After a long wait, President Buhari chose his cabinet members. Expectedly, there has been no end to the criticism of his nominees; from allegations of corruption and incompetence to political bias. Inevitably, some sections of the polity are unhappy, and as ministerial portfolios are allocated, suggestions of marginalisation and sexism will grip the media. Yet none of his actions are unusual. There is a balance to be struck between patronage and merit, and Buhari has attempted to find it.
‘Loyalty is the oil that makes politics run, and patronage is the fuel that fuels partisan politics’.
As early as April, speculation was rife about possible jobs for the boys. Political patronage, a persistent feature of Nigerian politics, led to accusations that Buhari would appoint party loyalists to ministerial positions. After unsuccessfully running three times, it was fair to assume that he had built a loyal group of supporters eager to be rewarded for their electoral perseverance. Bloomberg even went as far as predicting Rotimi Amaechi, his National Campaign Director, as the Minister of Petroleum, partly due to his influence in the Niger Delta. But as Buhari delayed the process, national consciousness shifted towards the belief that Buhari was looking for the best people for the job, men and women of integrity capable of passing his tough screening process.
But now, it has become clear that political patronage will not be usurped by ‘change’. Indeed, hindsight now renders the idea as naive. Many schools of political economy scrutinise the role of political patronage, whether praising it, or vilifying it as a symptom of corruption and cronyism. But patronage dates back to the creation of political systems. Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto is quoted as saying: ‘I can’t conceive of any political system – one that lasts anyway – that fails to reward its followers’. As most experienced politicians are well aware, politics is more about people, than it is about governance or the nation-state. Patronage is a necessary evil to retain both power and support, and must be used accordingly. Therefore, for any successful statesman, the use or abuse of political patronage plays a key role in consolidating power or even retaining it.
‘There’s no whore like an old whore’
President Buhari’s list is a mixed bag. With women making up only 16% of the nominees, and a couple of household names being featured, some observers have abandoned hope about sweeping out corruption. Yet the irony is obvious. President Buhari himself is no spring chicken. Having overrun a civilian government in a coup d’etat and campaigned three times for office, he fits into the old order of politicians. Arguably, it is easy to see why he may not lose too much sleep over claims being made that he has failed to introduce a brand new set of leaders, at a time when Nigerians want nothing but ‘change’.
But these same Nigerians have been slow to celebrate the new. Aisha Abubakar, Ministerial nominee from Sokoto state, was rejected by the State chapter of the All Progressives Congress. In a statement explaining the decision, the Chairman of the Party stated that ‘it became necessary to take a unanimous position, because she is not a card carrying member of the party in the state and nobody knows her, while she knows nobody in the state’. Despite other reasons for her ‘rejection’, it sends a strong signal to the people of Nigeria, that politicians are not yet ready to do away with the old order. Not just yet.
‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
What the nation makes of patronage is up to its individual citizens. Some see it as a reality of democracy and treat it with begrudging acceptance. For others, it is a perversion of justice. The line blurs further when patronage is used to appoint unqualified people, overlooking better qualified candidates, by virtue of their distance from power. In such cases, government is sacrificed for political expediency.
So what is the case in Nigeria?
The reality is that public faith in the old guard has hit rock bottom. After 16 years of misrule under the opposition party, morale is low, and President Buhari has placed his reputation on the line. For appointees like Babatunde Fashola, many believe that effective government will prevail, regardless of party politics. For other appointees like Rotimi Amaechi, such conviction is absent. President Buhari’s political capital has so far been sustained despite immediate challenges; ongoing suicide bombings in the north east, tensions with Fulani herdsmen, and an economy growing at just 2.5%. Expectations of a brand new, young and vibrant team have become a pipe dream, but Nigerians will continue to hope – that is all that remains. Continuing to obsess over appointees will only serve to undermine the current administration – a lose-lose for hopeful Nigerians.
Therefore, it is time we shift our focus, and consider the next steps for governance. Beyond political rifts and party politics, the government of the day must work. Despite the massive support President Buhari rode in on May 29th, his first 100 days failed to reach the expectations of many voters. Economic challenges with the naira’s devaluation, a need to diversify the economy and the lingering threat of Boko Haram are matters that go beyond political patronage. These are matters in need of the public’s attention.
Yet, if we must pay any attention, actions speak louder than words. Perhaps the most revealing appointment is the one that President Buhari failed to make. Tellingly, he trusted no one other than himself to head the Petroleum Industry, a worrying signal about the trust he places in his ministers, and the calibre of people at his table. After the long wait, this was the most damning verdict. After all, responsibilities are given to given to him on whom trust rests. If Buhari cannot trust his boys, can we?