One regrettable detail about the ritual of national unserious which passed for Senate confirmation hearings is that Senators who would in any case have treated Nigerians to the bow and go caterwauling on display to the whole world yesterday received the precious gift of alibi from President Muhammadu Buhari.
The clowning Senators would be right to say:
“We produced comedy and farce because the President gave us little to work with.”
Sadly, they would be right, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the nominees.
There is a reason for announcing the portfolios of ministerial nominees in every serious democracy known to man. When you announce a nominee for, say, Education, there is a Senate Committee in charge of that portfolio. It affords them the opportunity of going to work on the profile and vision of the said nominee. It provides the full House the opportunity of preparing thoroughly for a grilling of the nominee. Most importantly, the nominee is able to prepare fully for a presentation of vision and mission in his or her area of expertise.
In the absence of portfolios, what President Buhari set up was our familiar ritual of asking the deaf to interview the blind. An opportunity for real change was lost. More importantly, President Buhari passed on yet another opportunity to give concrete meaning to change beyond syrupy rhetoric.
I repeat; the most painful part of it all for me is that Senators, who are intellectually ill-equipped for the process anyway, can always excuse the convivial farce we watched because they did not know which portfolios they were supposed to be grilling people for. When Audu Ogbe, for all his brilliance, is forced by the vagueness and open-ended portfoliolessness of the situation to present himself as farmer, Boko Haram expert, and education expert in five minutes, what’s a Senator to do other than issue some perfunctory remarks, exchange jokes and back pats with him, and sashay him away with a bow and go?
However, bow and go is but a fragment of a much bigger problem. Because President Buhari did not find it himself to change the paradigm by nominating folks with envisaged portfolios, he inadvertently set in motion another tragic and familiar scenario. In the absence of a transcendental national ideal around which we have built our vision of Nigeria, food and metaphors of consumption have tragically come to define project nationhood. Whereas the American national ideal is summed up in the American dream, the German ideal in the idea of German efficiency, Nigeria defines herself and her own ideal as “the national cake”.
This explains why all the verbs and metaphors with which we conceptualize Nigeria relate to opportunistic and irresponsible consumption: sharing formula, allocation, national cake, etc. We have allowed that disease to affect our conceptualization of service. In Nigeria, service is essentially about food, hence every public office or political appointment is classified as “juicy” or “not juicy”.
The nominees have been screened. They have done the bow and go thing. None has a portfolio. We are now into a phase of intense lobbying and jostling for “juicy ministries”. It would be foolhardy to believe that any of the nominees walked out of the Senate chamber yesterday without this next phase of the Nigerian thing in mind. Now is the time to return to Godfathers, Godmothers, moneybags, and sponsors and enlist their help to persuade President Buhari to give a “juicy ministry” to our son or our daughter.
It is too late to expect the current crop of ministers not to operate from the conceptual framework of the “food and the juiciness”, or lack thereof, of ministerial postings. They are part of our extant collective political culture. They have all been sponsored by interests and power blocks, that are totally defined by the classification of public service as juicy or non-juicy. It will take at least a decade of civics and national reorientation to begin to produce Nigerian citizens weaned off this pernicious mentality. It is too late for the current nominees. They are certainly already jostling for “juicy ministries” as I write.
What we can do, to minimize the damage, is to send a consistent message to them; do not disrespect Nigeria in your hustling and jostling. Part of Nigeria’s problem is a generalized culture of disrespect for her by her citizens – especially those in public office. In all the places I’ve been to, I have encountered the idea of accepting one’s limitations or the inappropriateness of one’s talents and qualifications as part of one’s civic responsibility to one’s country. “I am not fit for X office because America deserves better”; “I cannot occupy Y position because Canada deserves better”; “I cannot run for Z office because France deserves better”. When citizens do this, it is called respecting your country.
There is hardly any Nigerian who respects Nigeria enough to acknowledge limitations and qualification as valid bases of self-exclusion from certain stations – especially if they are defined as juicy. That is why a graduate of English or French in Nigeria can appeal to his Godfather to put pressure on the President to make him Minister of Science and Technology. A lawyer and a Senior Advocate for Nigeria (SAN) could decide that the Ministry of Justice is not as juicy as the Ministry of Health, and begin to lobby seriously for the health portfolio. It all speaks to a culture of disrespect for Nigeria. No citizen ever says: “I am not good enough, not qualified enough to serve Nigeria in this capacity.” In Nigeria, a gynaecologist can lobby to become Minister of Aviation, urged on by his Pastor, his community, and his Godfather.
If you are among the current set of nominees and you have done your bow and go, please keep these things in mind as the next phase of portfolio hunting begins. If your forte is information, make sure we do not hear that you have suddenly decided that the information portfolio is not “juicy enough”, and you now want petroleum so that Baba Buhari can post Kachikwu to education or agriculture. If you are a lawyer and a SAN, do not let us hear that you are saying that the Ministry of Solid Minerals is “juicier” than whatever you are being considered for. That would be disrespecting Nigeria.
“Nigeria deserves better” is a patriotic statement you should say out loud every morning.
The greatest obstacle to this slow process of mental rebirth is, sadly, the ordinary Nigerian. For its he who will be on the lookout for “juicy ministries” for nominees from his state, faith, or ethnic group. Whether his man is qualified for a particular ministry or not, the ordinary Nigerian will spend the next month fighting bruising Social Media wars because his man has been “marginalized from juicy slots”. And when you raise arguments such as I have raised in this treatise, trust the ordinary Nigerian to quip:
“A qualification fit does not matter at the ministerial level. They are political appointees. There are perm secs and technocrats in the ministry to help the minister do the job”.
At every step of the way, the ordinary Nigerian produces the most brilliant defense of his own suffering.
At every step of the way, the suffering Nigerian justifies Nigeria as is.