ANALYSIS: Senate’s ministerial screening, an opportunity lost

Nigerian senate chambers where senators attend plenary
Nigerian senate chambers

Congratulations Nigerians! We now have 43 new ministers-designate (pending when they are inaugurated).

The Senate this week concluded a five-day screening process of the 43 ministers appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari.

It is, however, not surprising that there were condemnations from groups and individuals before the appointment, during the screening process and after the confirmation of the nominees.

The president finally sent in the names of the appointees exactly 54 days after he was sworn in for the second term. Quite commendable though, going by the fact that it took him six months to appoint ministers for his cabinet during his first term in 2015.

Prior to nominating the ministers, Mr Buhari said he was being pressured to make the appointment but he wanted to take his time and appoint ‘people he knows.’

The criticisms grew when he submitted the names of the 43 appointees to the Senate without portfolios (again, not surprising).

The list consists of seven past governors and seven past senators, while 14 former ministers were retained. Of the 43 nominees, only seven are women.

While many said the list was made of loyalists to the president and the All Progressives Congress (APC), others complained that there was no youth and the president has thus failed to fulfill one of his campaign promises.

The lawmakers were left with no choice but to ask the appointees random questions not minding the ministry an appointee will end up heading.

The Screening:

Although the list arrived at the National Assembly the week that the lawmakers planned to embark their annual recess, they postponed the vacation to attend to the issue of “national importance.”

The Senate spokesperson, Adedayo Adeyeye, had said the screening will be thorough. Also, a member of the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Media and Publicity, Uba Sani, had said “those who usually will be asked to bow, this time around we will try as much as possible to ask them so they explain to the public what they intend to do.

“Even those who are returning will be asked to tell Nigerians their plan. Nigeria will want to know their agenda.”

Their words had barely been uttered when the senators started asking many nominees to bow and go.

How ‘bow and go’ dominated the screening process

According to the tradition of the Senate, any nominee who has been a federal lawmaker was asked to take a bow and leave the chamber without being questioned.

Although this used to be applied to past federal lawmakers, the senators adjusted the tradition this time and extended the privilege to past state lawmakers too.

Of the 43 appointees, 22 were excused without grilling – this is more than half of the total nominees. Among the 22 issued the ‘bow and go’ privilege are former lawmakers and all the female nominees. The female nominees were excused because the Senate claimed to be “gender-friendly.”

A ‘gender-friendly’ Senate, however, never asked the president why only seven women were nominated of the 43 appointees in a country where the population is virtually evenly split among both genders

A few other nominees were asked to bow and go because they are “hardworking and loyal.” This category includes Lai Mohammed and Abubakar Aliyu.

Not only do Nigerians not know the portfolios of the ‘bow and go’ beneficiaries, but they also do not know what they will do when they are assigned to ministries. The Senate thus missed the opportunity to help Nigerians know the plans a majority of ministers have for the country.

A senator attempted to explain the reasons behind the ‘bow and go’ tradition. He felt it was necessary for Nigerians to know that past lawmakers were given the privilege because questions being asked are issues that have probably been treated in the chamber.

On his part, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, maintained that it was a tradition that is here to stay. He even said the Senate will move to make it part of the constitution to avoid the confusion it has caused.

Both the presidential aide on National Assembly Matters, Ita Enang, and the Senate spokesperson further buttressed this point. They emphasised that it has been a long-practised tradition and will not be changed.

“Gender-friendly” Senate

This was the song the lawmakers kept singing each time a female nominee was ushered into the chamber.

To think no senator protested the seven female nominees out of 43, was enough to trigger criticisms from civil society groups and individuals who came across the list.

Of the four female senators that PREMIUM TIMES contacted to react to the poor representation of women on the list, only Rivers State senator, Betty Apiafi, replied via text message with a “no comment” phrase.

Anyways, there are only seven women out of the 109 senators in the Upper Chamber. So, it is perhaps, safe to say they are getting comfortable with such situation.

“Impressive nominees”

While many Nigerians have complained about the list and the entire screening process, a few nominees – who were grilled – impressed Nigerians during their screening.

Of particular mention are Sunday Dare, Festus Keyamo, and Babatunde Fashola.

Prior to his appointment, Mr Dare was the Executive Commissioner at the Nigerian Communications Commission. Among the many issues he talked about during his screening, was how a phone can be used to track kidnappers as he said kidnapping has been a worry to not just regulators but Nigerian citizens as well.

Like it or not, Mr Keyamo actually ‘schooled’ the lawmakers during his screening. He answered questions ranging from the workings of the Supreme Court to the many existing political parties.

Among his many promises was to ‘unbundle’ the Supreme Court and decongest Nigerian prisons if he is made the next Attorney-General of the Federation or Minister of Justice.

Mr Fashola’s session of grilling was probably the longest as he stood for over an hour fielding questions from the lawmakers.

During his screening, he complained of the paucity of funds for infrastructure projects. He said one way to address the infrastructural challenges facing Nigeria was through the introduction of an infrastructure bond.

He called for the introduction of a N10 trillion infrastructure bond.

“Excellent performance”

For the Senate President, all the nominees performed excellently well, including the majority who were not questioned.

He said this at the end of the screening process.

He probably made the assessment based on the brief address all the nominees gave upon entry.

He congratulated them and charged them to work with the National Assembly.

Next for the ministers will be their inauguration and assignment of portfolios. Hopefully, President Buhari will not take another 54 days to do this. After all, he only appointed those he ‘personally knows’

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