He also sent the second batch on 12 October 2015. The 36 Ministers were eventually sworn in and inaugurated on 11 November 2015. This is a whopping 196 days after he was inaugurated as President!

In his defence, the President said the need to restructure the Federal Government ministries and to effect his party’s mantra of change in government processes and operations accounted for the delay.

This period when the country had no Federal Cabinet in place engendered substantial ripples in the polity; with the opposition quick to point out that it is a clear indication of the unpreparedness of the new government. Neutral observers were equally critical of the delay. But the President’s supporters defended the delay, claiming that he was being careful and cautious in selecting people of integrity and character to be helmsmen of his new government.

The final exhibition of the Ministers, however, negated this theory with the unveiling of the nominees showing familiar names and faces: the majority being former political office-holders and party loyalists, with a few non-political technocrats.

Following his re-election for a second term in office which was announced on 27 February 2019, three months before his inauguration on May 29 2019, the President, being a sitting leader was expected to learn from the 2015 mistakes and be swift in setting up a new cabinet (which will be a rejig of the existing one; removing some and adding few members). He, however, took close to another two months in office before sending a 43-man ministerial list to the Senate on 23 July 2019. He, subsequently, inaugurated the cabinet for his second term on 21 August 2019 — three months after the inauguration.

Some political analysts have attributed most of the shortcomings of the Buhari administration’s first term in office to the delay in setting up the necessary leadership for the relevant ministries to establish and coordinate the economic affairs of government.

With the absence of a Federal Cabinet, day-to-day operations of the different ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) will be weakened, while coordination of important government policies and programmes will be inefficient.

The recent action of the House of Representatives is in order and will be good for the country. This is because leaving when to set up a Federal Cabinet to the discretion of a President affords them an excessive luxury at the detriment of the larger nation as was the case in 2015 and 2019. It is equally a commendable development as the President might set an unsavoury precedent that could be exploited by future Presidents if nothing is done to legally prevent a re-occurrence.

Read Also: Between Parliamentary Bills and Presidential Vetoes: A Widening Gulf

Nigerian political actors can learn from the events in the United States with President Joe Biden’s swiftness and alacrity in putting in place his cabinet members already in the works as early as 10 November 2020, just a few days after he got the required 270 electoral college votes needed to clinch the Presidency.

The US media was awash with lists of prospective nominees from the Biden transition camp that will be appointed as intelligence chiefs, cabinet and non-cabinet members; while also rolling out plans and strategies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, economic problems, and the challenge to unite and heal a nation in the aftermath of the keenly contested election.

Hours after President Joe Biden was sworn into office on 20 January 2021, White House officials released the names of the administration’s acting heads of agencies as other top political appointees awaited Senate confirmation. The Senate began confirmation hearings the day before inauguration for five of Biden’s Cabinet picks, with subsequent nominees being confirmed few days after his inauguration.

In Nigeria, upon confirmation of electoral victory, the president-elect is typically inundated with an avalanche of congratulatory messages, visitations, publicity, and all sorts of ceaseless political jamborees and sideshows. While this is not entirely bad, it is expedient to place more premium on the incoming President’s readiness to start assembling his transition teams, prospective ministers and heads of agencies, including necessary processes to address critical national issues.

With the next presidential election slated tentatively for 23 February 2023, there is a window of close to three months before the inauguration on 29 May 2023. That timeframe is sufficient for the incoming President to have assembled his prospective cabinet members. Upon swearing-in, it will be advantageous to the nation if the president can send the nominee list to the Senate within the first and second week of his tenure; with approval and inauguration of the cabinet within the first 30 days of his tenure. This is attainable and its positive effect on the country’s governance model will be something that will be beneficial to all and sundry.

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