…the quality and effectiveness of ministers and heads of parastatals are critical to the government’s overall performance, as all policies are executed through the instrumentality of ministries, departments, and agencies. Ministers and heads of parastatals should admit, as a reality, that they face three assessments: that of Mr President who appointed them and at whose pleasure they serve, the public who they are assigned to serve, and history, which keeps records.
Last week this column focused on the legacy of elected political office holders, as we wind up a political era and transit to a new one. This week, we will focus on political appointees. After nearly three and seven years, respectively, of service to the country, it is time to reflect on the performance and value addition of our ministers and heads of public parastatals. To hold our ministers and heads of the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government, appointees of the president accountable, is a fundamental element of participatory democracy.
In our clime, the power these officeholders exercise, and the impact of their actions and inactions are too significant to be ignored in the power equation. This situation is more noticeable when you have a charismatic and efficient leader as a minister or head of a parastatal. They galvanise their ministries or agencies to achieve their mandates and improve the quality of lives of the people and the country’s development.
Three critical assumptions, though misleading, are common in our country. One, ministers are only accountable to the president and not the people. Second, only the president sets the ministers’ targets, and he alone can assess their performances. The third is that whether ministers perform or not, the credit, blame or condemnation goes to Mr President, who appointed them to act on his behalf.
Under proper scrutiny and contextualisation, these assumptions are not the absolute truths in an American-style democracy, which we copied without effort to adapt to our cultural context. Ministers are mentioned in the constitution, and they derive their powers from it, and the people approve them through the legislature, to serve them. The third is that the fund they spend for all activities flows from the national purse or our commonwealth.
The import is that they owe their primary loyalty to the country and the Constitution, from where they derive their powers before to whoever appointed them. Ministers cannot hide under these fallacious and illogical assumptions to dodge the accountability responsibility, distinct from accounting. Every Ministry exists for the public good; it is thus consequential that ministers and heads of parastatals explain and justify what they did with public funds to advance the public interest. Anything short of that is democratically unacceptable. Ministers and heads of departments and agencies are the instrumentalities through which government functions and performs its duties. The government implements all its policies through the MDAs, with their civil service structure that is supposed to be apolitical and designed to serve the government of the day.
The ministerial mandate challenges the individual appointee’s creativity, energy, and managerial capacity. In acknowledgement of this, at the mid-term ministerial performance review retreat held in October 2021, nine priorities and presidential legacies were identified and commitments made by the ministers. We are yet to see these commitments impact significantly on the macro economy, poverty reduction, food sufficiency, power, education and health outcomes.
The minister’s role is crucial in shaping an efficient and effective ministry that is fit for purpose and delivers good dividends of democracy to the people. We can safely conclude that the sum of the output of government ministries, departments and agencies (headed by ministers and heads of parastatals as political appointees) roughly corresponds with the total productivity of government, in terms of structures and infrastructures, policy creation and execution, and procedural and operational efficiencies of the socio-economic and political ecosystem. Based on the above, the principal function of the minister or head of parastatal is to organise, manage and direct all material and human resources available to the Ministry or agency to achieve their set mandate, in line with the dominant ideology, goals and aspirations of the government in power. They must see themselves as the voices of the government they represent and, in a democratic society, the voice of the people and the voiceless.
This present government appointed 36 and 42 ministers during the first and second terms, respectively. It also appointed heads of parastatals or agencies under each of these ministries. How have they performed in the past three or seven years, depending on when they were appointed? What indices of development have they been credited with? How have their works impacted the quality of lives of the people they serve? What are their scorecards? Answers to these questions will highlight the efficacies or lack thereof of the ministers and heads of parastatals and the ministries and agencies they have supervised. Typically, the presidency that appointed the ministers ought to have a template for assessing the ministers at periodic intervals and at the end of their tenures. In spite of their political character, it might be better to assess ministers more like departmental CEOs with clear targets and performance indicators.
The ministerial mandate challenges the individual appointee’s creativity, energy, and managerial capacity. In acknowledgement of this, at the mid-term ministerial performance review retreat held in October 2021, nine priorities and presidential legacies were identified and commitments made by the ministers. We are yet to see these commitments impact significantly on the macro economy, poverty reduction, food sufficiency, power, education and health outcomes. As leaders, ministers should start reflecting on the legacy they are leaving for posterity. This last year before the general election allows them time to complete whatever they consider legacy projects or programmes, concentrate on a few projects that will create significant impact, or change course and at least accomplish some good for the people. Failure to make good use of the time left may be tantamount to a lost opportunity, and history does not forgive mediocrity.
Today, a cursory survey of our serving ministers indicates that a tiny percentage has made significant impact. Others are anonymous, and a few interested contractors remember them as ministers who are always sleeping on duty. The staff may remember a few others of their various ministries as passers-by who added no value but colluded with contractors to pillage our commonwealth.
We still reminisce about ministers who did great work in Nigeria in the recent past. We have had ministers remembered for innovative policies and who made a difference; we remember Ngozi Okonji Iwela for securing debt cancellation for Nigeria and creative management of the economy; Akinwumi Adesina for innovative agriculture policies that served the poor, amongst others. So, if a minister wants to be in this league of much-loved ministers in Nigeria, now is the time to create the legacy, and history will be kind to them.
Based on my experience, the challenges of managing an MDA or parastatal in Nigeria is enormous. You are up against landmines and deeply entrenched interests. Any head of a parastatal must be focused, determined, proactive and have a knack for efficiency and the achievement of goals to make meaningful improvements to the system.
The heads of parastatals are not left out. That parastatals spend trillions of naira yearly to provide services – regulatory, advocacy, etc. – therefore makes them deserving of public scrutiny. These services are the backbone of the entire ecosystem and, if not correctly performed, will result in inefficiencies and non-competitiveness across all the sectors of the economy and poor quality of life for all. The major sectors of the economy, from maritime, telecommunication, to banking, are regulated by these agencies to ensure they function well and do not crash the system. Unfortunately, only a few of these parastatals and agencies are functioning optimally and fulfilling their mandates.
Some of these heads are performing exceptionally, and the impact of the parastatals are felt across board. We owe much gratitude to such heads, and history will favourably judge them. Some of these heads of parastatals are showing outstanding leadership in transforming an almost moribund administrative system they met when they were appointed into a modern organisational system that is technology-driven and vision-oriented. However, most heads of parastatals performed below expectation and did not make any positive changes to the system they inherited; instead, they left it worse than before they took office. To current heads of parastatals, I sincerely hope they will use this year to reflect on the tasks at hand and map out ways to improve on their delivery.
Based on my experience, the challenges of managing an MDA or parastatal in Nigeria is enormous. You are up against landmines and deeply entrenched interests. Any head of a parastatal must be focused, determined, proactive and have a knack for efficiency and the achievement of goals to make meaningful improvements to the system. In some parastatals, the combination of unskilled and unmotivated human resources, an almost religious reliance on path dependency, and nearly non-existent modern technology to drive the processes and increase productivity make it nearly impossible to achieve meaningful results. Transforming a parastatal is a science and an art. I have documented my own experience of changing the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) in four years
I was saddled with the responsibility of steering its ship, as chronicled in my seminal book, Strategic Turnaround: Story of A Government Agency published in 2021. Waziri Adio, who served as Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), also did in his memoir, The Arc of the Possible. If you need some new insight into strategically repositioning a parastatal in Nigeria, read these books and you may find useful lessons from them.
Ultimately, the quality and effectiveness of ministers and heads of parastatals are critical to the government’s overall performance, as all policies are executed through the instrumentality of ministries, departments, and agencies. Ministers and heads of parastatals should admit, as a reality, that they face three assessments: that of Mr President who appointed them and at whose pleasure they serve, the public who they are assigned to serve, and history, which keeps records. Of all three verdicts, that of history is most striking and sticky. If the verdict is to be believed, Nigerians do not reckon with most of our ministers. But it is not too late to improve. This year will make a turning point in creating legacies for the ministers and heads of parastatals. A stitch in time, they say, saves nine.
Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.