Senate’s farcical screening of ministerial nominees

THE list of ministerial nominees which President Muhammadu Buhari transmitted to the Senate virtually two months after his inauguration for a second term of office was approved by the Senate last week. It took the upper chamber of the National Assembly five days to consider and confirm the 43 nominees. To the presidency, the swift consideration and confirmation of the nominees was a manifestation of the 9th Senate’s maturity and concrete expression of its intention to deliver credible and efficient service to the country. However, many Nigerians rightly saw the screening exercise as anything but efficient. The screening was shoddy and inefficient, not because the Senate did not know what was appropriate but for considerations other than service and optimal representation of the people.  And if the essence of screening was to determine fitness for the job, the Senate did little to elicit relevant information that could have assured Nigerians about the competence and desirability of some of the nominees for the job of ministers.

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To the chagrin of many a Nigerian, the legislators simply rubber-stamped the nominees. Yes, the Senate’s capacity and effectiveness in screening the nominees was evidently circumscribed by the president’s non-assignment of portfolios to them, but it could still have rigorously sought to gain their perspectives on topical issues, especially those that bordered on the challenges currently facing the country. For instance, each of the nominees could have been requested to at least volunteer pragmatic solutions to the myriad of problems militating against the achievement of success of the three cardinal programmes of the Federal Government. But that was not done. The so-called screening was more of an adoption and endorsement of the nominees by the senators than an evaluation of their capabilities.

Undoubtedly, the non-attachment of portfolios to nominees, a tradition of the executive arm of government, made the entire exercise a charade. And it is rather disappointing that despite the ‘change,’ and now ‘next level’ mantras of President Buhari, he failed to name the portfolios of the nominees he forwarded to the Senate for ministerial screening. Just how do you scrutinise properly without knowing what you are screening for? Worse still, the senators who were lucky to ask questions were just shooting blank: they did not establish the competence of the nominees in the ministries they would eventually be assigned to. Pray, if you grilled a nominee for the position of Minister of Health based on his/her resume and previous employment but he or she is eventually assigned to the Ministry of Employment, Labour and Productivity, would you say you had objectively determined his or her fitness for the job in that circumstance?  The executive should shelve this sub-optimal leadership recruitment approach which has been unhelpful to it and the country at large forthwith.

Ideally, screening should have been done at committee level, apparently because there is no way 109 senators can screen each nominee, and performance evaluation reports tendered before the full Senate. But the most controversial aspect of the screening process was the unbridled recourse to and misuse of the parliamentary practice of giving recognition to former lawmakers, which degenerated into ‘take a bow and go’. The policy disallowed drilling of ministerial nominees who previously served as legislators. The practice started in 2003 with Senator Wahab Dosumu as the first beneficiary, but it was grossly abused during the recent screening exercise. The privilege was extended not only to former federal legislators but also to state legislators, prominent party leaders and female nominees under the guise of gender sensitivity. There was even an instance when the privilege was canvassed by a principal officer of the Senate for a nominee because he is a constituent of the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, and  his brother was a legislator. Yet those conversant with affairs in the advanced climes would recall that when Hillary Clinton was nominated as Secretary of State by the then United States president, Barrack Obama, she was screened for hours despite being then a serving senator.

At the end of the Senate’s circus show, nearly 50 per cent of the nominees were confirmed without being grilled. It was that farcical and pathetic. The point should be stressed that parliamentary experience does not necessarily translate to competence in handling responsibilities in the executive arm of government. In any case, what would the Senate have lost if it had allowed senators to interrogate the touted competencies and track records of all the nominees?  If the extension of this parliamentary privilege is till date yet to be of any advantage to the Senate and the society by way of delivery of good governance by the beneficiaries, why is the Senate sticking with the unhelpful convention? It only serves only to shield the exposure of incompetence. And given the history of sub-optimal performance of government in Nigeria, can the country afford the luxury of using criteria other than merit and excellence to recruit the arrowheads of the implementers of official policies, programmes and projects?

Fortunately, the policy of ‘take a bow and go’ is not founded in law; it is a convention which should be easy to jettison in order to yield room for efficiency in the process of critical leadership recruitment in a clime that has been perennially beset with leadership failure. The country’s next president should be mandated to attach portfolios to ministerial nominees so that they can be more rigorously grilled by the relevant committees of the Senate and their competence, perspectives on national issues and worldview clearly ascertained in order to truly determine their fitness for the job. The parliamentary practice of orchestrating an easy pass for nominees based on esprit de corps and other sentimental considerations is counterproductive. The noxious practice must stop, and if a new legislation is what it will take to achieve this, so be it.